Dervon Kyle Credit: Reginald Cunningham

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“I don’t usually smile too much,” says Pepco cable splicer mechanic Dervon Kyle. Yet his portrait—with a hint of a smile—is currently on display at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery in downtown D.C. His is one of the most gripping images in Life Beyond the Line, an installation that opened in mid-January and is on view to Feb. 28.

Kyle grew up in Southeast D.C., in the Deanwood area. “Where I’m from and everything, we never really experienced someone doing something like that for us,” he says.

The display teeters between a public relations campaign and an art exhibition. The creative team of the multibillion dollar company Exelon Corporate, which Pepco is a part of, hired D.C. photographerReginald Cunningham to produce artwork as a way to highlight their community outreach programs.

Cunningham took photographs, including 10 48-inch-by-72-inch portraits on Sintra board, that emphasize the gaze of each individual. Some are smiling widely as if engaging with the viewer; others are looking away from the camera. Cunningham artfully captured each subject’s personality and humanity, so the photographs feel like more than promotional materials. The collection is powerful.

Cunningham shares that “a sense of social justice” was part of his motivation for this project. “People tend to move to this city and take instead of giving,” he says, adding that the stories of D.C. natives become lost in the process.

“It became very important for me that this project … was amplifying stories of people who are here, who are contributing to the society as productive D.C. citizens, and not people who are just going to be here for the term of whatever senator they work for, or people who are coming into the city, moving here, and trying to silence the culture of the city,” says Cunningham, who is a D.C. transplant himself, hailing from St. Louis. 

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The 10 portraits are of recently hired Pepco employees who were among the first 22 graduates of the D.C. Infrastructure Academy, a joint initiative of Pepco and the D.C. Department of Employment Services. According to the city government’sannouncement of the program, the academy helps its residents find long-term employment in the District’s growing infrastructure sector. This inaugural class, which included one woman graduate, learned the technical skills needed to work as transmission lineworkers who install, maintain, and repair the electrical systems that power the metropolitan area.

Alongside Cunningham’s large-scale portraits, other elements in the Pepco Gallery have more of a public relations vibe. A second room includes photos that were taken by Pepco Holdings photographer Richard Giammaria which document linemen on the job. Along with visuals, the gallery plays a recording that Exelon produced of these 10 men discussing their work and the D.C. Infrastructure Academy. They share the benefits of employment—only hinting at the dangers of working on an electrical transmission line. “You always want to make sure that not only you make it home,” one man says in the audio, “but everyone on your team makes it home.”

Pepco’s strategic communications manager Christina Harper explains that the company’s motivation behind this project was to connect with the community and change perceptions. “You’re getting to see that the people who actually power your homes, your businesses, your community, your rec centers; they really all have great stories to tell and we want to sort of break down that barrier,” she says. “You also can understand and relate to the people who are providing that service.”

Life Beyond the Line is not as polished as a commercial art gallery, nor is it affectedly “arty” like other off-the-grid galleries. But the Pepco Edison Place Gallery is not a traditional gallery, and it is not trying to overpower the art scene. It is a 4,000 square-foot space designed to host nonprofit activities. 

The exhibition kicks off the Pepco Gallery’s 2020 exhibit schedule. They held a request for proposals to fill exhibit slots and intentionally selected programs focused on diversity and inclusion, according to Pepco’s senior manager of corporate relations Mellanie Lassiter, who oversees the gallery. So far, Pepco Edison Place Gallery’s 2020 programming connects to D.C. youth artists, artists with disabilities, LGBTQ artists, and elderly artists. 

Each individual portrayed in Cunningham’s 10 large portraits gets to take theirs home. When asked what he plans to do with his, Kyle said he plans to hang it in a house he’d like to buy and tell his visitors “that’s what I achieved working where I was working.”

Life Beyond the Line is on view to Feb. 28 at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery. 702 8th St. NW. (202) 872-3396.pepco.com/SafetyCommunity/Community/Pages/PEPCOEdisonPlaceGallery.aspx

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