‘Portrait Project’ | The Daily Reflector



June 27, 2014

Nearly 20 portraits are mounted on the walls of the Pitt County Art Council at Emerge’s Wooten Gallery this summer, and while they’re all directly facing those who come to look at them, they don’t look back.

Artist Frank Benefield’s “Portrait Project” joins wooden sculptures by Craig Kassan as Emerge’s summer exhibitions.

Benefield, who received his bachelor’s in painting and drawing from East Carolina University in 2008, painted a series of portraits of family, friends and social media acquaintances with their eyes closed and their faces completely relaxed. The series was inspired by a photograph taken by Robert Mapplethorpe of painter Alice Neel, as well as a poem by William Habbington that Benefield said speaks to our potential of self-exploration and imagination: “Direct your right eye inward, and you’ll find A thousand regions in your mind Yet undiscovered, Travel them, and be expert in home – cosmography.”

As for the photo that inspired him, Benefield said in his artist statement that it “is haunting and intimate, leaving an unforgettable impression on the viewer.”

“His whole body of work is about self-reflection, self-exploration,” said Cathy Hardison, programs director at Emerge. “When your eyes are closed, your vision reflects back to what’s inside.”

The portraits, which are mostly oil on canvas, were painted based on photos taken by the subject.

“What’s really amazing is that he’s got these excellent portraits and he did them mostly from pictures from people’s phones, which isn’t the best source,” said Hardison, who attended ECU with Benefield and knows him well enough to be one of the subjects in the Portrait Project. “His portraits have definitely gotten technically better over the years, so it’s really kind of exciting for me, personally, to see him grow.”

Benefield’s work joins that of Craig Kassan as the summer’s featured exhibitions at Emerge.

The organization approached Kassan to ask him if he would be interested in exhibiting his work after he submitted one of his wooden pieces for the March 2013 “On the Wall” exhibition, for which he won third place.

This is Kassan’s first exhibition, but he has another planned at the Imperial Center in Rocky Mount.

“Many artists approach us and ask ‘what do we have to do to exhibit in the gallery?’” Hardison said. “It’s very rare that we seek them out. So that’s kind of special.

“I don’t even know if he would think about exhibiting his work if no one had approached him.”

Hardison said that Kassan’s work stood out as different from what Emerge often sees submitted for the “On the wall” competition.

“What sticks out the most about his work is that the craftsmanship is just gorgeous,” Hardison said. “They don’t seem to be very complex forms, but the simplicity and the craftsmanship of it are just phenomenal. I think that’s what attracted us.

“You don’t see a lot of wood artists that create works to go on walls,” she said. “It was nice to see some wall work that wasn’t necessarily painting or drawing.”