Telling stories has long been a passion of senior Noelle Wamhoff. In her senior exhibition, she combines this with her love of art. Titled “At First Glance: The Untold Stories Around Us”, the exhibit features Wamhoff’s collection of oil portraits she has been developing since spring of 2022.
Though majoring in graphic design, Wamhoff decided to use oil painting as a medium.“Painting’s always been my first love,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of opportunity to dip my toe in every medium. Oil was a medium I hadn’t spent a lot of time with and that’s why I chose it.”
Upon first look at the portraits hung in the Te Paske Gallery, one will recognize a multitude of familiar faces from around Northwestern’s campus. The collection’s subjects are made up of several current and former NW students as well as faculty. Altogether, 26 individuals are represented.
Each of the portraits work as stand-alone pieces in addition to working as a cohesive exhibit. Wamhoff’s techniques in incorporating colors from the background or clothing into her subjects’ faces made each portrait feel thoughtful. Wamhoff explained that she brought the colors out through the texture of her portraits, leaning into the colors she saw through her less realistic approach to capture the essence of the people she painted. Though not entirely realistic, the subjects were still instantly recognizable.
Next to each of the portraits is a white door flap with a golden handle. Upon lifting it, you are able to read the untold story of the subject of the painting. Personal struggles, anecdotes and wisdom are hidden beneath each of the white doors. It is up to the user to seek out these stories, just as we should seek out others’ stories in our lives. This idea was evoked even by how the doors were attached to the walls. Each door had to be lifted vertically instead of swung out to the side. Though they were designed this way for practical reasons, the experience of having to physically hold the door open the entire time I read each subject’s story reinforced the theme of the intentionality it takes in getting to know another person.
As for how the subjects were chosen, Wamhoff said the initial idea was to have a diverse group, but was constrained by location and time. “It’s only people I’ve met through NW, specifically, and I chose most of them at random. Everybody I asked said yes.” Upon agreeing to be painted and sharing stories, Wamhoff interviewed each subject, something she described as being invited into their world. “The prompt was asking them for a story that they wish that other people knew about them or wish they had more opportunity to tell. It was a really cool experience for me to invite people to share their wisdom and testimonies,” said Wamhoff.
A feature consistent throughout nearly every portrait was the subject holding a picket sign. Usually synonymous with protesters advocating for themselves and others, these picket signs were blank symbolizing the lack of opportunity to share important stories. “That’s been kind of bouncing around my head since high school.” said Wamhoff. “Just the idea of people who don’t have a voice of their own and how to visually tell that story. The idea of somebody trying to speak but not having anything on their sign kind of helped in telling that story of this person has something to say, but we don’t know what it is.”
Wamhoff will be graduating this May, with hopes to pursue a career doing design work full time. “I’d love to use it to work with people specifically,” she said. Though planning to work mainly on digital art, she doesn’t plan on setting down her brushes for good. “I’ll never stop painting. My hope is to continue to be a student and to continue to learn and try different things and stretch myself.”