One artist is painting 200 residents of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to forge connections in one of the most rapidly changing parts of the borough.
On a recent rainy afternoon in Crown Heights, the artist Rusty Zimmerman sat behind his easel, trying to capture the pattern on Jon Greenberg’s signature bright blue Hawaiian shirt. Greenberg owns Rosco’s Pizzeria around the corner on Franklin Avenue—a street once infamous for crime, now notorious for expensive coffee shops and a rapidly evolving restaurant scene.
While he painted, Zimmerman tossed questions to Greenberg: how do you make the perfect pie? How did Rosco’s get its name? (Answer: Greenberg’s dog.) An audio recorder spun in the background, capturing the whole conversation. Zimmerman’s questions soon turned to the neighborhood itself—what’s good, what’s bad, what’s changing too quickly, what’s not changing quite fast enough.
In June of last year, Zimmerman set out on an ambitious mission: to paint Crown Heights through 200 portraits of its residents. Greenberg was number 184; Zimmerman has until June 30 to complete the project, which will culminate in a final exhibition and parade at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum; alongside the portraits, visitors will be able to listen to audio of the subject’s stories.
The project started out as a simple exercise. Zimmerman, looking for a way to strengthen his portraiture practice, started painting his friends and acquaintances from the neighborhood, bringing them over to his studio on Dean Street for a four-hour sitting fueled by Budweisers and rambling conversations. At the end of each session, he’d give the painting away.
That’s what hooked him: the feeling of being able to offer an oil painting—“a fancy thing for fancy people”—for free to someone who might not otherwise have the opportunity to sit for a portrait. But to keep painting, Zimmerman would need financing.
For a crowd-funded project to work, Zimmerman says, it needs to connect emotionally to the community from which it’s seeking support. His portraiture, Zimmerman realized, needed to reach more than just his friends: it had to touch the whole community. “Crown Heights is the most rapidly changing neighborhood, the rents are rising—it’s celebrated for its diversity, but people don’t interact nearly as well as they could,” Zimmerman said. Through his painting, he wanted to change that.
After securing funds through various local business donations and an online platform, Zimmerman put a call out for neighborhood residents to enter a lottery to be painted through his site, The Free Portrait Project. He got a flood of response from the “on-Twitter” crowd—mostly young, Caucasian recent arrivals to the neighborhood.
“But if I were just to paint everyone who showed up first, it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of the neighborhood,” Zimmerman says. He feels a responsibility to accurately map and match the demographics of all 125,000 people in Crown Heights, and that includes a range of ages—his subjects range from nine days old to more than 80 years—and ethnicities.
“My constant half-joke is that I’m just trying to bring Hasids and Haitians and hipsters together to talk some smack about the neighborhood and tell their stories from their unique perspective,” Zimmerman says.
It’s working. A progressive synagogue recently displayed several of Zimmerman’s paintings and opened its doors for anyone in the neighborhood to come by; Zimmerman, whose connections in the neighborhood have multiplied through the project, spread the word. “For the folks who actually got together there under one roof, and shared a joint with a Rabbi in short pants, it was eye-opening,” he says.
During his portrait sitting, Deshaun Mars, a 29-year-old black man who was born and raised in Crown Heights, told Zimmerman that he’d never once spoken to an Orthodox Jew. Later in the week, a young Orthodox woman invited Zimmerman over for a Shabbat dinner during her portrait session; Zimmerman asked if he could bring Mars along as a guest. “We spent the evening just hanging out around the table, asking questions, sharing wine,” Zimmerman says. As they walked out, Mars told him that the experience shattered every expectation he had about the neighbors he’d lived four blocks away from, yet had never met.
Over the past year, Zimmerman’s studio has transformed into an artery through which seemingly the whole of Crown Heights has passed. Each person who walks in for a painting leaves with a community service assignment from Zimmerman. Young people who’ve just arrived in the neighborhood have been set up with an elder for coffee to learn about their new home’s history; a Haitain woman volunteered at a Nigerian mosque during Ramadan last year; a Rabbi was introduced to an all-black biker bar, where he shot a couple games of pool and helped with the recycling.
“It’s not just about painting faces and recording stories,” Zimmerman says. “It’s about getting people who might otherwise never meet to walk into doorways they might not have ever entered, not just to see inside, but to ask, ‘How can I be of use?’”
Near the end of his session with Greenberg, Zimmerman asked him the question he asks each sitter: “If you were given a platform to speak to all of Crown Heights, what would you say?”
As the owner of a very popular restaurant, Greenberg said that he’d like to thank the neighborhood. Though dishing out his pizzas, Greenberg has gotten to know more people than most. But not everyone. The kitchen at Rosco’s is not kosher, and the Orthodox community cannot eat there.
Zimmerman had found his assignment for Greenberg: sometime in the next few weeks, he would visit the Chabad house on Sterling Place and cook Rosco’s pizza in their kitchen.
“There’s a longing for connection that everyone shares,” Zimmerman says. For the people whose portraits now line Zimmerman’s studio and various coffee shop walls in Crown Heights, it’s one step closer to fulfillment.