Portrait artist Nicole Bourgea knows that painting well doesn’t depend on your brush strokes. And you don’t need the most expensive paints.
What 10 years in the business has taught her is that understanding your subject is key. That’s why, regardless of whether she’s painting an individual, a married couple or a rambunctious child, she engages them in conversation. She empathizes with them, and they make a connection.
The moment her customers ceased to be strangers and became something more — real people with real stories — inspired Bourgea’s latest undertaking.
For the project, titled “AS IS: An Urban Art Project,” Bourgea, 30, spent a year painting 10 large-scale oil portraits of individual Washingtonians as they went about their daily routines. Each person, she said, could have been easily overlooked.
“If I noticed I was hurrying past them for one reason or another, I would force myself to slow down and question why I was doing that,” said Bourgea, who began to carry scraps of canvas for preliminary sketches and a camera to capture people on the move.
In Georgetown, Bourgea spotted a woman dressed head to toe in white and cradling a small white dog. In a community garden in Southeast, she stopped to watch a man tend to his saplings. And at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW, a cook in a long, white apron stepped outside to catch his breath before the lunchtime rush. Each moment became a painting.
“It’s so easy to just go about your day and not really look anybody in the eye,” said Bourgea, who says creations such as Facebook and self-checkout lines can hinder face-to-face contact. The project’s mission, she says, is to raise awareness of the connections we make. And those we could be making.
It’s a creed that suits the D.C. native well. Originally from Tenleytown, Bourgea studied philosophy at Providence College in Rhode Island before returning to the District to set up shop two floors above the Circle Yoga studio in Northwest. It was there that Bourgea completed the 10 paintings.
But she won’t hold on to them for long. On Monday, Bourgea will return to where she met her subjects and leave the canvases unattended with a sign: “If this is you, this painting is yours to take.”
Bourgea will leave small cards with the artwork that explain the project’s mission and direct those interested in learning more to her blog. She hopes the works will find their intended recipients, but there’s no guarantee the paintings won’t be damaged, tossed or stolen.
But that’s okay, Bourgea said. The project is also about giving freely, and that doesn’t necessarily mean expecting something in return.
“No strings attached,” she said. “It’s just to tell people they’ve been seen. And that they matter.”