Student & Faculty Research

Something Magnificent About Them

A student spends much of a year at a food bank, earning the trust of the people there and capturing their lives in sensitive portraits.

Before Danielle Dobies painted the portraits that make up her exhibition, “Faces of Sustenance,” she first had to tackle an equally daunting task. She had to get to know her subjects.

So Dobies, a 21-year-old art major from Aurora, Ohio, spent much of last year visiting and volunteering at food pantries, shelters and other sites served by the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which distributes food in 13 counties. Her plan was to educate herself about the food bank and its people, then use her art to spread word about its work. But the idea of painting a portrait didn’t seem nearly as di≈cult as the idea of asking a stranger to pose for one.

“I was really nervous about approaching people at first,” she said as she prepared the paintings for their first public showing. “I didn’t know if they would trust me.”

As it turned out, she needn’t have worried.

“People couldn’t have been more encouraging. When I explained what I was doing, everyone wanted to help.”

Dobies interviewed the clients, volunteers and staΩ she met at the food bank sites, then asked them to pose for photographs. A woman 
in her nineties told her stories of decades of volunteer work. A nine-
year-old boy hammed it up for her camera. Later, when it came time to apply her oil paints and colored pencils to canvas, she tried to summon the characters she’d come to know.

 “It was important for me to try to get their personalities and their stories in my work,” she said. “I really wanted to capture the people I met.”

The collection of seven canvasses that resulted was displayed during the fall at the Frick Center.

If one of Dobies’ goals was to spread word about the food bank, she succeeded. In the days leading up to her show, the Chicago Tribune and the Daily Herald ran stories on the project. WBEZ radio called with questions. A news crew from Channel 7 paid her a visit on campus.

Her project was the result of a grant by the Thing 1 2 3 Foundation (it takes its name from Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat), an Elmhurst nonprofit organization that supports the food bank. Last year, it invited Elmhurst students to submit proposals for projects to help the food bank. Dobies’ idea surprised the foundation’s leadership.

 “We thought we’d get a great logistics project or something to do with marketing,” said the foundation’s Jim Ruprecht. “We had no idea we’d get something as magnificent as this, from a student who put her whole heart and soul into the project.”

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