As 2015 came to a close, Juneau artist MK MacNaughton finished a art project that portrayed 52 of her fellow community members—or, a portrait a week for a year.
MacNaughton picked her subjects not for how they look, but for what they do, where they do it, and how hard they work at it. On 18×18-inch archival acid free paper, she used charcoal to drawn portraits of a seldom recognized group of people.
A construction site in the middle of winter in a city in a rainforest in Alaska is a unique place to find inspiration for an art project.
“There were some guys working on the district building and it was January I think.”
It may sound lackluster, but MK MacNaughton saw potential.
It was like sideways rain, horrible snow, slush, windy, and they were there everyday. I drove by in my cozy little car, and went to my cozy little studio and I thought I should draw these guys.
From there, the possibilities multiplied. An electrician, a fisherman, a midwife, a hospital custodian, a landscaper, detox support staff, a postal carrier, a counselor, a welder—MacNaughton says her subjects work in often not-recognized professions all over Juneau, and have
“Exceptional tenacity, or work ethic, or work hard jobs in the elements.”
She then conceived the portrait-a-week idea, which would include an interview and photograph of the subject. She got started, and hung her first portrait at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center the first week of January 2015.
“I was kind of flattered really.”
Meet Sherman Johnson–he’s portrait 33 of 52. He’d been recommended to MacNaughton by Beth Weldon — a fire fighter — portrait 17 of 52. He’s been welding, fitting and fabricating since he was a teenager. He says the work he does is hard to see because it make’s things look…normal.
“Ideally, you shouldn’t tell I was there. It should look like it just came out, you know that things were just supposed to be like that. But I’m proud of my work and I’m proud of what I do. I try and do a nice job on things. You know, the quality of what I do is the driving thing for me.”
Among other jobs, Juneau’s power company has hired Johnson to weld in the tunnels of their hydroelectric plant and to install a new valve on a major dam.
He’s repaired and modified countless fishing boats, and is helping with the new State Library, Archives and Museum. He says a lot of work in the trades is like his— essential but invisible.
“You know and I think that’s how a lot of these working people that MK found — that’s how they are. They get down and go do their stuff, and if it means putting on your rain gear, it mean’s putting on your rain gear. You realize there’s so much more of the world and so many people doing so many little things that your just don’t notice.”
MacNaughton sat down with each subject and asked them questions about their work, and even personal questions about challenges in their lives and dreams for the future. Then she took the picture. She says knowing the person informed her drawings; Johnson appreciated the interview too.
“It was neat because it was in my office where she took the picture and I was on my chair and even though I was expecting to get my picture taken I thought it caught more of what I probably look like, as opposed when you’re thinking about getting your picture taken or you’re at a party and you’re with some people and everybody is smiling and doing the thing. This was a picture of where, this is my place. This is where I am most comfortable. So yeah, it was funny. Made me smile. Still makes me smile. Makes me laugh everyday.”
He’s right, you can’t help but smile when you look at his portrait.
“I’ve been trying to put up some pictures lately, so I’ll find a place for myself that’s, you know, not right as you walk in the front door, like ‘Here I am!’ But I liked it.”
MacNaughton likes Johnson’s portrait, and the whole project, too. She says there’s usually a gift at the end of her projects, or the answer to something personal she’s trying to figure out. In this case, she decided the time was right to transition from working at a non-profit, to teaching and exhibiting fulltime.
“I just turned 51, and I’m thinking about retirement, and my teenage boys are heading off to college, and I realize it’s a transition time for me and all these questions about your goals and hopes and difficult times in your past and dreams for the future—so I think this project has been kind of a way to give myself the courage to keep doing what I love doing.”
MacNaughton gave each portrait to her subjects for free. She says the portraits took about seven hours to create. So seven times 52 portraits — that’s 364 hours. She didn’t have a grant, or make any money, which isn’t going to help send her kids to college.
At least the next time she needs a welder, or an electrician, or a landscaper, she’ll know who to call. She may even get a good deal.