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Trent Tomengo’s Untold Stories are a powerful antidote to cynical populism 

Memory and meaning

When you think of Maitland, it's usually the landmarks and the atmosphere of affluence. How it got that way is mostly an untold story, and artist and Seminole State College Professor Trent Tomengo spent the better part of a year uncovering these stories and creating inspiring portraits of the people who made Maitland what it is today. They're more interesting than you might think.

click to enlarge Trent Tomengo, “Swedish Carpenter”
  • Trent Tomengo, “Swedish Carpenter”

Here are not just famous founders like Joseph Clark and George Packwood, but the ordinary people whose stories have an important place in Maitland's history. Along with a fascinating Polk Museum vignette of books, tools, and objects of everyday life from its own historical collection, the result of Tomengo's explorations, Untold Stories: The Maitland Project, is displayed at the Maitland Art Center.

"I love the idea of a 'grand dialogue' about inclusion," Tomengo told us at the show's opening. He adopted the canon of portraiture usually reserved for white Europeans in three stained-glass lancet windows that enshrine the Carpenter, the Dressmaker and the Housekeeper, elevating their hard work to sainted status as part of Maitland's early history.

The portrait of the housekeeper is, in fact, a portrait of Margaret Esther Falkner, who left Sweden to find better times in America, winding up in Maitland. Azures and grass greens contrast with her cocoa face and hands, reverence in her upturned eyes. Like Tomengo's other paintings, "Housekeeper" is sharply focused and clean.

Forgotten stories of the 1894-'95 big freeze are immortalized in Tomengo's "Change," a 30-inch oil-on-canvas pentagon. Superimposed over orange and indigo banded tubes, a yin-yang references the Eastern notion of change. Orange groves gave way to beach-oriented tourism, symbolized in shades of deep blue, the next chapter of the sunshine state's story. Nearby, the apocryphal "Alligator Man" stands, a rural Florida laborer: usually African-American, found in turpentine camps, orange groves and farms.

click to enlarge Trent Tomengo, “Housekeeper”
  • Trent Tomengo, “Housekeeper”

I-4 gets a portrait too, having ripped unlucky Eatonville asunder. Highway arrows zigzag across the top and the bottom, and a neighborhood's delicate pathways trace secondary lines between ebony and rose-colored squares. It's a gorgeous pattern, making the awful road's destruction of a community into a meditation on linkage and boundaries, speed and dwelling.

At the end of the gallery, visitors can write their own untold story. Danny Powell, writer-in-residence, has set up a typewriter encouraging viewers to sit down, snap a sheet into the old pinch roller and bang away at a theme. It's pretty visceral and satisfying – you may have to wait awhile for someone else to get enough of it. Also look for Powell's "Explosion Box," a curious little package of his own work on display.

Tomengo's thoughtful project encompasses memory and meaning in a time when we struggle to comprehend the here and now. It is currently unfashionable to honor a person's hard work, but he elevates the sweat and manual effort needed to build a community. He places the laborer alongside the founders, a move of inclusivity. Through art, Tomengo gives us a powerful antidote to populist ranting that often demeans and despoils the very people from which it cleaves votes.

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