Every Friday, for exactly a year, Aurélie Galois painted a portrait of someone she had met in Boston. It was 2014, she was still new to the city. It seemed like a good way to get to know people.
Initially, Galois, who was born in Burgundy, in 1977, chose people she encountered in the Brookline cafe she frequented — 4A Coffee on Harvard Street. Later, she had to look farther afield. She sat with each person, they talked for a couple of hours, she took one or two photos with her iPhone.
Back home, she studied the photos, put the phone away, and got down to painting. At first, it was just an exercise — “like a writer starting a diary,” she told me. She never intended to exhibit the results.
She made herself spend less than a day on each. But she was strict with herself about keeping it regular. She posted a new portrait to her website every week.
They were small pictures. Oil paint on paper. More turpentine than oil. Very deft.
But Galois is not just a painter. She’s also a writer. So she wrote up her conversations into pithy little profiles — each one, like the portraits, gorgeously alive, inquisitive, tender, astute.
Galois had worked as a culture journalist and magazine editor in her native France, so she was used to interviewing people. She was alert to the charged dynamics, the need to be objective, the dangers — both during and after. “As a journalist you can be a vampire in a way,” she told me.
Now, she wanted to be real. “You fall in love with your subjects,” she said. “It’s what happens. And so for the first time I wanted to say just what I feel.”
This month, at the French Cultural Center on Marlborough Street, you can see — and read — all 52 of Galois’s written and painted portraits in a show called “Friday Face: a year in Boston.”
If you do, you’ll meet Erke Draper, a native of Kazakhstan who, with her husband, Alan, from Massachusetts, runs 4A Coffee. The cafe, writes Galois, “was my shelter when I moved to the US, lost and lonely, and Erke’s face was my lighthouse. No extra large smile, no ‘awesome-so-cute-amazing!!’ in her mouth. But a look. Deep, sharp, wise and suddenly amused.”
You’ll meet, too, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and Revere native Stanley Forman; the best-selling novelist Maryanne O’Hara; and the photographer and filmmaker Kenny Nowlan.
You’ll meet Tarek Masoud, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School whose advice to the White House on the subject of ISIS is “basically to calm down”; Rima Hyder, a multilingual, globe-trotting Formula One fan born in Lahore; and Louis Bolnick, the kosher supervisor at Brookline’s The Butcherie.
There is a combination of warmth and reserve in both the portraits and the texts, which are neatly handwritten, all in caps, with key words and phrases underlined.
The portraits are faithful but not flattering. And they’re not all brilliant. That’s the nature of portraiture, especially when it’s done under time pressure.
But make no mistake: Galois is very good, and she got noticeably better as she proceeded. The best of her “Friday Faces” — the portraits of actor Craig Mathers, businesswoman Liz Devlin, fashion design student Erin Robertson, businessman Nick O’Hara, opera singer Graham Wright, and my young friend Harry Parker — project a fullness of presence and an almost explosive sense of engagement, mobility, and emotional honesty.
Proceeding around the room, you’ll also meet Farzad Ghorbi. Ghorbi stands out in Galois’s memory for several reasons. He is an Iranian Muslim who runs Kupel’s Bakery, a kosher bakery in Brookline. (That could be reason enough on its own). He is also a funny, soulful man with a painful past: he and his sister were sent to Boston from Tehran to be educated, but the Iranian revolution, which broke out shortly afterward, meant that he has never returned.
“NEVER,” writes Galois: “a terrible word.” Ghorbi, she writes, is a Red Sox fan who “dreams in Farsi and smiles in American.”
Galois studied art history at the Ecole du Louvre and literature at the Sorbonne. She will occasionally have to fish for the right word, but her spoken English is excellent. Her written English is not just proficient — it’s lively, syncopated, sharp, disarming.
The occasional uncorrected spelling error or awkward usage adds to the charm of her texts — the sense we get that we are learning about these individuals from a compassionate but bracingly disinterested outsider. (Her piece on Robertson, the well-dressed fashion student at MassArt, begins: “Boston is not a very fashionable city.”)
“I didn’t want to be cheesy,” she told me.
She had ideas about America before she moved here. Most of them, she claims, have been overturned.
For some time after she moved here, she was lonely and depressed. The reality of America (Boston branch) and her idea of it weren’t matching up.
At the same time, she said, “I was shocked at how friendly people were here compared to Paris.”
She wanted to show family and friends in France what her new life was like. “And what my life was at this point was these encounters,” she said. “So I rebuilt my life around people.”
“I loved noticing differences and becoming aware of my own pre-assumptions. I wanted to show how our vision of the US is not right. We [in France] are full of clichés — just as Americans have a clichéd idea of France.”
In the end, she told me: “You know a city only when you live in it, and meet the people around the corner.”
FRIDAY FACE: a year in Boston
At French Cultural Center, through July 1. 53 Marlborough St. 617-912-0400, frenchculturalcenter.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.