Painters depicts everyday Chattanoogans

Painters depicts everyday Chattanoogans

January 2nd, 2009 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

The young man walked across the room with a limp and, holding a wet paint brush, Mia Bergeron helped him as he settled into a swivel chair pressed against an emerald backdrop.

"Are you OK?" she said, watching him find his balance. He answered with a nod.

Few words were said between the painter and this sitter, but when the winter light cut through the window and across his face, small scars told his story.

"He talks a lot when we take breaks," said Ms. Bergeron, walking back from her painting to gain perspective on the brush strokes. "He says how lucky he is to live."

For more than 20 hours Ms. Bergeron has been painting Kirk Wilder, a handsome 25-year-old who was stabbed in the head four years ago at a fraternity house while attending the University of Alabama.

His portrait will be among nine Ms. Bergeron paints of everyday people in the city, she said.

Ms. Bergeron, originally from New York City, received a $16,000 MakeWork grant from CreateHere in May to paint the series of portraits, which are intended to depict Chattanooga's diversity.

The portraits will be displayed with stories of the individuals painted and sold as a group, and Ms. Burgeron said money will be donated to nine causes chosen by the sitters.

Along with Mr. Wilder, the series will include a portrait of a local homeless man named Sandy, known for selling flowers downtown, and a Gregorian monk, Brother Ron Fender, who is a well-known employee at the Community Kitchen.

Though they are not celebrities, Ms. Bergeron's sitters have lived extraordinary lives.

"I am looking for people who are fascinating," she said. "I thought Kirk's story was fascinating."

After suffering severe brain damage from the attack, Mr. Wilder had to relearn to talk, write and read. His motion and communication still are limited, but he works a job at the YMCA 20 hours a week, spends time with friends and hunts.

Mr. Wilder struggles to speak full sentences, though it is clear he is acutely aware of the words spoken to him. When asked why he is being painted, he answers in broken language:

"Story ... accident ... but now YMCA ... a lot of people ... hundreds and hundreds of people ... talking ... Mom and Dad helping a lot."

Ms. Bergeron is not the only local artist interested in documenting the lives of ordinary Chattanoogans, said Helen Johnson, a creative strategist at CreateHere.

"I think it is important because the arts offer many perspectives to the way we view our community and the way we interpret the world around us," she said.

Susan Seaton, an art teacher at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who received a $7,000 grant in May, plans to photograph and paint a mentally disabled man who lives on her street off Rossville Boulevard.

"I would like to show a part of the community that a lot of people in the community have been taught not to look at," Ms. Seaton said. "I know a lot of people don't visit me because I live there. I don't want to be sentimental about it. There is a level of survival."

Ms. Johnson said art in and about Chattanooga is essential to help residents see their community and know their neighbors.

"It is so easy to get wrapped up in our own day to day, and the arts gives us a way to look at other people's realities," she said.