By COLlive reporter
Lubavitch residents of Crown Heights are being included in a local art project featuring 200 people who make up the fabric of the Brooklyn neighborhood.
Artist Rusty Zimmerman, who moved to Crown Heights 6 years ago, painted oil portraits and recorded interviews with fellow residents of all ages and walks of life.
Zimmerman sees the project as an oral history of the neighborhood and is planning for it to be exhibited in a local museum. To launch it, he hopes to hold a parade of the 200 people featured in the paintings.
Some of the portraits are currently on display at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and 10 local venues from storefronts to synagogues, designed to bring together all the communities of Crown Heights to promote dialogue.
“My events bring Hasids, hipsters and Haitians all under one roof to talk about the neighborhood,” Zimmerman says. “25 years after the infamous Crown Heights riots, what we have here is an overarching show of unity among members of the community.”
Zimmerman told COLlive that he draws inspiration from a resident that was billed the most influential rabbi in modern history. “Like the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, we are one community, not many communities,” he said. “This is our way of making one community.”
“The most poignant thing I found, as I recorded each person’s story, I asked them, what message do you have for the people of the neighborhood? And they all said the same thing: “Say hello to your neighbors.”
One of Zimmerman’s favorite portraits in the series is of “Charlie Buttons,” the colorful figure whose clothes are adorned in button-pins and attends all the life-cycle events in the neighborhood every day.
“I caught up with him at a wedding to ask him to sit for a portrait, and he arrived for his sitting with a bag of smoked fish he brought from having come straight from a bris,” Zimmerman says.
With the project nearly complete, Zimmerman has applied to exhibit the complete set of portraits and hold a celebration parade at the Brooklyn Museum on Eastern Parkway.
The artist started a petition to urge the museum to host this exhibition, and has support from Borough President Eric Adams, Council member Laurie Cumbo and Senator Jesse Hamilton.
Rabbi Shea Hecht, a resident and chairman of the NCFJE organization who is featured in one of the portraits, says he hopes the museum agrees to feature the exhibition.
“25 years to the day after the riots, and you’ve got 200 portraits and stories of Crown Heights and a parade of everyone marching together, and with marching bands? They should clear their calendar to show this work,” says Hecht.
Zimmerman says exhibiting the portraits at the Brooklyn Museum will also bring awareness of the museum and its offerings to many locals who do not take advantage of the world famous institution in their own backyard.
“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for the Brooklyn Museum,” he said. “I’ve heard from many residents, ‘I’ve never been to the museum, I always thought it wasn’t for me.’
“We anticipate an affirmative response and our exhibit and parade will herald a partnership that will make Brooklyn proud,” he added.
To sign the petition urging the Brooklyn Museum to exhibit the We Are Crown Heights project, click here.