Carolyn Sherer wants you to meet Lucy.
Lucy is a 15-year-old girl who self-identifies as trans. She’s wearing a dress of white and tan stripes with a darker print on top. And she’s not actually here in person. Lucy is the subject of a photograph Sherer made. And at the moment, Lucy is at the Tacoma Art Museum.
Every three years, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., holds a contest called “The Outwin: American Portraiture Today.” Thousands of artists submit photographs, drawings, sculptures, paintings and more. From about 2,500 entries, only 44 make the cut.
“I was astonished when I was accepted into this exhibit,” Sherer said.
This year, for the first time ever, the exhibition is on tour. Tacoma is the tour’s first stop – and its only stop on the West Coast.
The photo of Lucy is one of more than 40 on display. Sherer remembers the day it was taken.
“It was taken the first day she wore a dress in public,” Sherer said. “Her father dropped her off, signed the consent form, and sped away. She’s very tall and awkward, and I just kept feeling like I wanted to put her arm around her.”
When Lucy finally reached over and grabbed her opposite arm, Sherer tripped the shutter on the camera. And that’s what we see: A girl with her left hand holding onto her right arm, with long reddish brown hair draped over her collar bone and shoulders. She’s not quite smiling, but she also doesn’t look serious or sad.
The photo was taken in 2014.
“Since the photograph was made, Lucy ran away from home,” Sherer said. “She’s homeless at this point in time. She just couldn’t adjust to the push-back that she got from her classmates.”
Lucy would be about 18 now. Sherer is not in touch with her, but gathers from social media that Lucy is traveling the country with a group of friends.
In addition to being featured in the Outwin exhibition, Lucy’s portrait is part of a larger series of images, called “Family Matters: LGBTQ Youth Perspectives.” The series focused on LGBTQ youth from Alabama.
Being a teenager is hard – even if you’re cisgendered and heterosexual. And it can be even more difficult for teens who identify differently, especially, Sherer says, in the conservative South.
“The idea of having their own images on the wall was revolutionary,” she said. “It isn’t like they went to the art museum or they went to any other institution in Alabama and saw photographs of people like them on the wall. So it was very empowering for them to do that.”
The portraits in the Outwin exhibition portray various ages, races, sexualities, religions, economic statuses, and settings. Some are photos. Some are drawn.
One work, by artist Adrian “Viajero” Roman. It’s a face done in charcoal on a wood block hanging from above. A recording of what sounds like two women having a conversation in Spanish is coming from inside the block, which you can peer into and see artifacts once owned by the subject of the portrait – Constancia Clemente-Colón.
This – and a lot of the other works on display – fly in the face of the conventional definition of a portrait. That’s important, says Margaret Bullock, curator of collections and special exhibitions at the Tacoma Art Museum.
“A lot of people think it’s an art form that is historical, or that has to be very formal,” she said. “And I think it’s important that this show points out it’s very much a living tradition – there are a lot of contemporary artists working in portraiture, and they’re really pushing the idea of what that means.”
The Outwin is displayed in two galleries at TAM. They wanted to space the works out from each other, so each viewer felt like they could focus on an individual piece. That gives you time to examine facial expressions, poses, clothing, backgrounds, and more.
“It’s people watching on a different scale,” Bullock said. “It’s great to be able to have that moment. A lot of these, like this portrait of a young woman holding her child, the context of it is really important – the layers around her, the room itself.”
Back in front of the portrait of Lucy, we don’t get a whole lot of context. We see the dress. We see her face and her hair, and the way she uses one hand to hold her other arm. But the background is white.
Sherer, the photographer, wants the people who see this image to focus on Lucy.
“I hope they look at Lucy and feel like they want to put their arm around her, too,” she said. “I hope that they understand that in conservative states like Alabama there are a lot of vulnerable people right now, and it’s important to look outside the liberal city of Seattle, and see what’s going on, and take care of our kids.”
The Outwin exhibition is on display at the Tacoma Art Museum through May 14.