Exhibit shines light on the invisible



UNI painting students present "Being Seen: Portraits in Place and Person" now on display in Kamerick Art Building until Feb. 18.


UNI art students used portraiture to help bring to life the stories of nursing home residents at Country View Care Center in Waterloo.

The exhibition displaying these portraits, “Being Seen: Portraits in Place and Person,” is now on display in Kamerick Art Building until Monday, Feb. 18.

Led by Alexandra Dooley, an instructor in the art department, the project’s objective sought to “help people be seen who are invisible through portraits.” Last semester, Dooley’s students spent time developing relationships with Country View residents in order to learn more about them prior to painting their portraits.

Dooley collaborated with the Service Learning Institute on campus to provide her students with the unique opportunity to participate in the project. The department assists faculty in community outreach, helping develop projects for their classes that incorporate a service-learning component.

“As faculty, we’re always looking for ways to make that real-life experience happen in the classroom,” said Dooley. “That’s a different teaching model than what we’re used to; it’s part of a way of figuring out how to create these opportunities for students and to make them meaningful, rich and effective.”

Dooley’s original objective for the project began to evolve. She said the idea to highlight invisible people through portraits eventually became a way to “represent with dignity a true portraiture of people who don’t usually get represented.”

After working with a volunteer coordinator on campus, those ideas took on an identity through the residents of Country View. Dooley explained that the subject of a painting plays a major role in why an artist might choose to create a painting and she wanted to give her students the opportunity to paint people they might have never met or had the opportunity to paint.

“What’s really hard is for the students to paint from every walk of life,” Dooley said.

While this project was an assignment for Dooley’s students, it was, at its core, about artists forming relationships with their subjects. What came out of it was not just an oil painting, but a deeper understanding of someone who comes from a different walk of life and learning how to use their talents to give presence and humanity to their subjects.

“We engaged [with] people who don’t have the freedom to go where they want to go or visit with people when they want to,” Dooley said.

Residents of Country View volunteered when they heard of the project. At the start of the project, students visited the nursing home and casually engaged with those residents in groups. After interacting with the residents, students then chose who they wanted to represent.

“That was very hard for them because that meant a few people from Country View didn’t get selected,” Dooley said. “It was interesting because none of them chose the same person; they all had somebody in their group they most connected with, and none of them had chosen the same two people.”

Once the student was paired with a resident, they returned to the nursing home to visit with the residents. Students could bring materials with them to sketch or watercolor on site, but the finished products were completed in the studio. Students could reference a photograph and the residents were invited to UNI to observe the student’s progress.

“They really identified that it was not just an assignment, but that when you paint a picture of a person, that person has a presence, a history and a personality,” Dooley said. “They all had this powerful sense of responsibility to their painting; they really wanted to represent their person well.”

Rachel Smith, one of Dooley’s students, had some apprehension going into the project, but came away with a new perspective.

“[The project] showed me they’re active in the community,” Smith said, “they’re living fulfilling lives.”

Through the process, Smith discovered common interests with her subject, Preston.

The students were given folders with information about the residents and their interests. From those, Smith discovered their shared love for gardening, which became the portrait’s background theme.

“[I learned] to humanize them,” Smith said, “and see them as equals and not some sort of pariah.”

Students in the class took that responsibility seriously, as Dooley said she often tells her class that an artist doesn’t have the luxury of explaining a painting to those who view it.

“The painting is the story,” Dooley said.

Her hope is that whatever opinions people form while viewing the paintings, they understand there is a person behind it.

On Friday, Feb. 1 at 3 p.m., there will be a reception for the Country View residents to visit campus and see the finished products.