Esperanza Spalding is a very busy person. A three-time Grammy Award-winning musician, she captivates audiences on the international stage, from New York to Rio and Tokyo to Paris. She’s played everything from button-down jazz festivals to black tie evenings at the White House. Such is the life of a rising jazz icon. In her portrait session with Bo Gehring, winner of our Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013, Spalding found a welcome moment of contemplation. A camera slowly passed over her body, while a favorite song by Wayne Shorter held the air. When it was over, she thanked Gehring for “reminding me to slow down and enjoy life.”
Bo Gehring came to portraiture from a career spanning engineering, Hollywood animation, 3D-sound design, and metal sculpture. After a project making casting patterns for a building in lower Manhattan, he found himself with an industrial-sized milling machine on his hands—a precision-guided tool used to machine materials into exacting sizes and shapes.
With its computer-guided positioning and speed control, he realized the machine could move a camera with unparalleled precision. “The idea just came to me in a second. The machine is so big—the size of a double bed basically—one could easily recline in it.” He could move a camera over a person’s entire body from toe to head with mathematic smoothness. And by positioning the camera extremely close—closer than the human eye can focus—breathing, pulse, and stitches of clothing are brought into intimate view.
Bo Gehring is an avid music listener, so naturally it is central to his portraiture. He feels strongly in the emotional power of music: that a song can tap into and help reveal a person’s deeper self. Before entering his camera contraption, a subject is instructed to pick a song—a track he or she loves and feels especially connected to. Spalding chose Wayne Shorter’s “Tarde” from his 1974 album Native Dancer, featuring Shorter on tenor saxophone, Milton Nascimento on vocals, and Herbie Hancock on electric piano. She selected the song because “Herbie, Wayne, and Milton are part of me.”
Gehring first came to the National Portrait Gallery’s attention with his video portrait Jessica Wickham, which won first prize in the museum’s 2013 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. In the portrait, Wickham, a precision woodworker, is dressed in her work clothes. Her chosen music, “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” by Arvo Pärt, builds slowly in grand, sorrowful chords. As the camera moves slowly from her orange crocs, to her corduroy pants, and then to her head, she is seen immersed in the music, gazing towards the camera, and then emptily away. “I’ve seen it a hundred times and still tear up when it plays,” says Gehring.
Winning the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition not only netted Gehring a $25,000 cash prize and his work displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, but it also came with the opportunity to do a commission for the museum. This was the path that led him to Esperanza Spalding.
Gehring says he was not very familiar with Spalding’s music, but the two seemed to connect quickly, as artists sometimes do. Of the portrait process, he said “She got this in one second. She took a look at it, and I didn’t have to explain anything. She just started getting into the camera.” With Gehring’s love of music and the central role it plays in his portraits, Gehring’s portrait process was a natural fit between artist and subject.
Esperanza Spalding, who also has a fashion blog, wore an outfit well suited for the close-up nature of Gehring’s portraits. Her skirt, made by Tara St. James of Study, a New York–based ethical brand, was meticulously constructed from sustainable materials—it is almost quilt-like, made of tiny earth-toned patches of fabric. As the camera slowly moves along, the fabric becomes infinite and immersive. Says Gehring, “It’s like watching a thousand paintings go by as the music plays.”
Esperanza Spalding’s portrait can be seen on the National Portrait Gallery’s YouTube page and will be on display in May 2015 in the museum’s galleries.
Can you envision your work on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery? Visit the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition and learn how to submit your portrait for the 2016 competition. The call for entries ends November 30, 2014.
Dorothy Moss, associate curator of painting and sculpture and director of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, discussed portraiture with OBPC 2016 juror Dawoud Bey at The Arts Club of Chicago on the evening Monday, October 27. Dawoud shared his approach to photographic portraiture, his thoughts on contemporary portraiture and the role of the museum as a community center, and insights into what makes a successful portrait. He said that as a juror he will be looking for thoughtful work that creates an experience for the viewer.
Dorothy Moss thinks so. As director of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, she coordinates the triennial competition that brings in more than 3,000 entries from artists working throughout the United States and its territories. There is no predicting what she’ll receive.
In past years, entries have ranged from video projections to works on canvas to a sculpture crafted from 100 pounds of rice. Artists may offer a true likeness of their subject or deconstruct the self or the sitter in a purely abstract composition. From the professional to the self-taught, from emerging to established talents, the artists have one goal: to wow the jurors with either a depiction of themselves or someone they have physically encountered. With so few limitations and no preconceptions about what makes a winner, Moss, who is associate curator in the Portrait Gallery’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, believes that everyone has a fair chance.
The winner of the competition receives $25,000 and a commission from the Portrait Gallery to create a likeness of a noted American. Bo Gehring (above), the 2013 recipient of this honor, recently completed a video portrait of jazz artist Esperanza Spalding for the collection. Cash prizes are also awarded to the second and third place winners, as well as up to four additional entrants for commendable work. And one of the greatest perks is that the Portrait Gallery exhibits works by the top fifty finalists.
Moss acknowledges that the excitement of the artists as they view their works installed at the Portrait Gallery is exhilarating, but it is also a learning experience for even the most seasoned of curators: “There is always something unusual that changes our perception of portraiture and sheds light on our permanent collections.” For the next competition, in 2016, the competition show will also travel to other venues.
Why would an already acclaimed museum like the National Portrait Gallery put its energy and resources into sponsoring such an open competition? Apparently, a former volunteer named Virginia Outwin Boochever wondered—why not? Boochever, a portrait enthusiast, made a generous gift to endow this program that fosters innovation. And it has turned out to be a valuable experience for both entrants and staff. Moss explains that “the competition brings public awareness to under recognized and little-known artists and allows curators to examine the broader concept of identity and see new trends in portraiture.”
With a pool of submissions from a country as large as the United States, the material mirrors the diversity and complexity of our citizens—and our democracy. It, like the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection, puts a face on who we are both as individuals and as a nation.
The jurors of the 2016 competition are looking to be surprised, impressed, moved, and entertained by the submissions. In addition to Moss, they include Kim Sajet, director of the Portrait Gallery; Brandon Brame Fortune, the Portrait Gallery’s chief curator; Dawoud Bey, a photographer and professor of art and distinguished artist at Columbia College in Chicago; Helen Molesworth, chief curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York magazine; and John Valadez, a painter, muralist, and photographer in Los Angeles.
Can you envision your work on the walls of a national museum? If you have the creativity and passion to reshape the future of portraiture, click here to submit your entry electronically. The due date for the 2016 competition is November 30, 2014.