Ambling through the state Capitol in her bright red dress, glossy black Mary Jane shoes and shiny strawberry-blond curls, my 21-month-old daughter can get more than her share of oohs, ahhs and adoring looks.
But through the lens of M.J. Alexander, Brenna Faire McDonnell has become more than just a cute baby. She has become a symbol of Oklahoma's children.
“The image of her is iconic,” said Alyson Moses, curator of education and Capitol galleries for the Oklahoma Arts Council. “It's just an attention-grabber. It has made people walk down that hall.”
Alexander's photography exhibition “Portrait of a Generation: Sons and Daughters of the Red Earth” is on view through April 15 in the North Gallery on the first floor of the Capitol. And the artist's portrait of Brenna as a newborn is one of the first photos you see when you enter the gallery.
“When I first lay stuff out, I don't know where it's going to go, so I just kind of line everything up against the wall in no particular order, and I noticed how many people stopped just to look at the baby,” Moses said.
“And to see that she's just 100 hours old, it's a meaningful photograph.”
Considering Brenna isn't quite 2 and already has her portrait exhibited at the state Capitol — even temporarily — the photo certainly is meaningful for our family. Although we have a copy of the image hanging in our home, we took Brenna during spring break to see her picture at the Capitol, where she reunited with Alexander.
From May to October 2010, the artist trekked more than 11,000 miles — from the Rita Blanca Grassland to the Tallgrass Prairie, from the Blue River to the Glass Mountains — to photograph children of the 46th state.
From a champion noodler in Pauls Valley to a Rattlesnake Derby Princess in Mangum, the Capitol show features just a sampling of the more than 250 Oklahomans — primarily children from newborns to college freshmen — pictured in the “Portrait of a Generation” book. Brenna, a sixth-generation Oklahoman on my side, is showcased across from Alexander's portrait of then-17-year-old Joseph Webber, one of the youngest survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing.
“It's fabulous to see it come to fruition because ... there were a lot of dusty roads and chilly mornings and sweaty afternoons,” Alexander said as she watched Brenna and her brother Gabe, 5, dash through the North Gallery.
Shortly before I left on maternity leave in June 2010, Alexander sent me an email about “Portrait of a Generation.” She asked whether I would do a column about the project in the hopes of finding interesting youngsters for it. One of her goals was to feature a newborn, and once the column ran, she asked whether I would let her take photos of my new baby when she arrived.
My husband, Patrick, and I agreed, and when we went into the hospital early on June 25, 2010, for my C-section, Alexander waited with my parents and two sons. While Patrick introduced our family to Baby Brenna, Alexander snapped away, capturing precious moments that happened while I was still in the operating room.
Since her artistic vision was to feature Oklahoma children in Oklahoma landscapes, Alexander took more portraits outside our Del City home the day after we were released from the hospital. As my husband held our 100-hour-old daughter aloft against the vast Oklahoma sky, the artist got the shot that made the book and became a work of art that has previously been exhibited at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and Tulsa Historical Society.
State Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre, D-Tulsa, remembered Brenna's picture from the Tulsa exhibit, and she couldn't help smiling and coming over to meet Brenna when she recognized her as the baby from the photograph.
“The baby in her father's arms and the young man from the Murrah bombing with the flag draped around him ... those were just so memorable,” she said, playing with Brenna at the Capitol. “Then to meet the baby in the picture, the artist and the mom and dad, what a thrill.”
From Girl Scouts to nuns, my family and Alexander watched Brenna's portrait and the baby herself stop at least a dozen Capitol-goers during our visit.
“This exhibit, I love how people have responded to it,” Moses said. “I've had several legislators tell me that they spent a good 30 minutes looking at the exhibit and how much they like it.”
Perhaps the best moment for my family, though, was watching Brenna toddle happily into Alexander's arms as she walked into the gallery. The photographer took my daughter's picture again days after her first birthday and plans to make her sessions with Brenna an annual tradition.
“You have all these wonderful, unique people with stories that are so rooted in Oklahoma. ... This is a snapshot of Oklahoma and the kids at that moment,” Alexander said.
“And as you can see from Brenna, time marches on.”
IF YOU GO
‘Portrait of a Generation: Sons and Daughters of the Red Earth'
When: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 15.