Art of the portrait

Karla Hayward
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MUN's resident artist makes a moving memory

Skydiving, visiting the Great Wall, possessing a pair of Manolos ... we all have items on our bucket list (our "to do before we die" list, for those unfamiliar with the term). One can assume lens-based artist Peter Wilkins has similar ideas. But unlike most of us, Wilkins just crossed one item off that list. Well, sort of ...

Wilkins, current artist in residence at Memorial Uuniversity, wanted to create the world's largest group kinetic portrait in a snowstorm. He asked students and staff to present themselves on the steps of the University Centre Thursday afternoon. Then he crossed his fingers and prayed to the snow gods.

Peter Wilkins focuses on his subjects at Memorial University Thursday. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Skydiving, visiting the Great Wall, possessing a pair of Manolos ... we all have items on our bucket list (our "to do before we die" list, for those unfamiliar with the term). One can assume lens-based artist Peter Wilkins has similar ideas. But unlike most of us, Wilkins just crossed one item off that list. Well, sort of ...

Wilkins, current artist in residence at Memorial Uuniversity, wanted to create the world's largest group kinetic portrait in a snowstorm. He asked students and staff to present themselves on the steps of the University Centre Thursday afternoon. Then he crossed his fingers and prayed to the snow gods.

Unfortunately, the event missed being painted by Sheila's heavy brush by mere hours, but Wilkins was in fine spirits post-shoot nonetheless. "I'm delighted! It went excellently," said Wilkins, "apart from the lack of snow."

The portrait

It went down like this. About 115 people gathered on the steps of the University Centre at 3:30 p.m.; department heads, administrative staff, faculty and students.

Wilkins stood at the ready with his videocamera. He asked his subjects to remain out of frame for a few beats then flow smoothly into the space. Once there, they stood for a moment, pondering questions Wilkins had asked them to hold in their minds.

"I asked them to think on their key experiences at university. From the first time they found out they had a place - whether as a student or a job, to what they hoped to achieve in their time there, to their finest and worst moments, that sort of thing," he explained. Memories mulled and aspirations aired, the group then dispersed out of frame once more, leaving only emptiness by about 3:45 p.m.

"I'm always slightly amazed when something you've imagined becomes real like this," Wilkins said, sounding rather chuffed about it all.

But the absence of snow did change the work somewhat, he noted.

"It didn't have that kind of calmness that snow brings. But," he was quick to add, "the work found a calmness anyway. So many people coming together in a mass and thinking silently."

And, in case you were wondering, why in a snowstorm, Wilkins said, "Having these people come out and stand in a raging snowstorm would be a testament to their tenacity, their courage, their spirit."

Also, he said the fact that everything normally stops and shuts down in a storm interested him, "People batten down the hatches, not head out for a photo."

Kinetic portraits: a primer

This portrait is one of many kinetic works Wilkins has created.

His most well-known works to date featured prominent writers like Margaret Atwood, Yaan Martel and Douglas Coupland shown silently reacting to a read-back of questions they themselves had answered. These intriguing works were shown at The Rooms in 2008 and were recently purchased by the Portrait Gallery of Canada.

And yes, kinetic portraiture is just as it sounds: a portrait that moves. Rather than capturing his subjects on still film, Wilkins uses video. But his works are not simply short films, he clarified.

"They're looped. They don't have a plot, or sound, or a beginning and an end like a film."

Neither are his portraits meant to be viewed linearly or even necessarily in one sitting.

He hopes people approach them as they would a "regular" still portrait: something to be viewed over time, something in which you might perceive different things at different times.

Wilkins said being MUN's inaugural artist in residence has greatly influenced his work, and this work in particular.

"The word university is derived from the Latin 'Universitas' which means 'the whole.' And a university is all about people coming together. So what better way to display that essence than with a group of people coming together for a portrait?" he said.

And if Wilkins' vision was for this portrait to be an encapsulation of the university experience - that of a group of individuals coming together to share in an endeavour, becoming one for a moment in time, then again dispersing to the winds - he has indeed succeeded.

To learn more about Peter Wilkins and his work, visit www.wilkins.ws.

Organizations: University Centre, The Rooms, Portrait Gallery

Geographic location: Canada

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  • Ricardo
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    I have seen a number of Wilkins' kinetic portraits and look foward to thisn one as well. I think he is one of our most intriguing artists and I encourage others to check out his work.

  • Ricardo
    July 01, 2010 - 20:04

    I have seen a number of Wilkins' kinetic portraits and look foward to thisn one as well. I think he is one of our most intriguing artists and I encourage others to check out his work.