A brush with history: Kensington artist Rusty Zimmerman paints 200 oil portraits of South Brooklynites in one year

Artist Rusty Zimmerman’s ‘We Are South Brooklyn’ will open on Feb. 24 and run for 30 days at Industry City.
‘We Are Southern Brooklyn’/Rusty Zimmerman

Artist Rusty Zimmerman set himself the ambitious task of painting the portraits of 200 South Brooklynites over the course of a year.

After averaging 17 paintings a week while collecting an oral history from each subject, Zimmerman is bringing the complete “We Are South Brooklyn” collection together for a limited time at Sunset Park’s Industry City.

The free exhibition will open on Feb. 24 and run for 30 days, after which all of the paintings will be gifted to the subjects — residents from Kensington, Coney Island, Bay Ridge to Mill Basin and everywhere in between.

In 2015, Zimmerman founded the Free Portrait Project in Crown Heights, in which he painted 200 of its residents with the aim of preserving the history of the ever-changing neighborhood. After getting married and relocating to Kensington a few years later, he decided to revive the concept as a way to get to know his new neighbors and the surrounding neighborhoods.

“I always half jokingly say that the entire thing is an elaborate ruse just to get people to say hi to their neighbors,” Zimmerman told Brooklyn Paper ahead of the opening, noting that he gave each person who sat for a portrait a task based on the answers he received – ranging from picking up trash in the neighborhood to attending their local community board meeting.

Industry City got behind the project intended to democratize portrait painting, offering Zimmerman a studio space at a reduced rate to carry out the four-and-a-half hour sittings with his subjects, who were invited to apply via an online lottery.

Over 650 people applied to take part after he advertised the project to residents south of Greenwood cemetery. In an effort to capture a varied audience, he translated flyers into six different languages and distributed them around the southern half of the borough.

Artist Rusty Zimmerman poses alongside Coney Island’s King Henry, who sat for portrait 199 of 200.‘We Are Southern Brooklyn’/Rusty Zimmerman

It was during his 2015 Crown Heights project that he realized the importance of capturing each subject’s individual story as “everybody has something that is worth listening to, stories that might not ever come out in casual conversation with two people sitting on a bus stop.”

A good day in the chair, he said, was when the conversation would reach the point of discussing everything that does not usually come up in polite company.

But given that Zimmerman sees portraiture as a somewhat memorial act, the common question for subjects was how they would like to be remembered by those who see them in the neighborhood everyday.

The answers to these questions can be heard in the exhibit by scanning the QR codes underneath each portrait. The audio from each sitting has since been offered to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History’s review board for inclusion in its permanent collection of oral histories of Brooklyn.

The funding for the project comes from individual donations and sponsorship but Zimmerman is currently fundraising for the Feb. 24 grand opening of the exhibition, which will see all 200 participants march from Sunset Park’s recreation center to Industry city, led by Extra Syrup Horns brass band.

The free exhibit will be on view at building 8 in Industry City, Feb. 24 to March 25.

Funds raised will also go toward producing “museum-quality” exhibition signage, hiring help to install the show and staffing the gallery for the 30-day period. He has so far raised close to $4,000 of the $10,000 goal.

“I’m one of those parents that can’t choose a favorite amongst their children,” Zimmerman said when asked if he had a favorite portrait or story. “Whether it’s an 80-year-old whose parents took money from Al Capone or a 12-year-old who walked every single path in Greenwood Cemetery, during the pandemic with their dad, just to just to get some fresh air. There’s really just too much too much good stuff to choose from.”