Past Leaders & Present Portraits at Hill Center’s Young Artists Gallery

Photograph By
Amanda Swift

Portraits of African-American leaders on view in the Hill Center Young Artists Gallery. 

What do George Washington Carver, Ida B. Wells, Daniel Hale Williams, Granville Woods, Matthew Henson, Shirley Chisholm, Jackie Robinson, Billie Holiday, and Rosa Parks have in common – besides being African-American icons? They are all the subjects of portraits by students in Amanda Swift’s art classes at Tyler Elementary School (1001 G St. SE). Swift introduced them to portraiture through a study of Mickalene Thomas’ paintings of African-American women. Thomas is a contemporary artist, with works on view in local museums including the National Portrait Gallery. Swift chose her as an example of a living African-American who supports herself through her art, and also because “her style lends itself nicely to students’ creativity with bright colors, patterned background, glitter, and gems.”

Students were given a selection of images and biographies from a wide range of historical figures, and asked to choose someone with whom they felt connected in some way. Caroline was inspired by Bessie Coleman because “she was determined to do something and she did it and didn't stop trying.” Santiago painted Richard Wright “because he is a very good guy and he stands for other people.”

Swift’s goals for her students were how to plan a portrait using eye, nose, and mouth lines, and to learn tricks for representing facial features. According to Swift, students also came to understand “how leaders that are no longer with us influence their life today.” Her students clearly got the message. The project, as Santiago says, is an opportunity for “showing my heart to the people who helped it be good here.” Or, as Nate quotes his subject, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can.”

The portraits were executed on paper, in paint and marker, with the addition of patterned papers, embellishments, and magazine clippings. Each one reflects the artist’s unique vision and the inspirational power of the subject.

“Past Leaders, Present Portraits” will hang in the Young Artists Gallery on the ground floor at Hill Center, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, through the end of April. Swift encourages you to “come out to see the students finished portraits … They have a lot of personality!” Clearly the same could be said of her students. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to see their creativity on display.

Tyler Elementary School students at work on their portraits.