May 1, 2009                   

AMHERST, Mass.—Amherst College’s Frost Library will host a book launch of Who Am I in This Picture? Amherst College Portraits ($25, Amherst College Press, 2009) at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 7. The gathering is free and open to the public.

Who Am I in This Picture? documents the creation of a collaborative public art project and installation titled Amherst College Portraits, by artists Wendy Ewald and Brett Cook, on the Amherst College campus between September 2007 and June 2008. The book follows the development of the collaboration and includes Ewald and Cook’s work with 18 members of the college community who are the subjects of the project’s portraits and interviews. The publication features photographs of the process, excerpts of conversations with the participants, images of the final installation and essays on the theory and practice of collaborative art.

Amherst College Portraits was an exhibition made up of six 12 ½-foot by 30-foot portrait triptychs mounted across the Amherst College campus and at the Mead Art Museum. The triptychs themselves—each of which portrayed a student, a staff member and a faculty member—were generated by Ewald, also the college’s visiting artist-in-residence, and Cook, with participation from students in Ewald’s seminar “The Practice of Collaborative Art,” members of the campus and Western Massachusetts community and the subjects of the portraits. The six triptychs combined photographs and painting with the words of the models in striking ways. The fact that the artworks were made by thousands of participants enhances the objects into something gem-like, brimming with narrative possibilities. 

“Over the last two years, Amherst has been engaged in having creative artists Wendy Ewald and Brett Cook lead our campus in exploring the meaning of community through a public art project,” wrote college President Anthony W. Marx in the preface to Who Am I in This Picture?Amherst College Portraits, though monumental in scale, reflected an unusually intimate and inclusive artistic process. The resulting installation and exhibition embodied our values and aspirations as a learning community.”

Ewald has collaborated with children and adults around the world for more than 30 years, encouraging them to use cameras to create self-portraits of themselves and their communities and to articulate their hopes and dreams. She uses her own creative skills, both as a photographer and as an acute observer, putting her collaborators at ease and teasing out the best results. Many of these collaborations have been documented in exhibitions and books—including In Peace and Harmony: Carver Portraits, Wendy Ewald: American Alphabets and Towards a Promised Land—and taken her to communities in Labrador, Appalachia, Colómbia, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Holland, Mexico, Canada, North Carolina and New York. In addition to serving as visiting artist-in-residence at Amherst and teaching a seminar on the practice and theory of collaborative art, she holds the positions of senior research associate at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and artist-in-residence at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center. She has received numerous awards for her creative practice and exhibited extensively since the mid-1970s.

Cook has exhibited in museums and galleries since 1991 while concurrently engaging in public art. His projects, often ephemeral in nature, have taken place from California to Maine and in Brazil, Barbados and Mexico. Some have been commissioned by museums or public agencies, while others have been self-initiated interventions in abandoned spaces. As a teenager, Cook was a graffiti artist; his work evolved from spray-painted characters, to murals that commented on apartheid and racism, to portraits that became more consciously part of a community-building process. His art—which typically involves teaching, workshops, collaborative art-making, music and food as part of the process—has been shown in many group and solo exhibitions. He has received a number of awards, including residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and the Studio Museum in Harlem. An active teacher and lecturer, he has held the Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professorship in Documentary Studies at Duke University and the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work is included in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Walker Art Center and Harvard University, among many others.