For portraitist Neal Hanowitz, it all started with Marie and Bernadette. The pandemic was in its frightening infancy, and the two women—“elderly, with very interesting faces,” Hanowitz recalls—drove by his house in Osceola Park and commented on his starfruit tree. Hanowitz gave them some starfruit and snapped their photographs.
Soon afterward, Hanowitz, a retired art teacher, painted their faces on some leftover scraps of canvas, kick-starting a quarantine project that has extended for more than two years. “I painted my daughter, family members, then delivery people,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with them. I had no intention of showing anything. They were just piling up; I was just having a good time.
“I had plans to do 100. People said, ‘why 100? Why don’t you just do 50?’ I said, it’s a round number, it’s an arbitrary number, and then I’ll stop. I’m up to about 65 [as of February 2022], and I’m going to keep going.”
It took the urging and assistance of Hanowitz’s youngest daughter, Maya, who works in public relations, to pitch his work to local arts venues. He received a call back from Grace Gdaniec, manager of Arts Warehouse, who agreed to offer him essentially limitless exhibition space in the arts center’s vast back gallery during the entire month of February. “I said [to Maya], ‘did that really happen? Pinch me,’” Hanowitz recalls, of receiving the call from Gdaniec. “Getting a show here was pure luck, absolute happenstance. I would’ve been happy to have one piece in the bagel place.”
I haven’t seen a face yet that doesn’t fascinate me. What does matter is the lighting, and the shadows … and if I don’t get it, then I’ll start over again.-Neal Hanowitz
When displayed at Arts Warehouse, the faces captured a broad cross-section of contemporary suburban life: old and young, white and Black and brown, hatted and bespectacled, face-masked and ear-budded. Yet under Hanowitz’s distinctive and revealing brush, they seemed to share the traits that are most fundamentally important.
Hanowitz encourages portrait commissions, too, and he charges an unorthodox fee: He accepts per hour whatever his clients earn per hour at their job. Most portraits take two to three hours for him to complete. “I find that this will average out to a fair wage for me and an affordable one for low-wage workers,” he says. “Obviously, Jeff Bezos won’t be calling soon.”
We don’t see politics or tribes or ideologies in these portraits. Instead, a sense of community radiates off the canvases. The works are neither flattering nor tactless, and yet everybody comes across as personable and engaging—not a rogue’s gallery but an everyperson’s gallery: Osceola Park as a microcosm for America.
“I saw it as an opportunity to give the people he had painted a space to exist and represent the community that we have here in Delray Beach,” Gdaniec says. “It’s a snapshot of a growing neighborhood that I think is reflective of a larger conversation about the diversity of our area, from Osceola Park and beyond.”
Through this ongoing project, strangers have become friends. “All these people, I know their names. Some of them follow me on Instagram,” Hanowitz says. “The art and social aspect of it are intertwined.”
The 71-year-old artist may be fresh off his first solo exhibition, but he’s anything but a late bloomer. He grew up in an art-loving family in Manhattan and then Queens, and attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia from 1968 to 1972. His first job after graduation was as a “studio grunt” for minimalist legend Frank Stella. “I was a 22-year-old, some punk kid interested in art, trying to make a living as an artist in New York, which proved to be too overwhelming for me,” he recalls.
Hanowitz drifted away from the art world and into construction, house painting and restoration. He was 40 when he discovered teaching, what he still calls his “first love;” he taught art for 28 years, from New Hampshire to Switzerland to Myanmar, before retiring in Delray Beach at 68. (His wife, Audrey, works at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca as a college counselor.)
Listening to Hanowitz’s passion for portraiture, it’s easy to believe he’ll extend the series past 100. “The message here is that we’re all the same,” he says. “I’m democratizing the act of having a portrait done. It’s generally reserved for people who have a lot of money. I feel like everybody deserves one. Every single person in this world is important, equally.”