(From left) Mike Byrnside and Ruth Leonela Buentello Credit: Courtesy / Mike Byrnside; Ruth Leonela Buentello

A chance circumstance brought the portraits of Mike Byrnside to the attention of Taína Caragol, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history.

Byrnside was to show his large-scale, black and white photographic portraits at the SMART gallery of Andy and Yvette Benavides in the Lone Star Art District, but a miscommunication caused his exhibition to be moved from September to October. Caragol happened to be in San Antonio in October, saw the show, and told Byrnside he should enter the annual Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.

As a retired military nurse and art student with no prior exhibition experience, Byrnside hesitated. “I said, ‘This was a school project. I haven’t even graduated!’” he said he told Caragol.

Nevertheless, he entered the competition with a high-contrast portrait, titled George, of an elderly man with deeply creased lines etched in his face. Byrnside was selected as one of 46 successful applicants from a pool of 2,600 entrants, and as a result will show his work in the The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today exhibition from October through August 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Honestly it feels a little surreal,” he said, reflecting on his inclusion in an exhibition that will run 10 months at the nation’s premier arts institution, then travel to museums throughout the country until 2022.

Byrnside is not the only San Antonio artist in the exhibition. He joins Ruth Leonela Buentello, who had already been working with Caragol on a 2021 Smithsonian exhibition titled Kinship. Caragol recommended she also enter the Outwin portrait competition, and Buentello submitted her 2018 painting Desaparecidos, which depicts members of her own family interspersed with a family detained by Customs and Border Patrol.

Buentello said she feels her painting represents a “shift of focus to alternative narratives that haven’t been part of the canon” of contemporary art, which has traditionally neglected the experience of Chicanas and other persons of color.

Such inclusiveness is political in itself, said Chicago artist Jefferson Pinder, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Pinder was one member of the panel of seven jurors who selected the winners of the Outwin competition, joining painter Byron Kim, who teaches at Yale University; artist Harry Gamboa Jr. from the California Institute of the Arts; Lauren Haynes, curator of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; and two other Smithsonian curators, Brandon Brame Fortune and Dorothy Moss.

The group consisted of artists and curators who focus on activism and social issues in their own work, perspectives which they inevitably brought to the panel, Pinder said.

“Our group couldn’t really separate politics from the artmaking,” Pinder said. “We’re all politically minded.” Not only did the panelists look to expand notions of what the traditional medium of portraiture can be in the context of contemporary art, but the work they considered “really began to hit nerves on what we have in common as people, and also things we should be thinking about as far as the political climate right now in the U.S.,” he said.

Kim recalled both Byrnside and Buentello’s work as formally interesting, and said the political nature of the work emerged as a function of the content, rather a deliberate effort on the part of the jury.

“I don’t think that we were trying to make any particular political commentary, but that there are certain things in the air,” Kim said. “It’s not even that we wanted to make sure that particular notions were brought out, but that we wanted to be as diverse as possible while also trying to choose the best works.”

Kim clearly recalled both Byrnside and Buentello’s work as formally interesting, Byrnside’s for its technical proficiency and capturing the personality of the elderly sitter, and Buentello’s for its unconventional subject. Desaparecidos “isn’t technically so precise, and so that kind of conveyed a little bit of the difficult or edgy nature of the circumstances of the subject,” Kim said.

The painting “made an interesting point that we’re all really one, we’re all really together in this,” which is “an important point to get out there, especially now,” he said.

Buentello said, “I think many people can relate to the work, and also it’s a great way to highlight issues people aren’t being exposed to, or they don’t want to look at.”

Reflecting on what it will mean to have her painting displayed in Washington, D.C., she said, “I think that I haven’t really understood what it means to show at the capital. It hasn’t hit me yet.”

Buentello and Byrnside plan to attend the exhibition opening on Oct. 26. The day prior, one grand prize winner will be announced, to receive $25,000 along with a commission to create a portrait of a living person. Former grand prize winners include Amy Sherald, who went on to paint the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.

Buentello said the honor of being selected among the 46 finalists of the Outwin competition is enough. “I think I’m just humbled to be part of that group, and part of that space,” she said.

For George, the 76-year-old subject of Byrnside’s portrait who also plans to attend, it will be a return of sorts, Byrnside said. During a 50-year career as a civil rights lawyer, George once argued a case in front of the Supreme Court. Byrnside, who did not want to identify George beyond his first name, said he was able to capture a different, more reflective mood of his normally extroverted subject. “His wife said, ‘You caught something that people normally don’t see,” Byrnside said proudly.

“I like talking to people because I want to know their stories,” he said. “So the images of these people are byproducts of that.”

The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today opens Oct. 26 and runs through Aug. 30, 2020. A complete list of artists in the exhibition is available here.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...