Lisa Mistry has painted portraits of dozens of fellow Petersburg citizens. Clockwise from left: Jasmine Mills, artist; Russell Kvasnicka, director at Petersburg Area Art League; Kenneth Johnson, VSU student; Marnelle Fanfan, city employee (Images courtesy Lisa Mistry)
Petersburg, in recent months, has come to be defined by a string of ever-more depressing numbers: a $12 million budget gap. Debt totaling $14 million. A proposed $4 million cut in school spending.
Often overlooked are the people who live there and who love their city — the volunteers, the City Hall employees, the Virginia State University students. Artist Lisa Mistry felt the call to honor them, with a project called simply “Portraits of Petersburg.”
It began with an unexpected request. A year ago, Mistry took a temporary job repainting the city’s 30-year-old wooden Christmas decorations. A Public Works employee, carrying in some holiday greenery, asked her offhandedly, “Could you paint me?”
“Yes,” Mistry told him. The truth was, her most recent piece of artwork — other than the holiday decorations — had been painted more than a decade ago. Joint pain caused by fibromyalgia and food allergies had forced Mistry to put down her brushes. Then, in 2007, Mistry’s father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “That stopped everything,” she says. Fortunately her father recovered, and Mistry found ways to manage her pain.
When Mistry offered to paint his portrait, the Public Works employee grew suddenly shy. But his request sparked the idea of capturing Petersburg’s faces.
Mistry began inviting people to have their portraits done. Sixty people signed up, and Mistry has been painting nearly nonstop. She charges her subjects nothing, and is holding an online fundraiser to raise money for supplies. If she hits her $2,400 goal, she says, she’ll be able to give each person their portrait. Even if she doesn’t, she’s capping the price at $100 each.
Mistry has been working in Old Towne Studio 7, an art-instruction space and gallery opened by Denise Tipton, in July. Each portrait is made from a photograph and takes her two days, more or less; one to sketch and flesh out the face, one to make corrections and polish. When her right hand gets tired, she switches to the left.
She chose to replace the background of each portrait with neutral colors. Instead, she focuses on the details of expression — a knowing look, a reluctant smile. “I want my portraits to be lively, like the people who came in here,” she says.
As the collection grew, so did the connections. Artist Chris Jiggetts remembers visiting the gallery and being surprised to see five familiar faces on the wall — people he saw on the streets of Petersburg every day. “It was just captivating,” says Jiggetts, who grew up in Dinwiddie. So he volunteered to sit for a portrait, too.
Most of her subjects had never had their portrait painted, but few seemed uncomfortable, Mistry says. Instead, they spontaneously offered details about their lives: “They sit there, and they’ll tell you what they do, or how they work, or the last time they got paid, or if they’re going to have a job.”
In many cases, the answers were grim. A 93-year-old retired teacher used to work at the Siege Museum, until it closed because there was no money for repairs. The owner of a secondhand boutique was forced to shut her doors. Former City Manager William E. Johnson III was dismissed in March. Another city employee told Mistry he hadn’t been paid in six months.
Yet in the portraits, they smile.
“One thing I can say about everybody that I’ve met, and everybody in this town, is they’re all trying. They’re all pulling together. They’re all trying to solve this,” Mistry says.
Marnelle Fanfan, a portrait subject who is Petersburg’s events coordinator, has the unenviable job of managing the city’s social media. She can’t even give away free (donated) event tickets without someone making a snide comment. “I kind of feel like everybody’s losing hope,” she says — but she keeps trying.
On Nov. 11, the city’s hosting a preview of River Street Live, a summertime art and performance series that will launch in 2017. The goal, Fanfan says, is to “get people to think about other things than the situation that we’re in.”
That’s what Mistry hopes to do for the city, too. “They want something positive for Petersburg. They want good news for Petersburg. And I thought, why not art?”
“Portraits of Petersburg” will be exhibited Oct. 14 at the Union Train Station in Petersburg, then on display at Old Towne Studio 7, 116 W. Bank St.