Local artist works to paint 200 southern Brooklynites in ‘The Free Portrait Project’

rusty zimmerman and the free portrait project paintings
Artist Rusty Zimmerman has long worked to capture his neighbors in oil paints — this year, he’s hoping to paint and record the oral histories of 200 southern Brooklynites as part of his yearlong residency at Industry City.
Photos courtesy of The Free Portrait Project

Artist Rusty Zimmerman, founder of the Free Portrait Project, has started a year-long residency at Industry City — where he’s taken on the challenge to paint and record the histories of 200 people from different communities within Brooklyn in the next year.

This time, he is bringing his multimedia portrait project to southern Brooklyn neighborhoods from the southernmost end of Prospect Park and all the way down to the water. Through painting and audio recordings, Zimmerman has collected life stories to promote unity across boundaries and shine a spotlight on neighborhoods that are often left out of most New Yorkers’ conversations.

“It started as an accident,” Zimmerman said. “I just wanted to become a better portrait painter, but now these stories are such an important part of why I do this.”

brooklyn man, rick krieger, looking at his free portrait project painting
Zimmerman sits with each of his subjects for four hours, capturing their likenesses in oil paint while interviewing them about their life histories. Courtesy of the Free Portrait Project

In June of 2015, Zimmerman set out on an ambitious mission — to paint Crown Heights through 200 portraits of its residents. He saw the neighborhood he had lived in for six years getting gentrified and wanted to preserve its history. 

 “Crown Heights used to be, back then, the most rapidly-changing neighborhood,” Zimmerman said. “Rents keep rising, it’s celebrated for its diversity, but people don’t interact nearly as well as they could.”

Through his art, he wanted to change that.

But he quickly realized the idea held a lot more potential. The painter recalled finding out he was about to portrait a civil rights movement activist who stood behind Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. as the minister delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In his attempts to practice recording the conversation he wanted to have with the advocate, he recorded the story of another Brooklynite who he found fascinating and was glad to have a record of the testimony. 

“Absolutely everyone knows something that you don’t,” said Zimmerman.

Rita Corchado poses to have her portrait painted a day after her 102nd birthday. Courtesy of The Free Portrait Project.

Zimmerman chooses his subjects through a lottery. This year, everyone who lives south of Greenwood Cemetery is invited to apply. Then, as his subjects sit for four-hour sessions, he interviews those who come in with questions about their personal experiences like, “Who is the most important person in your life and why?” and their perspectives on the evolving city, such as “What do you think need to burn to the ground now so that this becomes a better place to live in?”

This year, he has translated informative material into six different languages and has distributed it in senior care centers, libraries and local businesses to ensure everyone who could be interested can have access to it.

The project founder’s work now combines hundreds of audio pieces, video and paintings that his subjects can keep for free after public exhibitions of the paintings where neighbors come together.

After each portrait is finished, the artist leaves his subjects with a task based on the answers he received. Sometimes, it’s as simple as saying ‘Hello’ to the people down the block, and sometimes it’s looking into volunteering for a local organization that serves the community.

darlene waters with free portrait project work
So far this year, Zimmerman has completed four portraits — with 196 left to go before the end of the year. Courtesy of The Free Portrait Project

“There’s a longing for connection that everyone shares,” Zimmerman said. 

For this most recent edition of the Free Portrait Project, Zimmerman has completed four portraits and has 196 to go. He has set up his work space in a studio at Industry City with windows facing north and accessibility for subjects with any kind of special needs. The funding for the project comes from individual donations, local businesses and cooperate sponsorship, and he and Industry City will host special receptions to celebrate the 50th, 100th, and 150th paintings completed.