The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which has left thousands of residents with lead-contaminated water, has provoked shock and outrage around the country. While some people have protested or called for the governor to resign, one man expressed his anger in a more creative manner.
Michael Dykehouse, an artist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said his initial reaction when he heard about the contamination -- which poses ongoing health concerns, particularly for children -- was "horror" and feeling sick to his stomach.
After learning that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) had thrown an opulent party for his wife, Dykehouse started creating a portrait of the governor he calls "Lead Head." He chose to use a relatively rare type of white oil paint made with lead, which he felt evoked the water crisis.
"The painting was originally done with a lot of anger," Dykehouse said. "I wanted to make sort of an ugly portrait of an ugly guy … something that looked like it might be in a government building, but had darker undertones if you knew what the object was made of and had the reference point of the tragedy of what is happening in Flint."
Dykehouse said he still has difficulty processing the magnitude of the crisis, which began when the city switched water sources in 2014 and failed to use corrosion treatment. Officials were disastrously slow to acknowledge resident complaints, but steps toward significant change have finally taken place in the last few months: President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in January, the city returned to its original water source, and there has been public and private support to help residents. However, Flint water is still unsafe to drink and tests continue to reveal high lead levels.
"I have two kids myself, I have a 4-year-old and an 11-year-old, and I’ve heard interviews on the radio with parents. … What a nightmare. It’s unimaginable," Dykehouse said.
Still, Dykehouse saw the humanity in his subject once he started the portrait.
"A person’s face is like a map, and you can see the history of all their wrongdoings and right-doings," the artist said. "I sort of feel that way [when I paint]. I have empathy for the subject, even if it’s a difficult subject."
He posted his painting to Facebook on Tuesday and said he was a little surprised by how much attention it drew. He hasn't decided how to sell the portrait but is considering holding an online auction and donating some of the money to one of the nonprofits responding to the water crisis.
And what would Dykehouse want Snyder to think if he saw the painting?
"If there is any empathy that shows through, I hope that he is able to also extend empathy toward the people of Michigan, and specifically Flint," he said.
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