Mexican artist Hugo Crosthwaite is being honored this weekend in Washington, D.C. as the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery opens the “Portrait of a Nation” exhibition.
Crosthwaite’s portrait of Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, will be unveiled Thursday alongside portraits of Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Ava DuVernay, Clive Davis, Marian Wright Edelman and José Andrés.
The portrait of Fauci is not a traditional painting on canvas or paper — though plenty of paper was used. Crosthwaite’s work is a five minute stop-motion animation film that captures Fauci’s long and storied career.
In his airy Rosarito studio 45 minutes south of the U.S.-Mexico border, Crosthwaite spent months meticulously drawing and photographing, composing a narrative portrait of Fauci to create the film.
Crosthwaite is known for recent stop-motion animation works and large scale public murals. He won the San Diego Art Prize in 2021. In 2019 he won first prize in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Part of his prize was this commissioned portrait of Fauci.
The animation is an extraordinary look at someone who has been the face of science in America during the pandemic. It’s intricately, stunningly rendered and powerful to watch.
The final work is more than just a portrait of Fauci. The animation gave Crosthwaite a chance to tell a bigger story.
“To me, doing that portrait had this opportunity not just to do the portrait of a man, but do a portrait of this particular moment that we’re living in, this pandemic,” Croshtwaite said.
The film is set to music from composer Marilu Salinas, plus Ramón Amezcua, who created the Tijuana electronic ensemble NORTEC. It opens with gloomy, suspenseful music and a drawing of Fauci, pensive, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fauci’s career is bookended by crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic today, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s. Crosthwaite shows a stark contrast in attitudes toward public health and science, now and then.
“They were fighting for medicines. They were fighting for government involvement to save them — to help them deal with this pathogen,” Crosthwaite said of protestors during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “And then with the COVID-19 pandemic, kind of the opposite happened. Now, we have a vaccine. We have the medicines, we have the treatment. But then it’s a population that rises against those things.”
Crosthwaite began drawing as a kid, killing time in his father’s curio shop in Rosarito. Then while people watching along Tijuana’s busy streets and plazas. He drew elaborate narratives, whether invented or reflective of a human condition.
In Fauci’s portrait, the narrative rises from the American response to the pandemic.
“In a moment where truth was being denied and alternative facts were coming up, (Fauci) became this personification of science, of real fact, of truth. So then immediately I knew that the narrative that I wanted to tell with this animation would be these two antagonistic forces. It would be science against superstition. Truth against lies,” Crosthwaite said.
The portrait depicts Fauci several times over the years. There’s an iconic moment where a social media “thumbs up” icon hovers at the presidential podium. Fauci, in the background, looks worn down.
To make a stop-motion video, Crosthwaite does it all by hand. He draws a detail, snaps a picture by holding his camera above the drawing, then draws another detail — and repeats.
The effect is full of movement. As figures emerge and wobble with tiny shifts of the camera angle, the animations buzz with life.
“It’s this process where one detail leads to the next, and leads to the next. And then I’m composing narrative, kind of like a writer or a poet would compose a poem, where you string together words and you’re creating a narrative. That’s the same process I use with my work, with my drawing,” Crosthwaite said.
In the process of creating the Fauci animation, Crosthwaite created 19 separate drawings, and will show seven of them in the gallery alongside the video.
The animation ends with a recent likeness of Fauci. But along the way there are health care workers, protestors, sick people connected to ventilators and someone receiving a vaccine — all elements of Fauci’s legacy.
“One hundred years from now, nobody’s going to know who Dr. Fauci is. Nobody’s going to know who I am. Names and places get forgotten, but stories are universal. We’ve had this story of science fighting against superstitions since there’s been science,” Crosthwaite said.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will display the film in the “Portrait of a Nation” exhibition beginning Thursday through October 2023. Then the work will be added to its permanent collection.
The artist Kadir Nelson, who was raised in San Diego, will also be part of the “Portrait of a Nation” exhibition, with his oil painting of chef and humanitarian José Andrés.