MIDDLEBURY — Kate Gridley is accustomed to toiling many hours in her studio to produce some of the most stunning and realistic portraits you will ever lay your eyes upon.
It is usually a solitary endeavor, but Gridley these days has a dozen sets of eyes — of her own creation — that are following her every move. Those eyes are peering our from the portraits of 12 young men and women that Gridley is painting as part of a new exhibit titled, “Twelve: Oil Portraits of Emerging Adults.”
It’s an exhibit featuring a dozen energetic and enterprising young people from disparate backgrounds whose paths all led through Middlebury, en route to promising lives that figure to change the world for the better.
“Ultimately, these are young people who I feel good that the country and the world’s future is in their hands,” Gridley said.
“All of these kids have something interesting to say.”
It was while serving as a volunteer for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 in Ohio that Gridley developed the inspiration for what would become “Twelve: Oil Portraits of Emerging Adults.”
“Our (campaign) field bosses were 19, 21, 22 and 23” years old, she recalled. “They were motivated, they had left school, they had left jobs, and they were running this wonderful ship out there … We discovered that we loved working for this motivated, energized group of young people.”
At the same time, Gridley said she and her husband and fellow campaign worker John Barstow realized they were getting older, and that their own children were the same age as their campaign bosses.
“At some point, the mantle gets handed to the next generation, and it felt good,” Gridley said.
Aside from being an election year, 2008 also ushered in a major recession that Gridley anticipated would have a significant impact on artists like herself. She considered the “Emerging Adults” project as an endeavor to sustain her artistically during the lean commission period she believed was coming.
“I thought, ‘Well, we’re going to have to tighten our belts and if I were in the position of having no portraits to paint on commission and if I were just painting them for myself — which is a very different feeling — who would I choose to paint?’” Gridley recalled. “I realized that what I really wanted to do was a set of portraits of young people who are 17 to 23.”
That age bracket now has a name, Gridley noted: “Emerging adults.”
As part of researching her budding project, Gridley connected with Middlebury College Psychology Professor Barbara Hofer, who teaches a course on the subject of emerging adults and their connections to family and technology. The two women chatted about that subject and Gridley’s artistic ideas. Hofer would later join an advisory board that Gridley set up to guide her project, which is gradually taking shape, brush stroke by brush stroke, in Gridley’s workshop. Once completed, the exhibit will consist of a set of 12 large oil portraits (each 30-by-60 inches) of emerging adults — seven males and five females — that Gridley took great care in selecting. Each subject is depicted standing in a three-quarter view to just below the knees.
The portraits will “speak” through digitally recorded testimonials that viewers of the exhibit will be able to access through their cell phones — which happen to be one of the essential networking tools for emerging adults.
Gridley’s 12 subjects are from many varied backgrounds but are all tied together by a common thread — her two sons, Angus and Charles, both of whom also fall into the emerging adults age bracket. The two sons will also be immortalized on canvas, with their portraits posted as the symbolic gateway to the featured 12.
“A lot of really interesting young people have paraded through John’s and my door,” Gridley said. “We know some of them very, very well. I decided to choose young people who had interesting stories to tell who were comfortable enough in their own skins to not be afraid to say what they believe in and say who their hopes are and what their dreams are, and who also have enough spine to get on out in the world and try things.”
Examples of some of her subjects — whom she lists simply by first name to protect their privacy — include:
• Kamal, originally from East Harlem, who spent many summers at the Gridley/Barstow household as a Fresh Air Fund child. His family is Muslim. He escaped from a building near the World Trade Center during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He is now working his way through college.
• Meg, from Cornwall, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist who wants to teach reproductive health in Africa. She is a journalist, actress, singer and activist.
• Nathaniel, who left Middlebury to attend the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia. He is passionate about world issues, foreign languages, literature and theater.
• Aubrey, a Middlebury College student from Botswana who speaks seven languages and is majoring in economics and theater.
“Each of these emerging adults has a unique voice,” Gridley wrote in her project narrative. “A diversity of religious and cultural beliefs, a range of sexual identities and orientations, socioeconomic status, work and travel experiences, failures and successes, family structures, and health issues are represented in this group.”
All of the subjects have come in to pose for their portraits, attired in casual clothing they would wear every day. And all have agreed to be interviewed, with assistance from National Public Radio Correspondent Anne Garrels and the Middlebury-based Vermont Community Foundation. The youths will speak about their personal aspirations as well as their hopes for society and the world.
Gridley has been tending to her emerging adults as time allows. The economy did not take as heavy a toll on her commissioned work as she had feared, so Gridley has had to multi-task on assignments. Some of those assignments have come in the wake of her being selected to paint former Gov. James Douglas’s official portrait. That portrait now hangs in the Statehouse. She is currently painting a portrait of U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions III, in honor of his work as chairman of the Federal Sentencing Commission. The painting will hang in the Federal Judiciary Building in Washington, D.C.
The goal, Gridley said, is to have the “Twelve” completed by Dec. 30, 2012. The exhibit will then go on tour for lengthy shows at the Wilson Museum of The Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester and Burlington College, before ending up at the Jackson Gallery in Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater during the fall of 2014.
At the same time, Middlebury College and other local institutions will feature courses and/or parallel exhibits on the topic of emerging adults.
Gridley hopes the exhibit will also tour nationally. After that, the paintings will be for sale.
In the meantime, she continues to work diligently on the “Twelve” and has been writing grant applications to help underwrite her work and supplies. She recently received a $3,000 grant through the Vermont Community Foundation.
“It’s really an honor to get it,” Gridley said of the grant. “It’s really cool.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]