Painted portraits are, as evidenced by the many on display inside Boston’s world-famous art galleries, a window into the world of royalty, politicos, and other spectacularly coiffed assholes from centuries ago. The nobles who commissioned the paintings wanted the artists to capture them in all their (imagined) glory.
MODEL CITIZENS: Artist Francisco De la Barra (inset) painted homeless people (including “Benjamin,” above) “so as to empower them.”
You don’t, however, find many classic renderings of the poor, whose empty pockets have historically made them less desirable in the art world.
Francisco De la Barra, a Somerville artist who works with spices and herbs, turns these traditions on their head. The 17 works he now has up in a Harvard Square show called “In Transition” are all portraits of local homeless individuals De la Barra painted from photographs he took of the subjects during visits to a Davis Square shelter between October 2008 and August 2009.
“One of the original purposes of the portrait was to depict the powerful,” the Chilean-born artist writes on his Web site, “and the commissioning of a portrait has always been an act of power by the wealthy. I wanted to take the power of the portrait and assign it to the powerless so as to empower them.”
De la Barra says that, at the outset of the project, he couldn’t convince his homeless models to take part. “These people have a huge problem trusting people,” says De la Barra. “They’ve been let down so many times.”
Something changed, though, after the painter shared his first portrait — an exquisite (if raw) take on a 50-ish male subject — with residents of the shelter.
“Suddenly, everyone wanted one,” recalls the 39 year old, whose project earned him a grant from the Somerville Arts Council.
His new subjects include Michael, a former chef who couldn’t work when he lost his sense of taste as a result of cancer treatment, and Joanne, a striking 19 year old whose portrait the painter crafted in part with crushed egg shells. Prior to the shelter, Joanne had been living behind a dumpster.
“She’s very beautiful,” explains De la Barra, “but at the same time, I wanted to portray something broken.”
The project had a profound effect on participants, including one named Benjamin, who felt important after his own portrait was displayed as part of a Davis Square public-art exhibition. In the case of the beauty Joanne, her piece gave her self-esteem a boost. Perhaps too much so.
“She became a little bit annoying,” recalls De la Barra. “But this was just her way of being happy.”
“In Transition,” paintings by Francisco De la Barra, runs through November 30 at the Gallery at University Lutheran Church, 66 Winthrop Street, in Cambridge. The opening reception is on Friday, November 6, from 7 to 9 pm. For more information, go to De la Barra’s Web site, fran6co.com.