Hartford's empty storefronts this summer will be filled with the smiling and hopeful faces of its people, as photographer Joe Standart fulfills his years-long effort to install his public "Portrait of America" show on city streets.
More than 50 portraits are already up in unoccupied retail space, as well as in the windows of bustling restaurants downtown — heroic portraits of community and cultural names you know and many you may not.
Many works are life-sized, such as the ones that stand on Main Street in front of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, or the in newly gleaming storefronts (washing 90 windows was part of the work in preparing the show).
Other works in the show are much larger, such as the 30-by-30-foot banner of kids from the Boys and Girls Club erected on the side of a building at 31 Pratt St.
The biggest of them all, measuring 40 feet by 60 feet, is scheduled to go up this morning on one of downtown's biggest eyesores, the Capital West building alongside I-84 that's been empty for years. An estimated 160,000 people who drive by each day will now see faces that represent the diversity and vitality of the community.
Standart, who has a home in Lyme, first started his "Portrait of America" project in New London in 2006, with giant photos of townspeople placed prominently around the port city. While Standart's plan was to travel to different cities in America, the state Commission on Culture and Tourism took an interest in the work and persuaded him to stay in the state and work in other cities.
"They realized it was a great thing for the city from a self-image and image-building point of view and in conveying a sense of dignity of the people I photographed," Standart said from New York.
It was common to have officials and giants of industry given serious portraits; Standart wanted to give the same treatment and dignity to the Everyman. "People felt very proud to be featured that way," he says.
"People saw the impact this had in New London. I was very much eager to see it through in Hartford."
The original plan was to have the Hartford show go up simultaneously with the New London show, Standart says. "But the economy took care of that one."
The show got up only partly last summer, mostly through portraits hanging from streetlights, not giant banners on architectural landmarks or steel frames. He kept seeking funding, and was finally able to mount the "Portrait of America" show this summer, though the steel frames have been replaced by storefront access.
Many of the other 220 Hartford portraits that couldn't be included in the show are posted on www.portraitofamerica.org, which also includes some shots Standart made in more rural corners of the state, such as Litchfield County. He still may mix them in with the city shots someday for a kind of city mouse/country mouse cultural exchange.
A self-guided tour to the 12 stops along Trumbull and Pratt streets can be found at 860-616-2215.
If there is a drawback to "Portrait of America" and its dozens of photographed faces, it's that it comes in an area where there seem to be fewer and fewer human faces on the street to enjoy them. The good news/bad news of having so many windows available to him is that there are so many empty storefronts.
But maybe the show will help nudge a revival. "I'm very committed to the idea that public art can have a tremendous impact on a city."
•"Portrait of America: The Hartford Project" continues on Hartford city streets through Aug. 1. Information: www.portraitofamerica.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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