Distance Credit: Rebecca Baruc

When Rebecca Baruc was 11 years old, she began to show her drawings from her journal to a teacher, Barbara Herzberg. For eight years, Baruc would study alongside Herzberg where she would focus on still lifes and draw from reality. It wouldn’t be until college—at Skidmore in New York—that she would begin to dive into abstraction, sculpture, conceptual art, and performance art. Growing from this exploration, she began to draw the people she loves.

But the pandemic halted that.

“I had just left a full-time job as music program curator at Uncommon Ground to pursue my visual art career and was excited to build community through pastel portraiture. Strangely enough, COVID-19 gave me exactly what I had asked for,” says Baruc. Even though things slowed down and gave Baruc the chance to build her creative career she had to “halt the pastel portrait project, a social and intimate process by nature,” due to quarantine. “Isolated, I nurtured the relationships I could control—that to myself and my art,” she says.

As a response to little human contact, Baruc worked with reference photos and videos of herself in motion. She drew the figurative gestures, scanned them, and digitally collaged them.

This process resulted in Baruc creating more intentionally, “and with much longer bouts of existential dread in between productive moments.” During the pandemic, she was able to incorporate a daily discipline. She says, “Key word: practice; lots of failing involved. I certainly became more empathetic to myself, slowed down, and realized nothing monumental happens in a rush nor in a vacuum.”

“The Color of Normal” opened June 17 at a new Pilsen space created by Chicago Public School educators called the Juliet Art House. In the exhibition, pastel portraits of Baruc’s friends—who are also artists or creative people—line the walls. Baruc’s process involved inviting the artists over, having a cup of tea, and encouraging them to make their own music playlist while she set up the lighting. “The portraits were completed in three hours. The subject would sit for 20 minutes, then five-minute breaks. It’s actually pretty arduous and intense. Most people find themselves going into a pretty meditative state. And because I know these people, I help prompt a certain pose or gesture that denotes their personality. And of course I make sure they are physically and mentally as comfortable as can be. The result is something deeply personal,” she says.

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Baruc says that when she decided to exhibit these works, she had to create something more meaningful than a display of her friends. “I wanted to take these 2D images and help tell a 3D story of these people and the past year, helping viewers also reflect on an inimitable time in their lives,” she explains. After she drew her friends, she decided to incorporate interviews after everyone was vaccinated. Baruc says the experience was healing and very therapeutic.

When you enter the gallery, the pastel portraits of Baruc’s subjects greet you, alongside QR codes that folks can scan in order to listen to recorded interviews with the artists. On the labels for each piece, there is an excerpted quote as well. The piece Dan has a quote that says, “I think I’m just mourning that sense of community I had before everything happened, when I was still stoked about posting and getting responses from people . . .” Next to the piece Jordanna the subject says, “What I am hoping to find is acceptance for myself, for who I am in all of my flaws, and I want to come to peace with myself, and maybe discover some truth about myself,” when discussing their upcoming hike on the Appalachian Trail.

JaelaCredit: Rebecca Baruc

On the back wall of the gallery are paintings that touch on themes of nudity, intimacy, and relationships. In one piece, two figures are intertwined on an abstracted background. Geometric shapes fill up the background space and hard lines outline the bodies. As Baruc notes earlier, she worked with images and videos of herself moving in order to create some of the digital prints. Her silhouette creates a shape as she draws a background with similar outlines and curvatures to her body. Here, Baruc is examining herself. In the first half of the show we meet Baruc’s colleagues and friends; in the back half of the gallery, we meet the artist.

The two halves of the exhibition don’t necessarily exist separately. Sure, they utilize different mediums (one being digital and the other being pastels) and the subject matter is slightly different but it is uniquely Baruc’s work. Her style is colorful—she works with vibrant hues to maximize detail and shadow. And her strokes evoke movement, even in her subjects who are posing from the artist. Connecting these two parts of the exhibition is exciting and shows the vastness of Baruc’s talents—from capturing herself to capturing her peers.

“I hope these portraits paired with the interviews, as well as the self-portraits in the latter half of the show, make small but significant shifts in the hearts of the viewers,” says Baruc. “Motivating the execution and editing of the interviews, the selection of quotes on display, and the overall curation of the show, is a deep love for the people around me, and a deep desire to communicate our zeitgeist.”   v