Amidst hundreds of contemporary works of art, there was one portrait and one subject that held nearly everyone’s attention at the REVEAL International Contemporary Art Fair on Friday morning.
That portrait was of Kaitlin Salomon, an 18-year-old who is battling leukemia.
It was presented by Portrait Connection, a nonprofit which joins together children facing serious health challenges with artists from around the country to create portraits for their communities and families.
The portrait, painted by Greenwich artist Leslie Peck, shows Salomon with wavy auburn-colored hair, giving a half-smile to the viewer. Salomon was diagnosed with leukemia just days after her 18th birthday and has been staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Albany since February.
“I’m speechless . . . It’s amazing,” Salomon said, “[this will] inspire not only me but other sick kids.”
The intense treatment has been really tough, as both Salomon and Debbie Ross, the house director, can attest to. Salomon has to undergo treatment nearly every day, losing most of her hair in the process, and there are what feels like too many close calls. It’s part of the reason Salomon said she’s grateful to live at the Ronald McDonald House. It’s tough to be away from family - her parents visit about once a week, traveling from their home in Richfield, just north of Cooperstown - but she’s close to the hospital should she need immediate medical attention.
“She’ll look at this someday and say ‘I’ve made it,’ ” Ross said, calling the portrait a masterpiece.
For Portrait Connection, Salomon’s story isn’t an anomaly.
The nonprofit was started by Elaine Eisenbraun and her daughters Kristen and Laura, all formerly of Saratoga Springs. Kristen and Laura are both artists and Elaine has a background in nonprofit management.
It all started when a family friend's two children were diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disorder that damages the lungs and digestive system, Kristen decided to paint a portrait of the children. The mother told Kristen, “I hung it where it is the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning and it gives me strength to get through the treatments, bills and emotions of the day.”
That experience gave the Eisenbrauns an idea: what if they could do something similar for families across the United States?
In 2017, they founded the nonprofit Portrait Connection, which connects artists with children up to age 18 who are facing serious medical challenges. Children are nominated through service providers like The Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Ronald McDonald House, hospitals and other organizations. Then Eisenbraun connects an artist with the child and the child’s family.
The family then sends a photograph of the child and paints from there. Some artists specialize in oil paintings or watercolors and Eisenbraun tries to match up the family’s preferences with the artist’s specialties. Artists volunteer some of their time, but they’re also given a commission.
Eisenbraun said she wanted to make sure that the organization supported artists, “who are in one of the toughest career avenues anyone could choose.” Working with Portrait Connection also helps to give artists more exposure. The pieces they create are often touching; bringing out some of the happiest expressions and moments in the child’s life, or a playful side of the child. It can help parents and families to find peace at the end of a hard day or gain strength going into what they know might be a long day of treatments. It’s fine art for a cause.
Another important part of what Portrait Connection does is bring the community together for unveiling events, after which they try to leave the portraits on display for a short time. It gives more exposure not only to the artists but also to the issues that these children and families are facing, according to Eisenbraun.
“I want the community to understand that there are ways to transcend the challenges we have with communicating compassion,” Eisenbraun said.
They have offices in Long Creek, Oregon and Greenville, South Carolina. The unveiling at REVEAL was their first Saratoga Springs event, but next year they’re working on a larger- scale presentation. Many of their family members still live in the Saratoga Springs area and it’s where Portrait Connection all started, said Eisenbraun.
They’ll be doing another unveiling Saturday morning (Aug. 4) at 11 a.m. at the REVEAL International Contemporary Art Fair. To donate or to learn more visit portraitconnection.org.