Bastrop portraits signal hope after fires
The cluster of oversized black-and-white portraits keeps a hopeful lookout on Chestnut Street here.
They are simultaneously subtle and yet completely unexpected — pleasant faces, arranged in grids, plastered on the corrugated metal walls of a now-empty old building, most recently an auto shop and before that the Powell Cotton Seed Mill.
The 40 portraits went up in early November, about a month and a half after the devastating wildfires that ravaged the Bastrop area were finally contained. Everyone pictured is a Bastrop area resident or volunteer who came to this small town to help. And their portraits now adorn a building that will be transformed into a new arts center for the Bastrop Fine Arts Guild.
Called "Inside Out Bastrop," the installation of the larger-than-life faces is part of "Inside Out," a worldwide participatory art project, conceived by a French street artist who goes by the moniker JR and who won the 2011 TED Prize.
Sam Martin, publishing director of the Austin office of the international design firm Frog, instigated "Inside Out Bastrop."
In just three weeks, Martin hired Austin photographer Leon Alesi, found several dozen people to photograph, located a suitable wall to install the portraits, got permission from Bastrop municipal officials and produced a six-minute documentary of the project that was shown at a TED event in London last month.
"My idea from the beginning was to show life," says Martin. "I wanted to show that people in Bastrop were still thriving."
The synergy that "Inside Out Bastrop" — bearing its message of hopefulness and community — actually found its home on what will be a new center for creativity gives the project a deep resonance for those involved.
"Art is a way for people to work through grief and tragedy," said Karol Rice, a board member of the Bastrop Fine Arts Guild. "You look for those silver linings, and this is something that provides one."
Martin learned of JR's "Inside Out" through Frog's business relationship with TED, a global program of conferences and prizes centered on innovation. After winning the $100,000 TED prize, the artist JR — who gained international notoriety for his large-scale guerrilla photo installations that bring attention to often troubled communities — used his prize money to begin the "Inside Out" project earlier this year.
"It is about making invisible people visible," JR told a news outlet when the project was announced at a March TED conference .
"Inside Out" — essentially run via a website, www.
insideoutproject.net — invites any group anywhere in the world to take black-and-white portraits of anyone who has a story to tell. After digitally uploading images to the project's website, participants receive uniformly large-scale posters with instructions to stage an "action" and post the portraits in the most visible location possible. In the few months since "Inside Out" launched, actions have happened around the world — in Egypt, Malaysia, Russia and South Africa among dozens of other places — with all the images simultaneously displayed on the "Inside Out" website along with each person's statement.
Martin had been curious about participating in "Inside Out." And then the wildfires erupted.
"I badly wanted to do something, but at first I didn't know what to do," he said. "So I wanted to see if art could help."
Martin chose "hope" as the project's theme and the project tag on "Inside Out" website. (As a philanthropic gesture, Frog Design footed the bill for the Bastrop project.)
"Inside Out" is decidedly uncommercial. Its guidelines stipulate that portraits contain no corporate logos or brands nor plugs for any cause. Submit just a simple portrait against a plain background. "Look straight into the camera, and think about what you care about," the guidelines read. "Make a strong face."
Creating such streamlined portraits made an interesting challenge to Alesi, whose own portraiture features artistic images of people in their private environments, domestic surroundings such as bedrooms or home offices and studios.
"It was a definitely an interesting challenge for me," said Alesi. "But the focus of the project was on Bastrop as a community, not just a single person."
In early October, Martin and Alesi headed to Bastrop to post fliers inviting people to participate. And they also needed to find a public space for the installation.
Martin remembers wondering whether they'd even find enough people willing to have their pictures taken, enlarged to poster-size and plastered in public for all to see.
But serendipity proved better than any flier advertising.
Nancy Wood was getting coffee at Richard's Family Bakery on Main Street when a mutual acquaintance, who also happened to be there, introduced her to Martin when he and Alesi stopped in.
As director of Bastrop's Main Street Program, an historic preservation-based downtown economic revitalization initiative, Wood made an obvious go-to professional for helping Martin find an appropriate place to install the posters.
Yet the project also held poignant personal resonance for her.
Wood, like many in the area, lost her home to the fire. She had only 10 minutes to evacuate her house in the Tahitian Village subdivision before it burned to the ground. She and her husband got out with their two dogs, their pet bird, some jewelry and silver flatware, but lost everything else. They have since bought a house in downtown Bastrop.
"It shows community," says Wood, taking in the installation of posters last week. "I think it encourages people to be hopeful."
Brittney Benton ran into Alesi, whom she already knew, in the Bastrop Public Library when she was there to make thank-you cards for the firefighters with her daughter, Alchemy, 7, and son, Ancel, 2. Benton and her daughter both posed for a portrait and later helped with the installation.
"There's a great sense of sadness here, and you can sense it," Benton said of the Bastrop community.
"But you also sense that people are going to move on and be better because of it. I think (this project) inspires people to think about the arts as healing."
Some of the personal statements that accompany each portrait reveal the swirling complexity of emotions that have surfaced after the wildfires.
"I've been amazed by the folks," writes Mike Norman, a Bastrop resident and firefighter. "No one has blamed the fire department. And of course I know this was not our fault, this was a natural deal. ... We got hugs and kisses from people who were standing knee deep in what was left of their house, which was just ash, thanking us for what we have done. It was a little hard to accept because we feel like we let them down. I do anyway."
Wood and Benton were just a few of the folks who came out on a sunny Saturday last month to paste the 40 posters into place.
Just a few days later, Martin screened the short documentary in London in front of an international audience that in all likelihood had never heard of Bastrop before.
"People were thrilled to see it," Martin said. "It's not a story of tragedy, but of hope."
Though more than a month has passed since the portraits were installed, and several rainstorms have brought badly need precipitation, the hopeful faces still keep their gaze strong and clear. Eventually, the wheat paste adhesive will soften and the posters will peel off.
By the end of the month, the Bastrop Fine Arts Guild hopes to close on the property and officially take ownership. Then, the group will embark on a $3 million capital campaign with the hope of beginning construction on the new art center sometime in the next three years.
Hope cultivates art here. Or perhaps vice versa.
'Inside Out Bastrop'
Where: 1204 Chestnut St., Bastrop
Information:www.insideoutproject.net , www.facebook.com/InsideOut Bastrop