June 17, 2009               

AMHERST, Mass.—Amherst College Press has published a new, vivid, 96-page book titled Who Am I in This Picture?: Amherst College Portraits ($25, 2009). The publication documents a large-scale experiment in collaborative art at Amherst College.

In 2007 and 2008, visiting artist-in-residence Wendy Ewald and guest artist Brett Cook collaborated on six massive (12-foot- by-30-foot) triptychs installed around the college’s campus. Each triptych was painted in part by members of the Amherst community; they included portraits of students, professors and staff members. The triptychs combined the photographs and paintings with the voices of the models in striking ways. The artworks were made by hundreds of participants, conferring a multifaceted, gem-like quality to the work and lending it countless narrative possibilities.

Who Am I in This Picture?: Amherst College Portraits describes the project from beginning to end. It includes drawings, photographs and paintings of the portrait subjects, as well as photographs of the process. Interviews with each participant, plus essays by Declan McGonagle, director of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland; art historian Richard J. Powell; and Amherst professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander, discuss the work within the larger framework of portraiture and contemporary art and situate the project in the context of collaborative art and current issues in higher education. 

Remarked Powell in an essay featured in the new book, “Although Cook is primarily a painter and Ewald is a photographer, they both are portraitists and, despite their common interest in departing from the genre’s more conventional trappings and hierarchies, both believe in portraiture’s fundamental ability to visually capture likeness and convey something of a person’s character and essence. But, revealingly, it is often the flesh-and-blood subjects Cook and Ewald have largely decided to portray—a most unlikely bunch for traditional portraiture’s overtures toward pedigreed subjects with historical significance and the potential for cultural posterity—that shake the genre’s very foundations and interject a perceptual and social disruption.”

With hard financial times constricting educational institutions, separations between faculty, students and staff grow wider. Amherst College Portraits is a project that looks at and transforms these separations though art.

“Though monumental in scale,” said Anthony Marx, president of Amherst, “Amherst College Portraits reflected an unusually intimate and inclusive artistic process. The installation and exhibition embodied our values and aspirations as a learning community.” 

About the collaborators
Ewald has collaborated with children and adults around the world for 40 years, encouraging them to use cameras to create self-portraits and articulate their fantasies and dreams. Her work has taken her to Appalachia, Colombia, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Mexico, Canada, North Carolina and New York. She uses her skills as a photographer and an acute observer to put her collaborators at ease and tease out original results. Starting as documentary investigations of places and communities, Ewald’s projects probe questions of identity and cultural differences. They have been documented in books and exhibitions (such as her retrospective Secret Games: Collaborative Works with Children 1969-99) and featured in numerous places, including the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Her work has also been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and the International Center of Photography, among other institutions. She has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation. In addition to serving as visiting artist-in-residence at Amherst, she is currently a senior research associate at the Center for Documentary Studies and artist-in-residence at the John Hope Franklin Center, both at Duke University.

Cook received a B.A. in art from the University of California, Berkeley, with a minor in education. His formal training and his studies in contemplative traditions have played an important part in the development of his work and shaped the participatory process he favors. He has exhibited in museums and galleries since 1991, while at the same time engaging in public projects. His public projects typically involve teaching workshops and collaborative art, along with making music and food. He has received a number of awards, including residencies at the Skowhegan School in Maine and the Studio Museum in Harlem. In 2008, he 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 other institutions.

In addition to serving as a curator and the director of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, McGonagle writes and lectures extensively on visual arts issues, arguing for a new relationship between art, the artist, the institution and communities. Powell is the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. His most recent book is Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Cobham-Sander is the William R. Kennan Jr. Professor of Black Studies and English at Amherst; she was also special assistant to the president for diversity at the time the Amherst College Portraits were created.

About the book
Funding for the publication was provided by the generosity of the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation as well as Amherst’s Mead Art Museum, Center for Community Engagement and Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Who Am I in This Picture?: Amherst College Portraits is available for $25 plus $3.75 shipping and handling per copy. To place an order, call 413/542-2321 or e-mail press@amherst.edu.