First responders inspire teen portrait artists

Living Arts: Gaetan Charles stands behind Gwen Healey, a Marine Veteran, the subject of his portrait, titled "A Person Not a Color." Charles says, "My painting is showing a person who faces struggles like every human..." Caleb Nelson photoLiving Arts: Gaetan Charles stands behind Gwen Healey, a Marine Veteran, the subject of his portrait, titled "A Person Not a Color." Charles says, "My painting is showing a person who faces struggles like every human..." Caleb Nelson photoLast summer, six teenagers painted portraits of first responders in Leslie MacWeeney’s Living Art class, “Portraits, People and Places: Opening Doors; a New Understanding.”

Celebrating their success, last Sunday afternoon class participants gathered at ester restaurant in Lower Mills to brainstorm for a new season of artwork, which will start in mid-February. State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry offered opening remarks to the assembled class members and their community supporters.

“It’s all about honoring the people that keep us safe,” Forry said. “We have police officers here, veterans, a firewoman. This is a wonderful way of lifting each other up and improving our community.”

The class forged deep connections between teenagers and first responders. Officer Kenney Grubbs, from the Area B2 station in Roxbury, said the class was amazing.

“I didn’t realize that we were going to be there for hours and hours just standing still,” he said. “But it was worth it.”

Grubbs called his portrait priceless, and he bought it to support the program. MacWeeney worked tirelessly to convince first responders like Chantette Stallworthy, a firefighter who works on Ladder 29 on Blue Hill Ave, to pose for her students.

“I’ve always tried to volunteer in the community if they need me. Catch me if you can, but if you get me I’ll do whatever you need me to do,” Stallworthy said. “It was a great experience. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before.”

Stallworthy sat with Gwen Healey, a Marine Veteran who met MacWeeney through the Veterans Upward Bound at UMass Boston.

“It’s kind of tedious standing still and then trying to remember when you did move to go back into the right position. Gaetan even drew chalk marks around my feet so that I could get back into the right position. It was an enjoyable experience. After a little while I started helping, like mixing paints and doing housekeeping kind of stuff,” Healey said.

The artist—Gaetan Charles— enrolled in “Portraits, People and Places” through his high school. He’d never attempted a serious portrait before, though he liked to draw cartoons. He ended up getting more than an art lesson.

“The program was to try to find a solution to the problem between us and the first responders, to show that the first responders are just people just like us. They are just trying to do their job efficiently, that’s all,” he said.

Wilkinson Fortilus, another student in the class, said he learned life lessons as well as painting techniques from the class.

“What the program mostly taught me was how to be myself,” Fortilus said. “I never thought I could draw an amazing piece like this. Not once in my lifetime did I ever think of that. Leslie pushed me through. She helped me, and I was kind of nervous about it too, but she changed that. She changed everything pretty much.”

Fortilus enrolled in the program with Malik Bullock at the the Dudley branch library.

“We were looking to use the Wi-Fi and we ended up in an art class,” Bullock said. “I came in there not knowing how to paint, not knowing how to blend my colors, and it came out like that. It came out pretty good,” he said pointing to his portrait of Officer Jerome Smart.

Smart helped behind the scenes, opening up a conference room in the brand new B2 police station, giving the artists more time to finish their portraits at the end of the summer. He was particularly impressed by MacWeeney’s demeanor and teaching style.

“The most important lessons of the class were self-confidence and relationship building,” Smart said. “It’s a life lesson and also an art lesson. She never took the brush from any of their hands. She would explain things to them in a way that let them make their mistakes and they were well behaved, and that was another thing that was amazing. I saw this little woman controlling kids that I have trouble controlling on the street.”

MacWeeney started the program at least 16 years ago when she worked as the director of Dot Art. The next class is going to start on Wednesday in the middle of February vacation week, and she is looking for more students. Email for more information, or visit


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