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NYC artist painted 202 portraits of his fellow Brooklynites to encourage them to say hello: ‘You can take care of each other’

Rusty Zimmerman, left. A subject with her portrait, upper right. And portraits displayed at the gallery, lower right.
Rusty Zimmerman, left. A subject with her portrait, upper right. And portraits displayed at the gallery, lower right.

He had an ulterior motive.

A New York City artist painted more than 200 portraits of his fellow Brooklynites to encourage his neighbors to say hello.

Rusty Zimmerman, 44, set out to oil paint southern Brooklynites a year ago after moving from Crown Heights to Kensington with his wife and stepchildren.

He not only wanted to get to know his new neighbors but also foster a community in a city full of people who notoriously mind their own business.

“Helping neighbors say hi to each other is entirely the point of why I do what I do,” Zimmerman told The Post Saturday.

His 202 portraits are hanging inside Building 8 of Industry City until Sunday, when a closing ceremony will see the paintings being returned to their subjects to take home.

Rusty Zimmerman, 44, set out to oil paint Southern Brooklynites after moving to Kensington last year to not only get to know his new neighbors but also foster a community. Paul Martinka
Rusty Zimmerman, 44, set out to oil paint Southern Brooklynites after moving to Kensington last year to not only get to know his new neighbors but also foster a community. Paul Martinka

Among the hundreds of New Yorkers Zimmerman met along the way was an MTA bus driver who once had dreams of designing handbags, someone who taught the artist when one can “properly talk s–t” about the Big Apple and another who wanted to become a “pirate king.”

Each portrait took Zimmerman four to five hours to complete in his studio, and snippets of conversations he had with his subjects are available on SoundCloud.

“The best way to love New York is to talk s–t about it,” subject No. 69, Stanley Delva, told him.

“You have to live here long enough to know that it can be [s–t]. Once you lived here long enough, you’ve earned that right to properly talk s–t about it.”

Staten Islander Guy Zoda, who also goes by “King Henry,” had his portrait done as he donned the regal crown he wore as the emcee and mascot for the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team. He also recalled the time he showed up to a game the day after he had his thyroid removed.

Zimmerman also painted Coney Island rapper, Gorilla Nems, whose real name is Travis. The musician, who just got back from tour, will be in attendance Sunday afternoon to pick up his portrait, the artist said.

Every subject sat in the same red chair — which is displayed at the exhibition — when they were painted in Building 2 of Industry City. Unlike most oral historians, Zimmerman hardly knew his subjects before they sat before him.

Jamila Modeste, of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, poses with her likeness. wearesouthbrooklyn/Instagram
Jamila Modeste, of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, poses with her likeness. wearesouthbrooklyn/Instagram
Shindy Johnson with her painting. Rusty Zimmerman
Shindy Johnson with her painting. Rusty Zimmerman
Owen MacDonnell of Sunset Park poses with his portrait. Rusty Zimmerman
Owen MacDonnell of Sunset Park poses with his portrait. Rusty Zimmerman

And just like in his conversation with The Post, he started off each session with the same heartfelt: “How are you?”

In fact, Zimmerman did not hand-select any of his subjects and only knew three of them previously.

He rode his bike around parts of Southern Brooklyn with flyers in multiple languages asking people to sign up. At one point, the waiting list hit 650 people who desperately fought every two weeks to get one of the 10 slots made available.

Asad Dandia’s portrait by Zimmerman. Rusty Zimmerman
Asad Dandia’s portrait by Zimmerman. Rusty Zimmerman
Vivian Lui looks studious in her Zimmerman painting. Rusty Zimmerman
Vivian Lui looks studious in her Zimmerman painting. Rusty Zimmerman
Zimmerman also painted Basil Saylor, who wants to become a “pirate king.” Rusty Zimmerman
Zimmerman also painted Basil Saylor, who wants to become a “pirate king.” Rusty Zimmerman
Samantha Figueroa beams as she stands next to her portrait. Rusty Zimmerman
Samantha Figueroa beams as she stands next to her portrait. Rusty Zimmerman
Unlike most oral historians, Zimmerman hardly knew his subjects before they sat in his chair. wearesouthbrooklyn/Threads
Unlike most oral historians, Zimmerman hardly knew his subjects before they sat in his chair. wearesouthbrooklyn/Threads

Zimmerman’s interactions with his subjects didn’t end after their portraits. He hosted a reception inside Café Nube in Sunset Park the first Sunday of the month, where they and their friends and family could meet one another and see the 17 to 20 new portraits and listen to clips of their histories, Zimmerman told The Post.

They would also be displayed throughout the year in different libraries and had a popup at the Barclay Center.

The California native started the Free Portrait Project in 2015 in Crown Heights to practice his skills and meet those around him.

That project led to his induction into his prep school’s Hall of Fame in 2022.

The California native started the Free Portrait Project in 2015 in Crown Heights to practice his skills and meet those around him. Paul Martinka
The California native started the Free Portrait Project in 2015 in Crown Heights to practice his skills and meet those around him. Paul Martinka

After receiving the award from an old teacher, his now-wife asked him if this was “a thing you want to do” after he had spent most of his life going through an “octagon of side hustles.”

When he moved to Kensington in 2023, he decided to do a second round called “We Are South Brooklyn,” which is what is displayed in Industry City.

And like the first round, the project was still about connection.

When Zimmerman lived in Crown Heights, his neighbor Charles’ house went up in flames while his kids played with matches behind the couch.

More importantly, though, he was able to call his neighbor and check-in.

“You can take care of each other when they’re having a hard time,” he said.

The portraits are on display from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and through Sunday. A closing ceremony will take place from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.