“It’s not every day you get to take a picture with a famous artist!” Angelique “Angie” Piwinski, one of the subjects of artist Elizabeth de Bethune, was all smiles as she posed alongside the artist and her portrait.
There was a vibrancy of the event that brought warmth to an otherwise frigid January day, both in the paintings and from the subjects themselves. A true community experience, where hugs and warm smiles abounded, the “Out in Yonkers” reception at the Museum Gallery at the White Plains Library on January 20th showcased a series of portraits of members of the Yonkers LGBTQIA+ community, as masterfully painted by local artist Elizabeth de Bethune.
“It started as a family thing; we all drew as little kids. I was one of 10. Dad was a college professor, and he would bring home tons of stacks of papers, and we’d all draw together,” Elizabeth recalled. From a young age, Elizabeth was interested in art as a collective experience, pursuing art along with her siblings. She went on to achieve a BA in Fine Art from Yale University in 1979 and an MFA in Painting and Drawing at SUNY Purchase in 1991. She was also an inaugural member of the Bronx River Art Center Artist Studio Program and a part of the YoHo Studios community. Elizabeth worked until her retirement as an Art Teacher at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College and as a Teaching Artist throughout NYC and Westchester County for 30 years. “I retired from teaching three years ago and got back into painting. I was interested in portraits and people. People in domestic situations,” Elizabeth said.
A Yonkers resident for 28 years, De Bethune’s art depicts everyday life, familiar people, places, and things, but singular in their specificity. For the “Out in Yonkers” project, she was inspired by a trip to Italy, especially the Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino, who is known for his oil-on-panel portraits of children. Despite these paintings being over 500 years old, the children still appear so young and vibrant. Like Bronzino, Elizabeth wanted her portrait painting to serve as a message in a bottle to the future.
It is really just about this being a slice of humanity and a slice that identifies LGBT people. Hopefully, in 500 years people from the community will see that. This is a population that needs visual advocacy—it needs to be seen in its complexity, in its ordinariness, and extraordinariness.
De Bethune centered on her hometown of Yonkers, which she describes as a city with a “small-town feel,” for her studies for this project. Her process for each portrait was to have the subject sit for a few hours, in a way that was comfortable for them, where she’d do a large preliminary sketch. She’d then use acrylic-based paints on paper to get an idea of the scale proportions of everyone’s body. She asked people to think about what they wanted to wear—if they wanted to make a statement about gender or stick with something they felt comfortable in. As this process would take a few hours, Elizabeth talked to her subjects during the project, getting to know them better.
She then took photographs—this was for expediency for final portraits. “I like to make pattern-shaped compositions with my paintings and photography allows me to see those patterns better.” Over 3 ½ to 4 months, Elizabeth created 12 portraits of Yonkers residents, each with a colorful background. “I’m a sucker for saturated color. If you’ve got some paint in that tube, get it out there.”
Subjects include notable Yonkers residents like former city council majority leader, current Director of Constituent and Government Affairs for the City of Yonkers, and the first openly gay elected official in Yonkers, Michael Sabatino, along with his husband Robert Voorheis, a founding member of YonkersPride. Likewise, Angelique Piwinski served on the Landmarks Preservation Board 2009—2019, was the first openly transgender person to serve on the Vestry of the 325-year-old Saint John’s Episcopal Church, and became co-chair of Mayor Spano’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, implementing YonkersPride in 2018, and was then appointed by the New York State Governor as a World Pride Ambassador representing Yonkers in 2019.
De Bethune’s series spotlights essential, but quiet, people living their lives, and also includes portraits of her daughter, Maeve, her partner, Eileen, and her elderly neighbors, Renee and Joan.
“Some of the people I already knew, some I had met for the first time, I let my partner come up with who to talk to.”
At Saturday’s reception, all the aforementioned subjects were proudly in attendance, not only excited to be pieces of art but to have been chosen to be painted by Elizabeth. Guests marveled at the lively portraits; a neighborhood depicted in oil paint and, though the event was in White Plains, it felt as though the heart of Yonkers was transplanted right into that room.
And what of the city itself? De Bethune has this to say:
Yonkers is as welcoming as it might be on an official level. Anyone in the community will tell you that the act of coming out is an ongoing process, and there will always be situations that make you feel devalued. But I don’t have to think about it a lot. More could always be done, but Yonkers is a very welcoming place.
“Out in Yonkers” is on display from Jan 4 to Feb 29. It can be seen any time the library is open.