‘Margaret and Marquetta Tisdell, Original Providence Baptist Church’ by Paul D’Amato is competing for a $25,000 prize at the National Portrait Gallery.


Out of all the eyes that stare back at you from the walls of the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, only one set is worth $25,000. We’ll find out which on Friday.

The winner of the contest — open to artists living and working in the U.S. — will also get a commission from the gallery to create a portrait of a living American that will be added to its permanent collection. All 43 finalists (selected from 2,500 entries) will be on display through January.
This fourth edition of the contest is a little different from the last one, held in 2013. Then, new-media works like video and animation were heavily represented (a video entry, Bo Gehring’s “Jessica Wickham,” took top prize). This year, things are more traditional.

“The jury changes with each competition,” says curator Dorothy Moss, the competition’s director. “This particular jury was very much approaching portraiture in a more traditional sense, but with a very deep and heightened awareness of that contract between subject and artist.”
Here are four finalists that caught our eye (sorry, artists, but we don’t get a vote).

National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW; Sat. through Jan. 8, 2017, free

‘Margaret and Marquetta Tisdell, Original Providence Baptist Church’ (top of page)
Paul D’Amato
The dramatic lighting in this portrait is one of D’Amato’s signatures, as is the way he engaged his subjects. “His practice involved going into neighborhoods where he is not part of the community, getting to know people and then approaching them with the possibility of having the portrait made,” Moss says of D’Amato, who also competed in 2013. “It’s very much a collaboration. These are two women he met and felt very drawn to their faces, so he wanted to create a portrait in a space that was meaningful to them.”

‘I Love Your Hair’ by Tim Okamura is a mixed-media portrait.

‘I Love Your Hair’
Tim Okamura
“You’ve got to see this in person to appreciate it,” Moss says of Okamura’s mixed-media work. “It’s very textured; it includes collage elements. The artist was initially interested in graffiti, and I think you see that coming across in this portrait of contemporary life in an urban context. It comes more to life [when you’re] standing in front of it than it ever could in a reproduction.”

‘Deported’ is a photograph by returning competitor Louie Palu.

Louie Palu
Palu is another returning contender in the competition (which is named for Virginia Outwin Boochever, a former Portrait Gallery volunteer and donor). Last time, his entry was of an Afghan soldier fighting with U.S. troops; this time, “he has been working in Mexico and on the effects of the drug wars,” Moss says. “He tries to bring out the human story behind the difficult situation he’s been thrown into. He wants to bring these lives into reality, to take them out of the news and all the ways we are desensitized to them.”

‘Haints at Swamp II’ shows artist Allison Janae Hamilton’s interest in the mythology of the American South.

‘Haints at Swamp II’
Allison Janae Hamilton
The historical look of Hamilton’s portrait is very much deliberate. “The artist likes to think back on her family’s history and bring in 19th-century costumes and props and create these otherworldly views that reference the history of her own family,” Moss says. “She’s looking at the landscape of the South and thinking about all the different stories and fictional characters she heard through her family’s storytelling, fantasy and mythmaking.”


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