MANCHESTER - What does a painting of a Renaissance-era Italian courtier have to do with a group of 17 American "emerging adults"? More than meets the eye at first glance.

In one of the galleries of the Frick Collection in New York hangs a portrait of a young aristocrat from 16th century Italy. Painted by Agnolo Bronzini, the young gentleman was clearly already an established person of court, married, it turns out, and with a look that suggests an understanding of the likely path through life that lay ahead of him.

Middlebury-based artist Kate Gridley stood before this painting nearly five years ago and realized, she said in a recent interview, that the young Italian courtier was about the same age as her oldest son, who was still in the process of discovering his path.

Artist Kate Gridley, center, will be opening an exhibit of near life-size portraits of youngsters of the millenial generation at the Southern Vermont arts
Artist Kate Gridley, center, will be opening an exhibit of near life-size portraits of youngsters of the millenial generation at the Southern Vermont arts Center on Saturday, Aug. 3. (Andrew McKeever photo)

"And I got to thinking how, in our culture, at this time, 23 and 24 year-olds haven't necessarily found their life partner nor have they necessarily found their careers or chosen path," she said. "While they are exposed to many things in the world, neither are they necessarily world-wise."

"Emerging adults" is a relatively new term coined by social scientists to describe that point in adolescence (itself a relatively new term that only came into common use only about 100 years ago) where the passage to independent living is underway, but not yet complete. It can be an exciting, optimistic time as well as one of confusion and uncertainty, and it is the theme for an interesting and unusual exhibit of oil paintings set to open at the Southern Vermont Arts Center this weekend.

"Passing Through: Portraits of Emerging Adults," is a collection of 17 life-size oil paintings of young adults Gridley has been working on for the past four years, since that moment in the Frick. In this digital era where images are created near instantly and the concept of salon-style portraiture, particularly of youngsters, easily qualifies as something of a throwback, she has added another wrinkle; "sound portraits" of the young adults where we hear them talking in their own words about their views on themselves, their lives and future hopes. In a nod to the modern era, viewers of the show, which will be displayed in the Elizabeth de C. Wilson Museum at SVAC, will access these portraits through their cell phones. So bring yours, and don't turn it off when you go in.

Gridley's interest in painting members of the so-called "millennial" generation got an additional boost, when she and her husband traveled to Ohio to help campaign for a political candidate in 2008. They were door-to-door canvassers, and all their field bosses were youngsters in their early 20s. They were bright, idealistic and technically savvy, she said.

"We were so inspired by their passion we left thinking, 'this generation gives us hope,'" she said. "And I thought I'd paint (members of) this generation, because I find them interesting and exciting."

The result is the 17 portraits, each five feet high and 30 inches wide, of "emerging adults" between the ages of 17 and 24. Each had some connection to Middlebury insofar as they passed through Gridley's home and studio because they were acquaintances of her own children, or had spent time in the area. One is a former Fresh Air Fund child; another is a friend from Germany. Together they form a mosaic and an unscientific cross-section of the people who will reshape America and the world in the 21st century.

The process of creating each one of the images involved several sittings. Gridley photographed them and, together with former National Public Radio correspondent Ann Garrels who worked with Gridley to prepare the sound portraits, the painted portraits began to emerge.

"The deal was that anytime they were in town they would come by and we'd do a quick sitting," Gridley said. "I felt like each of these young people were willing to stand up and declare something that they believed in - they were not afraid to take a risk and tell us about what they were thinking." Over the course of the sittings and interviews, they shared their thoughts, fears and observations. We meet Elizabeth, who is conflicted about her enjoyment of cooking for other people while thinking of herself as a firm advocate for women's rights. Can she be both a nurturer and a strong woman? There is Danny, who wonders about how to be an effective change agent in the world. Can he do what is right for the world and make a good life for himself at the same time? Then we meet Esthena, a math major and history minor at college. "I have done so much in one sense, but I haven't done anything in another sense," she says. "I can't wait to see what's up next."

"Passing Through" is premiering at the Southern Vermont Arts Center with an opening reception on Saturday, Aug. 3, from 2 to 4 p.m. After its run here, it will travel to other locations in Vermont before going on an extended tour. The show will also feature three looping videos that will further describe the process behind the scenes that led to the exhibit.

Several other organizations contributed to the production of the exhibit, including the Growald Family Foundation, the Vermont Folklife Center, the Vermont Studio and the Vermont Community Foundation, Gridley said.

For more information about the exhibit and the arts center, call 802-362-1405.