Sharon Wozniak-Spencer, a local painter and grad student at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, knew she wanted her midpoint thesis to bring attention to community efforts to help those in need. For the last year and a half, Wozniak-Spencer has been capturing the essence of each individual she’s gotten to know through The Hope Center and Walking Tall Wilmington for her oil portrait series “Faces of Courage.” On Thursday, Aug. 10, Wozniak-Spencer will debut it at the Cameron Art Museum in the Weyerhaeuser Reception Hall.
“When I proposed my thesis idea to Randy Evans, the founder of the Hope Center, I knew I didn’t want to do the project without getting to know the person I would be painting,” Wozniak-Spencer says. “Randy was very helpful with breaking the ice in letting them know I was genuine, and not trying to take advantage in any way.”
Upon meeting each of her potential models, Wozniak-Spencer was careful not to pry too much into their lives with personal questions. Instead, she opened with her own family history of overcoming poverty and giving back to others.
“My mom, who is from Boston, came from abject poverty, and was in foster care for a very long time until she was adopted as an older child,” Wozniak-Spencer states. “The people who adopted her, my grandparents, were extremely generous, only adopting older children. My grandfather also came from poverty, and was entirely self-made. When he became successful, he wanted to put that toward helping others.”
Wozniak-Spencer’s mother continued her adoptive father’s example by volunteering at soup kitchens, hospitals and reading to children in need whenever she could. Wozniak-Spencer culled the same desires as her family in helping others. Her thesis provided a way to shine dignity on people working for a better life.
“The whole basis of my thesis was to work with this group of people and to show that there is beauty and significance in every human being,” Wozniak-Spencer states. “I put the same exact care, detail and understanding into their portraits as I would for a commissioned portrait.”
Most of her models were caught off guard when she tells them she would pay them for their time, as well as give them a copy of their portrait. “What cracks them up is that they think they have to pay me,” Wozniak-Spencer says. “When I tell them I’m going to pay them, sometimes they look baffled. I always tell them, though, that models have been paid throughout history because without them we wouldn’t have the art.”
After getting to know the models, Wozniak-Spencer photographed them inside The Hope Center, or in various spots downtown. Although most everything in the background of the portrait was realistically present, Wozniak-Spencer was careful to tone down wall-décor and other extraneous details, so as not to take away from the figure in the portrait. In her piece “The Embrace,” for instance, viewers can make out faint outlines of lockers fading into a dark wall.
“I mostly use oils when I paint, as they’re much easier to blend,” Wozniak-Spencer notes, “but for my piece ‘Just Another Day,’ I’ve also included a charcoal version.”
No matter the medium, Wozniak-Spencer has found the models are always thrilled with the results. “You do a project, and you know you’re doing it for good reason, but it’s interesting to hear other people’s responses and the ways it’s impacted them,” she says. “The models are all excited about the show and many of them have talked about attending.”
For Wozniak-Spencer, one of the most fulfilling aspects of her series is seeing how the models are uplifted by the portraits. As well she has endured friendships along the way.
“I go to the Anchor Church in downtown Wilmington, where a lot of people from The Hope Center and Walking Tall attend as well,” Wozniak-Spencer mentions. “Sometimes they stop me and we’ll catch up. It’s great to hear how they’ve been doing since we last saw one another.”
Wozniak-Spencer will present “Faces of Courage” at the Cameron Art Museum in the Weyerhaesuer Reception Hall on Thursday, Aug. 10, from 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. Admission is free to the general public; however, donations are appreciated for the Living Arts Scholarship Fund.