Heartandsoul Nikitagross, FotoFocus Cincinnati
Nikita Gross, Aprina, 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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A Public Art Project Becomes a Study in Solidarity

Posted on September 16, 2020

Photographer Nikita Gross collaborated with ArtWorks apprentices to create Heart and Soul, a city-wide outdoor portrait exhibition.

Before the pandemic throttled art shows all over the city, photographer Nikita Gross was poised to exhibit what was, for her, a characteristic project: Through a relationship with ArtWorks, Gross would present oversized photographs of womxn affixed to alley walls around the city. The show was meant to portray womxn—and the female persona—as larger-than-life and, says Gross, to “reclaim public space on behalf of the feminine.”

But then came the global shutdown, punctuated by the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent widespread public protests, led by the Black Lives Matter movement. As Gross looked for ways to respond, her exhibition took on a more precise focus. “I was having to look at my own self and see how I have contributed to this problem,” she says. “I looked at my portfolio and asked ‘Why is it just people who look like me?’ It’s really important that everyone do that right now.” Gross abruptly changed course, and developed an exhibition focusing on Black womxn in the Cincinnati community. She also planned to bring on ArtWorks apprentices, who would paint their own interpretive designs directly onto her photographs.

The result is Heart and Soul, a collection of large-scale mixed media portraits displayed on Black-owned businesses throughout Cincinnati. We talked with Gross about her process, her network of collaborators, and how Heart and Soul took on a life of its own.

FotoFocus: What were some of the challenges you experienced while changing up your exhibition?

Nikita Gross: At first, I said ‘No, this is for a black artist. I cannot tell these stories. Who do I think I am?’ I talked to Crystal Grace, the co-owner of [the Evanston coffeehouse] Cream and Sugar, on the phone. And I said ‘I still want to photograph you, but I don’t know how.’ She said ‘I just want you to know: You can tell my story.’

I know that our role as artists is that we should be taking in everything that’s going on outside of us. I felt like I had a platform and I needed to use it. 

FF: Your portraits are incredibly evocative. How did you get to know your subjects so emotionally?

Gross: I build up trust with the person because I want to truly see them. I want to let them know that I am seeing them. Because I have to get past some walls sometimes. 

Heartandsoul Nikitagross1, FotoFocus Cincinnati
Nikita Gross and Leeza Poselski, Nancy, 2020. Image courtesy of the artists

FF: Do you have a process for guiding subjects through a session?

Gross: A big percentage of the photographs [in Heart and Soul] use gestures. I ask them to gesture. I would learn a lot about the people by what they chose.

I really dug into what gestures are. Are they giving? Are they receiving? Are they asking for something? It became this whole other underlying story that is in a lot of the pieces. It taught me how much we use body language and how much you can say with it. 

Depending on the gesture, you could just tell that they were feeling it really deeply, or they had a wall up still. And then I would say ‘put your hands up in the air’ and I would see them release something. It was really cool.

FF: What can exhibition-goers expect from Heart and Soul?

Gross: The photos are going to be all over the city on Black-owned businesses. I want them in neighborhoods where Black people are actually represented: Evanston, Clifton, College Hill. 

FF: Full collaborations between artists and student apprentices is an unusual setup for ArtWorks. How did you approach this with your exhibition?

Gross: I went really simple. All the shoots were done out in nature. I did everything in black and white and then I let the apprentices do any kind of design that they wanted. I gave them a presentation of all of the subjects involved, told some of their story, and then I let the apprentices use their own intuition and create. It’s a true collaboration; these are mine and theirs.

I couldn’t tell them enough about how proud I was, just seeing how much confidence they had in themselves as artists by the end.

As Gross prepared to publicly exhibit this project, which involved dozens of people, thousands of photos, and countless personal stories—all created alongside a global equality movement—she considered why collaboration is important to the future of human rights. “That’s what the big message is,” she says. “This is a revolution of who we are as people, how we look at each other. It’s opened us up to actually seeing people and hearing their stories differently.” 

Heart and Soul opens city-side September 21, 2020. View map of locations here.