Monday, July 8, 2013

Portrait Project - 2 years later

It has been two years since the Portrait Project trip that took 17 days through 7 countries and 10 cities allowed me to meet over 120 people whom I drew, got to know (at least ten of whom I am still in touch with).


The guiding question that led me to undertake this journey was: how do we meet "hard-to-meet" people? That is, how do we meet the interesting people that rarely have the time to make it to a Couchsurfing meetup at a pub--the people we have 0.01% chance of striking up a conversation in a Metro? Or even in our own town?

The answer to my question was: take your talent and share it with another person in a public, open-ended space. Do this in such as way that your interaction creates something, like a sort of spiritual shared experience.

My talent is drawing. I've drawn since my youth, and even moonlighted as an illustrator for a time. Being self-taught, art gives me few boundaries or rules, and though my autodidact technique is often left wanting, in many ways this has brought me freedom.

So, I decided to use drawing to break the barrier (and reconstruct the bridge) between people in ways that alcohol and parties cannot. Drawing allowed me to make "events" out of my visits and it gave me an excuse to meet people and to allow them to champion an art project come to their part of the world. Drawing was the value-added "social glue" that proved to people that I wanted to have a different kind of experience with them, in their city.

Drawing in an on-demand, on-site, guerrila fashion gave me humility and showed me that human exchange seems innocent, yet carries a huge responsibility (of feedback, sharing, of stewardship of the human image). It proved to me that any artistic venture must consider the audience, and that representative art is as interactive as partner dancing. The fact of putting something on paper makes the link between artist and model (and situation) stronger than a photograph, and the consent given to this exchange is one not entered into lightly. This tour showed me that people consider the artist highly, almost to the point of wanting the artist to explain the world and all of its unknowns.


The tour took place over two weeks in July 2011, but was first seeded in March and April 2011 during a series of "test" Portrait Projects in Avignon and Marseille which allowed me to see that the concept was strong and that there was more than enough interest for the project.

Google map of my route through 7 countries

I was blessed several times during this project: the finds of fate, low Ryan Air rates, excellent hosts, and  the felicity of simple yet auspicious meetings and opportunities. In almost every city, I stayed with a host I met on Couchsurfing, who in many cases extended me a great amount of hospitality and even met me at the airport.

I started the tour in Paris, and  my three days there stand out memorably. Besides taking a tour of the "other" catacombs, I was able to spend a lovely dinner party evening the very stately 5eme apartment of some American 'royalty' splitting their time between Paris and New York, and biked the length of Paris at night in the rain in my post-catacomb clothes after crawling through thigh-high rain water in the underground caverns of the city.

Rome was a lively, hot, loud and sense-packed adventure through the Vatican and with a detour to a friend's hometown of Palestrina (and it's wonderful tiny and vaulted Zi Rico restaurant) showed me a different side of Italy and its Va Fan Cola.

Bratislava showed me how to look at another side of a city that has become known for its "wine cheaper than water" drinking tours. I found out that the coolest disco in town is in a cave on the other side of town, that post-rock is alive and well at the arthouse venue "A4", and I met a new friend that opened my eyes to a new way of looking at connections with people via the teachings of . Once I broke out of my shell (staying in a youth hostel--the only time during this trip--was good for that), socializing was like drinking water. That, and I got my fill of a honey cake called medovnik -- possibly the best coffee accompaniment ever, and difficult to find outside of Eastern Europe.

Budapest, the city of two shores and the capital of a singular country harboring its own very unique identity and language, was a physically beautiful but linguistically confusing. As it turns out, not being able to "guesstimate" the non-Latinate/Anglo-Saxon Magyar language (there is a significant lack of pictoral representation on shop signs) was something even my "go and find out later" travel attitude could not totally overcome. Thankfully, the attention to my project, advice and help I received in this city was paramount. Yet somehow the city and its river were melancholy, and I felt the weight of its past, as I do whenever I visit Berlin.

Zagreb was a city of amazing hospitality and warmth and something simply clicked inside me here. My amazing host Lovro opened his home to me never having met me, and the wonderful Marta made the whole experience like a magical carpet ride. This town must fall on some kind of positivity ley line. I simply recommend it for a feel-good experience (and a little bit of public drinking with poppy seed rolls).

Ljubljana was equally magical, despite a scheduling and location detour once I set up shop in the Metalkova art squat complex. Never mind, everything seemed to congregate around this place anyways, and I even got an interview with the local press before spending the night walking around the town from one concert hall to another, with my bag safely tucked away in a locked room.

Pula was the last stop before I would fly back to Western Europe, and it was here that I was able to stay  with a very obliging host  who gave me my first ride on a Vespa from the bus station. She was a design student in Italy (just the other side of the border) and would show me not only the art squat (of which there are quite many in Eastern Europe--usually repurposed from government buildings, schools or barracks) but also tell me about why chairs are so interesting for design. My time in Pula (and Zagreb) was much too short, considering that the area is known for its DIY arts scenes.

Antwerp was a last-minute addition thanks to the much-appreciated siren call of Evelyn who told me that I have much more fun if I made a stop in this diamond port first. And how right she was! This city of design and youth and quirky exuberance was made all the more fun thanks to Use It maps (a great non-profit I would discover here) and it was as if the whole city has been laid out by a user experience engineer (as it would be, the Tourism director is also a designer). Many pints and a soirée at Jazzcafé de Muze later, I'm convinced that Antwerp is a place I'd love to live some day (a day when I can afford the pricetag).  Nevermind that I stayed in Ann Demeulemeester's part of town, I hit my 100th portrait while sipping on some Kriek on a sunny terrace in the Berchem part of town full of Art Nouveau mansions.

Brussels was the last stop on my trip, and the point at the trip when I hit my artistic limit. It was therefore such a pleasant surprise to run into Fred whom I had not seen since ten years ago in Seattle, who gave me his own unique tour of Brussels' expatriate, Wallon and Flemish parts and explain to me where the government would be (if there was one--as at the time, Belgium was without an elected government for a record period of time). And the Cercle des Voyageurs (in the French part of town) proved to be just that, attracting people from every walk of life, so many people in fact, that I had to leave many patient would-be models empty handed after a day of 10 portraits. Yet again, a trip that allowed me to see, in a very short amount of time, the tensions and trends that tugged on everyday life in this center of the European Unions.

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Back to Marseille...postpartum depression, having birthed more than 100 representations of lived exchange, of humans I met, people who gave me 20 to 60 minutes to days of their time, who traveled with me and saw me off to my next destination.

In the end, I traveled alone the whole trip and had ample time for reflection.

For the sake of a blog list, here are insights for solo art project travel through Europe:

1. It is the people you meet in a city, and not its buildings, that make or break your experience
2. Cities with undeveloped tourist infrastructures can be more fun
3. Trams have annoying payment systems
4. Bakery smell is most pungent at 5am. Don't even think about diets when traveling by way of 10 different countries' bakeries.
5. Relaxed café attitude is everything.
6. Not everything planning in advance makes for better results. Not planning anything in advance leads to squatting strange places.
7. Have a story or unique "giveable" skill to share with people
8. Trains engender sleep, there is no fighting it. Therefore schedule your trains overnight if possible.
9. Bring less stuff and more money
10. Don't buy beautiful platform shoes in Rome if you have to carry them for the remaining 80% of your trip. Even if they're 50% and look like the designer original. Chances are Rome is the only place you can get away wearing them. 

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