Carollyn James has created a way to look Takoma Park in the face.
Or one hundred ways, depending on how you look at it.
They range from a grinning man with dreadlocks to a pensive woman in a straw hat.
One woman’s face is an open book of enthusiasm. A young boy gives a lopsided smile.
“We’re really a gold mine of faces,” said James, who moved to Takoma Park in the 1970s.
After more than two years of painting the acrylic faces on 10-inch-by-12-inch canvasses, James recently completed her project “Takoma Park: A Portrait” — a feat she said involved a responsibility for each portrait.
“It sounds really arty farty, but there’s like a communion that comes,” James said. “When you’re doing somebody’s portrait, it’s more than a responsibility because you’re kind of creating that person on canvas.”
“I wanted to capture their soul in one way or another,” she added later. “I never do, but I like the process.”
The content of the portraits, none of which is identified with a name, is tied to the 2010 U.S. Census findings of Takoma Park’s roughly 17,000 residents. The faces thus reflect a sampling of sorts of the races and ages of the city’s men and women and children, while also capturing a personality that runs deeper.
“Takoma Park is just this visually rich place when it comes to faces,” she said. “I mean, we are about as diverse as you can get.”
James, who teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages, has been painting for about 10 years, but has a love of art that goes back far longer.
As a teenager, she said, she spent her weekends at the Louvre Museum in Paris, where her family lived for several years, and has been no stranger to museums since.
James — who voiced a fervent admiration of portrait artist Lucian Freud — said she always has found herself drawn to the human face.
“To me, the definition of a painting is very classical,” she said. “I like to have people in it, and I like the story aspect. I can’t get a story unless I put people in it.”
James said it was at The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where she saw a similar project — in which an artist painted the faces of her town — that inspired her portraits.
James recalled being “overwhelmed” by the sight of the faces placed together.
“When you get a feel for who lives there, then you really get a better feel for the place,” she said.
For her project, which began in March 2010, James said she decided to go big to achieve the impact she wanted. The number also made it easier to follow the census data, she said.
She would discover quickly, however: one hundred paintings is a lot.
“When I hit number 72, I was like, ‘Oh my God, how much longer?’” she said, laughing.
Among the many faces — painted from photographs James took — are some well-known Takoma Park residents: Mayor Bruce Williams, Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot and State Del. Heather Mizeur, to name a few.
Others are James’ friends and neighbors.
“I’m always out walking the dog, so she just nabbed me,” said Sally Kern of Takoma Park.
Kern said her portrait, one of James’ final pieces, contains a prop that appears in only a few portraits.
“She said I only want you if you have a hat,” said Kern, who is known in the community for her signature straw hat.
Giaco Riggs, a 25-year city resident, said James, already a friend, was walking her dog by his house one day as she usually did, when she approached him with her request.
“I think she captured me,” Riggs said of his portrait.
Other portraits contain faces James said she had never seen before she started the project.
James said she would approach people as she came across them in the community, sometimes at a Fourth of July parade or a birthday party in a park.
“There’s one little Hispanic baby, he can’t be more than 9 months old and his mom is holding him, and I don’t think they know about this,” she said.
James said she would take about 30 photographs of each person, before selecting one to paint from.
The goal, she said, was to capture an image in which the person was relaxed.
“I was looking for a moment that would just really reflect who the people were and that would be engaging for the viewer,” James said.
The photos and the resulting portraits include a variety of angles, scales, expressions and poses.
“The last thing I wanted was to do sort of a yearbook wall,” she said.
With the last portrait completed in December, James decided to throw a party for those who lent their faces to the project, though some would be unable to attend.
Since she started the project, she said, one person moved up the coast. Another joined the Peace Corps in Zaire. Some people have died.
While she admitted a few days prior that she was anxious to see who would attend the party, James was happily reunited on Saturday with many of the live counterparts of her paintings at the Takoma Park Community Center.
Abbott Shea, James’ son, wore one of the “I am a face” stickers James had ready for the attendees (others wore “I know a face” stickers) and pointed out his portrait on the wall, as well as those of a few close friends he had grown up with in Takoma Park.
“To sum (the community) up in one hundred people, she’s done an excellent job,” he said.
Alice Sims, a 25-year resident of the city, said the varied portraits portray a point of time in the community that is “a fluid, mobile thing.”
“These are like a frozen moment, and the community’s a river,” she said.
Mayor Williams, who also attended the gathering, said he enjoyed the collection of portraits he called realistic and fascinating.
The challenge now, Williams said, is how to preserve the project. It might take some time and research before James can pass along the valuable portraits to the city.
“It’s my hope, and (James’) hope, that we find some way for the city to retain ownership of this, make it available,” he said.
Fourteen portraits already have traveled beyond the city, James said, and are on tour for two years in the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program.
Though James said she is glad to be done with the project and back working on larger canvasses, it is clear the project went beyond applying paint to canvas.
“I love my faces. I just love these people,” she said. “If I don’t know them, by the time that picture’s finished, I feel I know them.”