ArtBeat: Artist Robert Markey makes portraits of beautiful people he meets in his travels

  • Ashfield artist Robert Markey sits in his painting studio with some of the portraits of people he's met on his travels. Markey's portrait exhibit will be on display at Adams Community Bank in North Adams from August 25 to September 25. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Artist Robert Markey — Bob to his friends — always has a lot going on. When he’s not traveling to Brazil, Cambodia, Nepal or India to teach kids in schools and orphanages to make mosaic murals, he’s got at least three different ways of making art that draw him to his studios on an out-of-the-way road in the woods of Ashfield. The unassuming wooden buildings, that Markey built himself, house a painting studio, a metal-working shop and a sculpture and mosaic studio.

The first studio is full of paintings hung salon-style on the walls and stacked sometimes six deep in rows along the floor. Many of these are portraits of people he’s met in his travels, painted after he got home, working from photographs taken either by himself or by his wife, Julie Orfirer.

Orfirer, a nurse practitioner, travels with him when she can, often offering health education in some of the underserved areas they frequent.

A two-month project still in the planning stages, a collaboration with muralist painter Benjamin Swatez, will have Markey creating murals with Syrian refugees in Greece, with street kids in India, and on the walls of the United Nations building in Katmandu in Nepal this winter.

Closer to home, a show of Markey’s portraits opens at Adams Community Bank, 31 Eagle St. in North Adams later this month. Markey’s show coincides with this month’s DownStreet Art, an art event that happens in downtown North Adams, 5 to 8 p.m., on the last Thursday of the month, June through September. This month’s event will be held Aug. 25; Markey’s show will be up Aug. 25 through Sept. 25.

Founded in 2008, DownStreet Art features installations and art openings in pop-up storefront galleries along Main Street, a “Night Market” of vendors selling arts and crafts, baked goods and other foods along Holden Street, and live music on the Berkshire Bank Stage.

Since Markey’s show is only open during bank hours, a workable strategy would be to hit that before the bank closes at 5 p.m., then go have an early dinner at PUBLIC Eat+Drink, at 34 Holden St. From the restaurant’s windows, you’ll be able to track the progress of the street vendors as they set up their booths.

Beautiful people

In his painting studio, Markey smiles as he tells the stories of some of the people in his portraits.

“This is in Sri Lanka, a tea picker,” he says. “And this guy’s from Brazil. He was down by the river and he was just fishing, and he had this beautiful smile. I asked if I could draw him and Julie asked if she could take his picture. And he just laughs.”

The laugh — and the luminous light reflecting from the river onto his face — is perfectly captured in Markey’s painting.

Another portrait shows an old woman laughing, her hand partly covering her mouth. Markey says he painted the portrait after the earthquake that occurred in the region in April 2015.

“It took a while (to find out), but everyone we’d met over there was fine,” Markey says. “But everything you saw in the news for a while was horrible.”

Then, a friend sent him photographs of people laughing.

“And I asked if I could paint from one of his photographs. I had to do that one!”

A series of portraits shows four girls from a Catholic school in Cambodia. Markey had been asked to lead an art class for these special-needs students, who he quickly learned had been offered little more than a chance to color in existing images in the past. Markey gave each girl a large piece of paper and said, ‘Close your eyes and scribble. Now — open your eyes. Use your pastels and color in and make a drawing.”

Markey had to fend off the interference of other teachers who wanted to tell the girls what to do. For the next two hours, the girls made drawing after free-form drawing, happily signing their drawings and posing for photographs with them.

They just moved me so much,” Markey said. “It was the high point of my trip.”

Gesturing toward a larger portrait of two girls, one with her head uncovered, the other wearing the hijab of Muslim women, Markey says, “Those girls are from an Arab community in Jersualem. There was a lot of violence going on there, but when I got there it was fine; it was safe.”

The friendship of the two girls is evident not only in their frank and open expressions, but in the intertwining of their hands.

“It almost sounds so clichéd to say, but it seems as if all of your work has as its goal bringing people together,” I say. I’m thinking not only of the mural work that gives people who don’t normally get a chance to make art to create visible and meaningful work together, but also the experience of looking at his portraits.

“I mean here, I’m looking at people really different than me, and yet I recognize their expressions.”

“It’s people,” Markey says. “Beautiful people.”

Where to see it: See Robert Markey’s portraits at Adams Community Bank, 31 Eagle St., North Adams, during regular banking hours. Find out more about DownStreet Art at:


You can find Robert Markey on Facebook or visit his website at: