The Freedom Riders Traverse Time

Artist Charlotta Janssen’s Freedom Riders’ portraits come from mug shots on public databases that are rendered anew on canvas.

A great many considerations go into choosing the right piece of art for your home, pretty and functional being chief among them. The work of Brooklyn artist and restauranteur Charlotta Janssen serves an even higher level of functionality, particularly for those that strive to create an atmosphere of consciousness within their homes.

A collection that has garnered the artist a great deal of attention during the past year including a spot on Oprah (Winfrey, by the way, is the owner of a Charlotta creation), is her Freedom Riders Project, a collection of portraits painted from the mug shots of the 400 people arrested during the freedom rides and bus boycotts of 1961. Many of those Freedom Riders were also bloodied and beaten, the buses on which they rode set alight, for challenging the government to uphold the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which called for an end to racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms of bus terminals.

They succeeded.

A powerful new documentary on PBS celebrating the 50th anniversary of these courageous civil rights pioneers who hailed from all corners of the United States and represented all age ranges, colors, and creeds premiered just this week.

“These portraits are about facing an oppressive system with non violence and a deep mix of emotions, each in their own way: fear, joy, anger and innocence,” says the artist, pointing out that details, such as disheveled collars, skinny ties, and bows on ruffled collars, are reminiscent of the bygone fifties while, at the same time, contrasting with the loud patterns that were evocative of a new era, the 1960s.

“These are extraordinary humans who didn’t stand by idle,” she says. “The Freedom Riders are a miracle to me and we all need to know about and build on what they started: the beloved community.”

History is dependent on people, she says. “Without one of them this wouldn’t have happened.”

Janssen started the project soon after Obama was elected, reveling in that collective exuberance of a nation for whom “hope” was not a four-letter word and more palpable than a t-shirt or an equally evocative print, which hangs in homes across the country.

Shepard Fairey’s original print, which The Guardian’s Laura Barton wrote has the “same kind of instant recognition of Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster,” now resides in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. Janssen hopes to gain a similarly permanent space for her touring collection of iconic images of ordinary citizens as well.

“The art is for sale,” she says, “but because it’s so intertwined with Nashville history, I’m hoping it will find a home there.” Part of the collection will soon be on view at the Downtown Public Library through mid-October.

Three collectors bought her entire first show, a total of 36 canvases; the majority went to a single collector, an apparent aficionado of consciousness raising décor who has requested to remain anonymous. “Learning about the lessons of non-violent direct action and how you can let it into your life have been my biggest rewards in this.”

In addition to her paintings, Janssen also produces high-end giclee prints of her work with an edition of 25 prints per image with customizable sizes. For prices and shipping, contact the artist. And you can always sit for your own portrait: make a film of you and your loved ones looking into the camera for twenty seconds and send it to the artist via her What’s Fresh button.

Image: Charlotta Janssen’s studio, New York Daily News and Charlotta

K. Emily Bond

K. Emily Bond is the Shelter Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in southern Spain, reporting on trends in art, design, sustainable living and lifestyle.