The Hippo


May 25, 2020








Kate Gridley and two of her 17 life-size oil portraits. Courtesy photo.

See Kate Gridley’s multimedia presentation

Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 S. Main St., Concord, in the Kimball House
When: Saturday, Jan. 3, at 7:30 p.m.
What: Gridley’s presentation will be like a TED Talk; the actual paintings will not be in attendance, but her multimedia presentation will include images of the paintings and recordings of the subjects. The performance is part of the Cap Center’s Salon Series, meant to bring artists and audiences together for thought-provoking lectures and performances in the intimate, Victorian-era Kimball House, which is attached to the Cap Center. The final lecture of the series occurs Jan. 23 and features composer Su Lian Tin.
Admission: $25
Contact:, 225-1111,

Portraits of youth
The story behind Millennials-inspired paintings

By Kelly Sennott

As visitors observe artist Kate Gridley’s multimedia presentation this Saturday, they’ll notice a few peculiarities. 

First, all 17 of the paintings featured in her presentation are portraits. They required four year’s worth of sittings, sketches, interviews and paint sessions. Photographs helped with clothing references, but the more time she had with the individuals, the better.
“You will find that people hold their emotions somewhere in the area around their mouth — tension, humor, sadness, whatever it is. And for that, I need people to actually sit and talk while I paint,” the Middlebury, Vermont, artist said. “Finding that likeness, that true likeness, turns out to be something very subtle. … It’s sort of unnameable. It doesn’t happen all the time, but that’s my goal.”
Another thing viewers will notice: the subjects in “Passing Through: Portraits of Emerging Adults” are Millennials. 
The actual paintings will not arrive in New Hampshire until next fall, when they’ll decorate the Lamont Gallery at Phillips Exeter Academy, but snapshots and stories behind the project will be available during Gridley’s multimedia presentation Saturday, Jan. 3, at 7:30 p.m., at the Capitol Center for the Arts. 
The event will be more like a TED Talk that covers the inspiration and intention of the project, which, around Vermont, has already sparked dialogue among hundreds of art-viewers since its summer 2013 reveal. Viewers find the show asks questions like: How do others see me? How do I present myself? Who am I, and how do we know what we know about another person? Students of all subjects — art, English, psychology — have been responding both creatively and in their own classrooms.
The installation also contains audio recordings by the young subjects themselves. Gridley began the project to enable them to be seen and heard.
“It has always annoyed me that older people are dismissive of teenagers and people in their early 20s,” Gridley said. “When people are teenagers, it’s actually a very rich time. It’s not always the happiest time, but it’s the first time they’re grappling with who they might be. … Part of me wanted to call to the fact that it’s really important to listen.”
Two specific experiences prompted the project. The first happened in 2008 during the national election. Gridley and her husband decided that, for the first time ever, they’d participate in campaigning. They got in the car and drove to Ohio to work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. 
They were startled but awed to find that their field bosses were between the ages of 20 and 24. 
“They were amazing. They were smart. Some of them left their jobs, their school, and came from all over the world to work on this campaign, because they were going to save the world,” Gridley said. “They had all this digital knowledge, and they were working in ways my husband and I never dreamed of. We found it very inspiring to become worker bees for bosses who were 35 years younger than us. It gave us a feeling that the up-and-coming generation was a force, and that made us very hopeful.”
The second experience occurred during a visit to the Frick Museum in New York City around the same time. She found a painting of a young aristocrat from 16th-century Italy painted by Agnolo Bronzini. The man in the painting already had an established career, wife, children and enough money to hire one of the most prominent painters of the day.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, things are so different now.’ Yes, it’s a different culture and a different time period, but my son, in contrast, was finishing up college and not sure which direction he wanted to go, and not sure how he was going to build a life,” Gridley said. “What changed? Why does it take longer to grow up now?”
So she decided to get to work. It was unusual; big fancy portraits are “not painted of this age group, ever,” Gridley said, but the project also allowed her to spend time with young people. Gridley and her husband are involved with the local Middlebury teen center, and at the project’s start, both Gridley’s sons fell in this age group.
“We love people that age,” Gridley said. “This is the age group in which everything is still possible. And that’s a good thing. I admire it.”
Gridley is also an established portrait artist. Her portfolio includes the official portraits of former Vermont governor Jim Douglas and Judge William K. Sessions III, and there’s talk she’ll soon paint a historic female portrait to hang in Concord’s Statehouse. She uses Renaissance painting techniques she perfected while studying in Florence; they begin as pencil sketches and evolve into marble statue-like paintings and then, with more thin layers, individuals with undeniable character.
“There are a million ways to paint a portrait, and mine are not what I’d call painters’ paintings. It’s not about big, juicy globs of paint. … It’s not about me as a painter. … I want it to be about the kids, and so it’s very smoothly and quietly painted,” Gridley said.
All 17 of her subjects have come through her Vermont house for one reason or another — some because of her involvement with the teen center, others because she also runs a youth group at her church. 
“I knew they would be unafraid to share their ideas with me,” Gridley said.
As seen in the January 1, 2015 issue of the Hippo. 

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