Gallery Exhibit Captures Columbia’s Neighbors in Stunning Way

Popular culture offers contrasting portraits of neighbors and neighborhoods.

In TV shows as timeless as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and as recent as “Parks and Recreation” or “The Good Place,” the people who live closest to you should be celebrated and cherished; by their closeness, they share the smallest and sweetest moments of your life.

B-level thrillers and even some TV news programs cast shadows of suspicion. Using dramatic music and peeking from behind the blinds, they ask what your neighbors are up to there, cooped up in their homes all day.

A Columbia gallery exhibit finds joy—and pride—in real people you’re bound to see shopping at the farmers’ market, on stage at a concert, or in a museum. In the eyes of three exhibiting artists, neighbors should be known and loved – and maybe even studied, so that we can uncover some little secrets of their meaningful lives.

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For the love of the locals, currently on display at the Montminy Gallery inside the Boone County History and Culture Center, features works by Lisa Bartlett, Jane Mudd and Amy Stephenson. They offer moving portraits of “people who are both friends and acquaintances and have an influence on Columbia’s artistic community,” according to the gallery’s website.

By those standards, Bartlett, Mudd and Stephenson are portrait-worthy themselves, wielding their talent and influence, exuding kindness throughout their work. As you spend time with their pieces here and read the expressions on their subjects’ faces, you imagine them using their singular personalities to recognize – and perhaps in a few cases coax – what is beautiful and unique about each soul.

Here’s just a glimpse of the people in their neighborhoods.

The lyrical portraits of Lisa Bartlett

Strains of soul, blues and folk music have long resonated in Bartlett’s work. She enjoys singers and songwriters who convert their emotions into I-IV-V progressions and mesmerizing rhythms.

Here, she once again pays homage to the local musical community, capturing the current energy of these performers at work while placing them in historical context – and in league with the greats of their craft.

A portrait of Audra Sergel captures the singer singing a tender ballad; those who know and have heard Sergel can read the painting and practically hear the power and sensitivity contained in his voice. Sergel wears a dress made of sheet music and plays a piano that looks like a spiral staircase, curling up and soaring skyward. The heavenly quality of its sound is captured with perfect tonality.

Elsewhere, Bartlett captures the raw soul and family attitude of root musicians Dave, Dyno and the Roadkill Orchestra in a portrait of Dyno Penny and a full band creation; the latter uses a folkloric approach to portraiture, a perfect marriage between medium and subject.

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Bartlett’s portrait of singer Rochara Knight resembles an illustration from a historical text about Aretha Franklin or Janis Joplin; Knight sings here with his whole body, freeing himself and others through song – as evidenced by the flock of little red birds detached from his hand.

Jane Mudd sees the soul of an artist

In the exhibition, Mudd’s hand glides along the contours of the souls of local artists, showing them as themselves, in their true elements. A mid-term portrait of a photographer Notley Hawkins is a beautiful image of patience and trust, with Hawkins trusting the camera as an extension of his own eye.

Although we can’t see what he’s seeing, the lovely swirling clouds that Mudd paints behind him exist as clues as to why the photographer might end it all right there.

The sweet wisdom of the painter Byron Smith is transmitted in a portrait where he gazes fondly at the viewer, raising his hand as if about to make a remark. The gesture does not belong to someone hoping to win an argument, but comes from someone willing to speak softly and, in doing so, enrich the listener. Mudd’s use of color and his ability to faithfully capture Smith’s facial features make for an attractive and welcome sight.

Wisdom also attends Mudd’s portrait of longtime journalist, teacher and artist John Fennell. She paints it against a backdrop of swirling colors, a surprisingly effective contrast to Fennell’s thoughtful yet outspoken manner. The subject’s smile and slightly tilted head also prepares the viewer for a nugget of truth, shared with gentle concern for their current path and future destination.

Amy Stephenson captures beauty incarnate

Stephenson does so much work for the viewer, capturing a subject’s secret smile or understanding it through the way he holds his body. This kind of embodied beauty and confidence invites the viewer beyond the face and into the room with the subject, anticipating their next move or word.

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The expression Stephenson captures on Robin LaBrunerie’s face exceeds the price of the painting. Hopeful, playful – with just the slightest hesitation – her subject gazes into the distance, seeming in disbelief as to her subject status but beaming with beauty anyway.

In a room featuring three members of the Hawley family sharing a couch — each member to their own quiet activity of reading, knitting, or working — Stephenson shares a silent, stolen moment between parent and child. The kind of everyday togetherness that strengthens a family bond without anyone saying a word.

And Stephenson’s take on the musician, poet and creative entrepreneur Josh Runnell, who plays J. Artiz, has a “future legend” written all over it. Painted on a grainy birch ground, Runnels rocks with intention and ease. There’s an unspoken yet iconic confidence in Runnels’ face, cocking his chin at the viewer and setting him up for the musicality of his life.

For the Love of Locals is on view until June 25. To find out more, visit

Aarik Danielsen is the Features and Culture Editor for Tribune. Contact him at or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.

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