Gina Pierleoni: What Makes Us (Us)
Installation at Creative Alliance, Baltimore, MD
Everyone deserves to be seen and heard.
Over the past 26 years, I created nearly 300 portraits of people across the spectrum of familiarity. These images push past labels and judgements as they question perception, habit, and bias in how we place ourselves in relation to others. What Makes Us (Us) is the first time nearly the entire series has been displayed in one place.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I frequently sketched commuters and the homeless population inside Grand Central Station in New York. Sometimes I would have a conversation that resulted in the person asking to have their portrait drawn. The volunteers were almost exclusively homeless. I offered the drawing as a thank you for our time together. The more I showed up, the more people would ask me to draw them. The deeper the connection, the closer the image resembled the sitter.
During the same years, I bartended at a train station lounge. Some of the regulars were Vietnam veterans, who shared their struggles to reintegrate. Their compassion for one another regardless of rank was touching. Drawing portraits of them created conversations. I noticed parallel shame and invisibility among the homeless and veterans.
Sketching became a form of advocacy. I didn’t imagine these drawings would one day provide a gateway to my own healing, form the central philosophy for my teaching and community building, and build a platform for the art I cared about making.
When the series began, I made several drawings of my voice. The first portraits, emotionally raw unearthings, used mostly charcoal lines. The process was physical, empowering. Each year I added more portraits. The pieces were reworked over months, years until the images came alive. Using a similar scale created an absence of hierarchy.
I use portraiture to spark conversations about empathy and our common humanity. Portrait painting demands curiosity, stillness and deep observation. My portraits are multi-layered: drawn, painted, scratched into, stamped and stenciled under, over and through the surfaces. I am painting from the inside out to convey the emotional fabric of someone, in addition to how they look. These are real people, alive, changing, genuine and vulnerable.”