Moments of sitting in remembrance and reflection: the painter and the sitter

Article & Interview by Ella Pauls, Manager, Cultural Affairs & Tourism, City of Guelph

Greg Denton remembers portrait by portrait. Private yet public. Personal yet detached. These opposites are dynamically at play this summer as Greg Denton paints 100 portraits in oil, depicting living military personnel and others associated with war and loss. Greg was selected as the 2015 City of Guelph Artist in Residence to engage the community in a project commemorating the 100th anniversary of the writing of In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. Denton’s project, titled 100 Portraits/100 Poppies: Sitting in Remembrance, will creatively animate various public spaces in our downtown.

In a recent conversation, Greg shared some thoughts on the development of this project.

City of Guelph Artist-in-Residence Greg Denton sits — and paints — for himself at his downtown studio
‘Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.’ — Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray

Q You’ve painted many portraits. What’s different about this project?

‘I usually paint in my studio where there’s no distraction. Taking my practice into public space to paint 100 portraits will be a new experience. I feel like I’m pushing the boundary between street artist and studio painter. It’s forcing me to stretch the performative aspect of my work.’
Details from the artist’s downtown studio

Q What do you require of the sitter?

‘In a sense, the sitter is a collaborator. The sitter’s role is to surrender to the moment and let go of any expectation of the end result. That takes courage. The portraits are painted quickly in a single sitting, each within the space of about one hour. They’re not edited. The sitter has no control of the outcome, and must be comfortable with that. This approach puts both of us in a vulnerable position — and therein lies the necessary creative tension.’

Q You describe these portrait sessions as both personal and detached. How so?

‘There are multiple realities at play. For the sitter it’s very personal. Imagine watching your likeness come into being. You may love it or be slightly uncomfortable with it or even find yourself somewhat unrecognizable. My reality is quite different: I’m painting what I see in the moment and concentrating on how it relates to the work as a whole. We’re both watchers. I’m watching you and you’re watching your portrait unfold. That’s why the facial expressions in the portraits often seem serious. They are expressions of concentration.’
Portraits of the portrait artist

Q What interested you in working with the Flanders commemoration theme?

‘This theme gave me a chance to develop a very focused concept. I’m intrigued by the idea of repetition — in this case, everyone wears a poppy and is either in a military uniform or wearing something in similar colour. Each portrait is painted against a green backdrop. When assembled in grid formation, they will give a visual allusion of McCrae’s field of poppies. Even the white spaces between the portraits will suggest rows of crosses.’

Q What’s the legacy piece of this project?

‘I see each of the 100 portrait sessions is an act of commemoration in honour of individuals in our community who have experienced war and loss. Every painting is an unedited recording of what took place in that moment of sitting in remembrance and reflection. It will be an honour to share these moments and the resulting creative work with my community.’

This article originally published in col.lab.o.rate magazine Issue 6.

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