Art: A 10-year mission to paint everyone in St. David’s

image source, Graham Hurt-wood

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The sitters come in a variety of ways – sometimes Graham asks people in the shops

Ten years ago, artist Graham Hurt-Wood set himself a major challenge.

He decided to paint a personal portrait of each resident of the city where he lived.

Luckily for him that town was St Davids in Pembrokeshire, one of the smallest in England, with around 1,800 residents.

But it is still an enormous task.

A decade after his decision, Graham is at 1,000 portraits, and the City of Portraits project is growing as the scope of his ambition expands, rather than shrinking.

A decade ago, he had already collected about 100 portraits of people he knew when personal tragedy intervened to give life to the epic journey he was about to embark on.

image source, Graham Hurt-wood

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Debbie’s portrait, completed after her death, was part of Graham’s motivation to start City of Portraits.

A good friend and fellow artist with cancer asked him to paint her, not knowing that the portrait would be finished after her death.

Graham explained: “I met this lovely girl called Debbie 10 years ago.

„When she found out she had cancer, she said, 'Oh you should do a portrait.’

„She didn’t think that was the end. So I did a whole series of paintings and things, and unfortunately the portrait turned out to be a posthumous one.

image source, Graham Hurt-wood

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Graham presents the portraits as large composites

“One of his legacies for me was to take portraits as something to really focus on.

„The whole story begins [her]. Although I had done some portraits before, the real project, City of Portraits, came into being around the time of her death.”

At the time Graham thought the job would take him five to 10 years.

But now he says the project, which pays homage to his adopted hometown, will continue.

image source, Good pictures

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The city takes its name from St. David’s Cathedral, where Graham hopes to display artwork on its walls.

Originally from Gosport, Hampshire and partly raised in Northern Ireland, he moved to the small town after studying art at Camberwell School of Art and the Royal Academy in London.

He was „a bit lost” at this point and though he had only been to St David’s once, he thought he would visit for a summer in the 1980s.

„So I did, I moved here. I bought a house and that was the beginning of my venture in St. Davids,” he explained.

image source, Graham Hurt-wood

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Graham Hurt-Wood started the City of Portraits project on a whim 10 years ago

City of Portraits is a labor of love, a side project to Graham’s main work.

He said: “I’m also focusing on other projects, which are based around painting landscapes here, seascapes, and they’re quite big, so everything is very time-consuming.

„When I do small portraits, it’s about the essence of the character.

“It’s about a ephemeral connection with someone, and each portrait has a little story, whether it’s someone talking about their life or something funny, but it’s a specific account of each character.

image source, Good pictures

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The city takes its name from St. David’s Cathedral, where Graham hopes to display artwork on its walls.

„They’re very intense, but beautifully intense.”

His subjects come in different ways. With some word of mouth, sometimes it’s as simple as approaching people in stores and asking if they’d like to take a portrait.

„People always say yes. I’ve only had one or two people say no,” he explained.

„It accumulates that way.”

Having started with a focus on St Davids, Graham is now expanding his horizons.

„The whole project is evolving. I’ve really brought the peninsula around St. Davids. It’s part of the community.

image source, Graham Hurt-wood

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Graham was asked to paint an under 11 rugby team for this project, some of their portraits are shown on this board.

„So I do people who are involved in St David’s and people I know say, 'I live well in Trephine, I live in Portcain, do I count?’

Now he has collected around 1,000 portraits – „enough to show people I’m committed” – and is in talks with St David’s Cathedral about holding a double exhibition of the works there next year.

„I was talking to the cathedral and had an idea about putting them in the tower of the cathedral,” he said.

„There’s been a lot of positive responses to that as well. I’ll integrate that by showing the portraits in the cathedral – where they have exhibitions – or maybe have them in the town hall. It has a very large exhibition space.”

His oldest subject, now 100, was in his 90s when painted, and although Graham mostly focused on adults, he also painted the city’s under-11 rugby team as part of the project.

image source, Graham Hurt-wood

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Klaus’s portrait speaks movingly of his experience of fleeing the Nazis while seated

Not everyone talks about themselves when painted, but one sitter, Klaus, has been with him for years.

„There was this character who was a refugee from the war and he talked about his past and he had to leave Germany. It was a very moving story and it empowered me,” he said.

“I think this particular portrait took me eight hours, and he spoke slowly for the whole eight hours.

„He was probably 83 at the time and hearing stories like this made me think of what other people have done in the past. It humbled me. I was very emotional when I left.”

Although Graham has already lived in St. Davids for a long time, undertaking this project has brought him closer to his adopted home.

„Each portrait has made me feel a part of the community,” she said.

„This old lady said something to me when she came to sit for me. She said, we’re really proud of you Pak (dear), and that meant a lot to me.”

The community still lacks a face, and that is Graham’s. He hopes to get another artist to paint him as part of it.

He saw no end to the project.

„I’m never going to retire. It’s a passion that will never leave me.”

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