100 watercolor portraits, 100 stories with them

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Brenda Zlamany is no stranger to painting people’s portraits. But when it came to working with residents at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, she needed a little push from her daughter.

“Paint what you see,” the artist’s daughter said.

Zlamany took that advice to heart as she worked on 100 watercolor portraits for “Brenda Zlamany: 100/100,” an exhibition at the Hebrew Home’s Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection through Jan. 7. The exhibition celebrates the Hebrew Home’s centennial this year.

The team at the Derfner Judaica Musuem sought out Zlamany after learning about her project, “888: Creating a Portrait of Taiwanese Aboriginals,” an exploration of indigenous Taiwanese individuals she met on a trip to the Asian country funded by the Fullbright Program. Zlamany also completed “366: A Watercolor Portrait a Day,” where she met and painted people in the United Arab Emirates. 

As an artist mostly focused on paintings, Zlamany said these experiences made her realize that “through one-on-one contact, you could uncover things that you can’t uncover through photography and conversations.”

This realization led Zlamany to accept the Hebrew Home’s offer for her to take part in its centennial celebration project. From there, she commuted from Williamsburg to Riverdale this summer to paint seven to eight portraits every day.  

Emily O’Leary, the associate curator at the Derfner Judaica Museum, said the exhibition was a team effort as the museum worked with the facility’s social services and nursing staffs to pick residents who they believed would be good candidates for the project. 

O’Leary also sat with Zlamany as she sketched and painted the 100 residents. Each session took between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on Zlamany’s conversations with residents as she painted them.

“For me as an outside observer … it was this very intimate experience,” O’Leary said. “It was just really interesting as they spoke and as the composition evolved at the same time.”  

Zlamany called the experience of talking to residents about their personal lives — some sharing intimate details about being Holocaust survivors or losing loved ones — as “emotionally challenging.” Although she reciprocated with details from her own life, it was still a combination of a cathartic and a learning experience.

“I became more emboldened as time went on, I wasn’t afraid to ask people” about their lives, Zlamany said. “This project is for them, but it’s also for me to learn as much as I can. And it was a population that I usually don’t get to see.” 

Looking back now, Zlamany said she can’t believe she completed the project because of how fast-paced it was.

“When I do these projects, there’s no rejects,” she said. “There’s no touching up later. I have to accept what I get, because they’re very much about a document of an experience, something that’s happening in the moment. They’re not about fine-tuning and perfecting.”

Despite the speed, there were still memorable moments for Zlamany, like working with some residents who were unable to communicate verbally. 

“I would see them look for (the colors) on their clothes” when I was painting, she said. “And through this kind of physical, almost ballet of painting, I would uncover their thoughts.”

Sylvia Sutton, a Hebrew Home resident, is the 100th portrait in the exhibit. She recalls being a bit nervous when it came time to sit down with Zlamany, but ended up enjoying it.

“It feels special to be part of this group and be number 100 on the 100th anniversary,” Sutton said.  “I was so happy for (Zlamany) when she was finally finished.”

Zlamany wants Derfner Judaica Museum visitors to realize each resident is an individual with personality while learning a lesson about “aging, loss, and what’s really important.”

“I didn’t come away morbid,” Zlamany said. 

“I came away feeling that life was really celebratory and just was something you could control. It’s not something that’s given to you, it’s something that you create and you make happen for yourself.”

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