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Crown Heights Artist to Paint Neighborhood Faces in Free Portrait Project

 Artist Rusty Zimmerman hopes to paint 200 Crown Heights residents as part of a year-long project.
Free Portrait Project: Crown Heights
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CROWN HEIGHTS — How do you paint a portrait of a neighborhood?

Local artist Rusty Zimmerman has an idea — paint 200 of its residents, for free.

Zimmerman, a professional portrait painter and resident of Crown Heights for five years, is taking a stab at doing exactly that in “The Free Portrait Project” an effort he hopes to begin over the next year.

The idea, he said, started when he began painting friends and neighbors in the area in four-hour sessions to improve his portrait skills, giving away the artwork to his subjects.

“The project was borne out of wanting the rewards that came from being able to give a gift of a portrait to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it,” he said. “I found a tremendous value in that.”

Now, he wants to paint at least 200 Crown Heights residents, religious leaders and political figures over the next 12 months, seeking support through grants, an online fundraising campaign and donations of all kinds from local businesses.

“I want to ensure … that the outreach we perform to engage with the community works to accurately reflect the makeup of Crown Heights, the demographics, the range, different cultural elements,” he said.

Community support has already come in the form of donations to a fundraising raffle from local bars like Covenhoven, Catfish and Berg’n, the gift of space from local gallery Five Myles, which will host portrait sittings, the Classon Avenue venue Friends and Lovers, host of the project’s official launch party with soul singer Eli Paperboy Reed next weekend, and help with subject recruitment from Community Board 8.

“This project wouldn’t be possible without community involvement,” he said.

And when it's done, he said, hopefully neighborhood spots will host the portraits as they are finished. The Crown Heights Mediation Center, Covenhoven, Shoestring Press and Art Cafe have already committed to showing the paintings, he said.

“The idea is to create a ubiquitous presence throughout the neighborhood where people walk around and they say, ‘Oh, I keep seeing these portraits everywhere I go. What is this?’” he said.

That, he said, will open up a dialogue about what the community is right now — and how it’s changing.

“It’s about painting a portrait of this place through its people by documenting who we are now, amid gentrification and rapidly shifting demographics, to document a cross section of the community and, in doing so, quietly upend the tradition of portraiture just being reserved for a wealthy few.”

The launch of the project’s fundraising campaign will be held on Saturday, April 18 at Friends and Lovers at 641 Classon Ave. Tickets to the event are $15. Those interested in getting involved can visit the project’s website or donate through IndieGoGo