Dec. 1 2014 06:14 PM

San Diego artist brings strangers together by putting faces on real-world and virtual communities

EmilyGrenader
Emily Grenader
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

    In 2009, soon after Kickstarter first launched, artist Emily Grenader wanted to find out if the crowd-funding website could help artists. Back then, it had yet to become a bastion for creative types that it is today.

    "Kickstarter was working really well for industrial designers and people who make products," says Grenader, a teaching assistant at UCSD, from which she recently graduated with her master's degree in fine arts. "So, I thought, well, what if I just painted this crowd of strangers from the Internet?"

    Grenader's first campaign enrolled 53 people. She painted their life-size portraits in oil on canvas, picturing the dozens of strangers next to one another in a large-scale painting of a crowd, giving more of a face and personality to the mostly invisible virtual community. Participants received prints of the original.

    "It became this interesting patron painting of Kickstarter people," says Grenader, who's in the middle of another Kickstarter campaign. One hundred people have already filled up the slots available for having their portraits painted, but she recently opened up another option for others who want to be drawn and included in a digital-art piece instead.

    The concept behind what the artist calls her Crowd Painting series actually began before she launched her first Kickstarter campaign. Grenader was living in New York City and started noticing the same strangers' faces again and again as she made her way through her daily routine.

    "It was this idea of just seeing so many people who pass by the same spot and kind of imagining what it would be like if they were all there at the same time," she explains. "You see all these strangers that you never interact with, and I thought if I physically put them together, it would be kind of like they were connecting."

    She photographed dozens of people in prominent places in New York and then painted them next to one another on canvases. In a way, the portraits of people who inhabit specific spaces became indicative of the places themselves.

    "That is something I was looking at," Grenader explains. "Is this a portrait of the place, too? And, yes, the people in Times Square did have a different vibe than the people in Union Square."

    Grenader's crowd paintings have recently gone digital. In collaboration with other students and a professor at UCSD, she helped develop VideoMob, software that takes video portraits, instantly removes the backgrounds and then adds the images to a screen filled with other people who've recorded their video portraits, creating a real-time composition that looks like a living version of Grenader's paintings. The software was used during opening night at the Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair.

    "It's fun because you can instantly be in the art," she says, adding that they're looking into applications outside of art, such as using the software on activist sites like change.org. "Wouldn't it be awesome to actually see this huge crowd of people who feel strongly about these ideas?"


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