Bryce McCloud and his colleagues at Isle of Printing have created a portrait of Nashville, one face at a time. Their public art project, Our Town Nashville, uses individual portraits as part of a collective work that invites a “visual conversation.”
“It’s a really interesting time in our community; there’s a lot of change going on. When that sort of thing happens, it’s good to take a step back and look at who you are and what you are,” said McCloud.
For one year, the Our Town team traveled with a mobile cart throughout Davidson County to help people create self-portraits. Participants used custom-made stamps of various geometric shapes and mirrors (to view themselves for reference). Then, the participants had their photographs taken with their self-portraits—some placing their “new faces” in front of their actual faces, others holding their portraits to show the distinction between their actual faces and how they view themselves.
“What a self-portrait can do is talk about something that maybe isn’t your physical appearance,” said McCloud, “so it’s interesting to have this self-portrait juxtaposed with people’s actual photographic portrait. It’s not because it’s hard to re-create yourself out of stamps; it’s because what you see about yourself may not be on the outside of your body. That’s a really important part of this project: who people are and how they see themselves.”
Once participants have their photos taken, they submit their self-portraits and receive a letterpress copy of someone else’s self-portrait. Thousands of citizens participated; people can view all of their photos and self-portraits on the Our Town website. A selection of the self-portraits comprises an exhibition at the Nashville Public Library’s main branch.
McCloud explains that his experiences in launching and continuing Our Town Nashville have increased his appreciation of the multi-faceted aspects of the project, which has sustained slightly different approach to public art.
“Rather than it being one kind of monolithic thing—like a statue, a mobile or a steel construction that people can visit—this piece of public art actually is the experience of being disseminated around the city we live in,” said McCloud. “Each participant’s home has a piece of the public art. Each of them can say, ‘Wow, I did that; that’s part of what I did.’” In fact, the Our Town Nashville team members include the prompts “Meet your neighbors” and “Take your new friend home and show him/her around” in their instructions for participants.
“I think [that although] community art is not always treated as a serious art form, if you approach it in the right way, it can be a really important thing for a community,” said McCloud. The Nashville-area native sees Our Town as a way of merging “different views from the same neighbors,” and he considers Our Town to be a way of communicating visually, rather than through the written word or spoken word—what people usually consider as the vehicles for conversation.
In addition, McCloud says, “One of the great things about Our Town is that you get a lot of different people coming together over making something in an interesting way—looking over each others’ shoulders, seeing how they’re using the stamps. I’ve also always been interested in ways I could bridge the gap between people who participate in art and people who don’t . . . to make an experience as a result of fine art that I think would stand up to any.
McCloud said the idea for Our Town emerged when he was working on a residency at Room in the Inn through the Seignthaler Foundation. “At each class there were different people from all different walks of life coming in and I thought a really good way for us to get to know each other was to make self-portraits,” he said. “I made a promise that if they would take it seriously, I would take the results of what they made and figure out a way to have that be the start of a conversation with other Nashvillians about what it means to be Nashvillian.”
The participants in Our Town include prisoners on death row and police officers, children and retired people, art students and those reluctant to draw, as well as developmentally disabled citizens, business executives, volunteers, and people who frequent Broadway venues, parks, record stores, book stores, and other places.
“We try to be representative of all the people in the city,” McCloud said.
Derrie Miles, a participant from Room in the Inn, was visiting the library when the Our Town team was putting up the prints. When Miles saw his self-portrait in the show, he said, “Hey, that’s me!”
“At some point we were just looking at the self-portraits as art, not associated with who the people were.” McCloud said after an encounter with Miles, he returned to the idea of the project was about Nashvillians being included as “part of a community.”
“We’re all Nashvillians, no matter where we put our heads at night. It’s important to consider that each person somehow has an effect on the others.”
The Our Town exhibit at the Nashville Public Library (615 Church Street) continues through Sunday, April 12, with plans to have a closing event on Saturday, April 11. The Metro Arts Commission funds and manages the project. For more information, with the Our Town Nashville website, the Nashville Library, or the Metro Arts Commission.