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A Maryland artist spotlighted AFSCME members’ dedication and strength.

By Pete Levine ·
Tags: Our Stories

They’re out every day serving their communities, though far too often, they’re overlooked. Appreciative citizens may offer a “Good morning,” or a “Thank you”; a news crew may feature them after a natural disaster.

But rarely do public service workers – crossing guards, librarians, sanitation workers – become an artist’s subjects.  

For Takoma Park, Maryland-based artist Renee Lachman, a winter-morning glimpse of the sanitation crew who picks up her recycling moved her and ignited her artist’s impulses.

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“Friday Morning Pickups” by Renee Lachman. Photo by Greg Staley.

“I would get up early and see them around 5:30 a.m., running and picking up trash cans,” said Lachman, a 25-year resident of Takoma Park, Maryland, a Washington, D.C. suburb. “I just said to myself ‘This is just like the Olympics. These are our own Olympians.’”

Lachman, an educator and artist who has created public art for the City of Takoma Park in the past, pitched the idea of “Unsung Heroes” to Brendan Smith, the city’s arts and humanities coordinator, who is also the president of AFSCME Local 3399, which represents the workers Lachman hoped to paint. Smith gave her a small grant to turn her vision into reality.

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“Gardeners Moving a Crepe Myrtle” by Renee Lachman. Photo by Greg Staley.

“They weren’t acknowledged,” said Lachman, of the sanitation workers, and she felt they deserved to be. “This was my way of saying ‘Thank you.’”

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“Sterling Durham” by Renee Lachman. Photo by Greg Staley.

Over the next four months, Lachman followed and photographed members of AFSCME Local 3399 (Maryland Council 67), rendering their images into a series of paintings and charcoal sketches that have been on display at the Takoma Park Recreation Center since this summer.

In one acrylic, titled “Misty February Morning” – the image that inspired Lachman – four sanitation workers wearing neon yellow safety jackets appear to silently empty cans into a compactor at sunrise. In another painting, “After a Storm,” workers chainsaw fallen trees and clear a street of debris. In the magical “Words Can Come Alive,” a library shelver seems to caress a flower that emerges – along with several green hummingbirds – from the pages of a book.

Several of the members of AFSCME Local 3399 sat for Lachman, who captured their faces in charcoal sketches that are by turns wry, determined and vulnerable.

Taken together, Lachman offers viewers quiet but moving glimpses of everyday life, and the everyday heroes who keep our communities vibrant.

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