10,000 local faces now part of Fox Cities Exhibition Center

APPLETON – The vast majority of Fox Cities residents have yet to step foot inside the Fox Cities Exhibition Center. Yet thousands of their faces are on display inside the soon-to-open facility in downtown Appleton.

“We Are Here,” an original work of art featuring portraits of about 10,000 people taken in recent months, was installed Monday inside the new exhibition center on Lawrence Street.

Rob Neilson, Lawrence University Frederick R. Layton professor of art and associate professor, is behind the project, which features 10 framed faces, each made from a mosaic of about a thousand smaller faces. The full spread covers an area of about 10 feet by 7 feet and is displayed on a north-facing wall in the building’s lower level.

Neilson has created public art in several cities around the country, including his hometown of Detroit. Those projects, however, have all been sculptures. This is his first time venturing into photography.

“When I came up with it I had no idea if it was even possible, nor did I have any idea whether or not I could actually shoot enough images to actually do the project,” Neilson said. “I’m convinced they gave this gig to a sculptor because a photographer would have known better than to try and do what I did.”

The portrait-taking process began in the fall and included dozens of public events. Neilson shot photos of any willing residents at several libraries, Festival Foods locations, the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, a Bergstrom dealership in Appleton and more. Some days he and his team had up to four different shoots in a single day.

From there, compiling the images — the exact number of which he lost count along the way — was a matter of “a lot of cutting and pasting and Photoshop” and “a little bit of good luck and magic.”

Among the goals was to showcase the diversity of the Fox Cities. To that end, there are images of young children, senior citizens and everyone in between. There’s an array of ethnic diversity across the thousands of images, too.

The result is, as its creator called it, “kind of a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ activity” for the public, who’ll be able to hunt for familiar faces — be it their own or others they recognize.

The public will get its first opportunity to check out the new $31.9 million exhibition center, and the art installed inside of it, on Thursday. A grand opening event featuring a ribbon cutting and tours runs 5 to 7 p.m.

“It really is meaningful to do this in what is essentially my adopted hometown and, you know, my kids were raised here,” said Neilson, who serves as co-chair of the department of art and art history at Lawrence, where he’s worked since 2003.

The idea for “We Are Here” spawned from another work of art Neilson had commissioned at the exhibition center. A hanging sculpture, titled “You Are Here,” was installed in the facility’s Lawrence Street-level lobby over the weekend.

“You Are Here” is about 12 feet by 13 feet and is a map of Wisconsin cut from what looks like lined school paper. There’s an over-sized red pushpin locating the Fox Cities.

That project led to the second, and now two Neilson pieces help make the exhibition center more vibrant. And though the final “We Are Here” product is something he’s completely satisfied with — “I love it. I couldn’t be happier,” he said — it was the journey to this day that helped make it all so worth while.

“This is me collaborating with thousands and thousands of my neighbors,” he said.

“I knew there would be a process, I just never realized how meaningful that process was going to become. It was so much fun and people were so engaged in the process and asking so many questions about what this is, why we’re doing this, what’s the purpose of public art and it was so encouraging to get that kind of feedback.”