Artist Gina Genis is working on her project "Economy Portraits" at Huntington Beach Art Center. Dozens of portraits, along with words from the subjects describing how the recession is affecting them, will be placed on a wall to form an American flag. (KENT TREPTOW, HB Independent / March 29, 2011)

Four dozen photographs coat the wall and hang from the ceiling of the Huntington Beach Art Center, each one taken with a high-definition camera that coaxes out pores, wrinkles and haggard expressions.

Most, if not all, of the subjects are strangers to one another, but their lives intersected when they walked into the center on Main Street, posed before Gina Genis' camera and penned a fragment of their life story on paper.

The 48 portraits — and nearly 200 waiting to be printed — comprise an ongoing exhibit that Genis created to put a face, literally, on the recession.

The Laguna Hills resident, one of four artists taking part in the center's "Open Dialogues" show, hit upon the idea while listening to news reports about the faltering economy. Genis, whose own income has dropped in recent years, set up a camera in one of the center's galleries and has kept busy since the show opened March 1.

Her inspiration "was basically from being highly, completely annoyed with the news," she said. "I would turn on the TV one day and it would say the recession ended two years ago, and then I'd turn on the TV the next day and it would say a big company had laid off 4,000 more people."

The faces Genis has captured vary from seniors to teenagers, local residents to out-of-state visitors. Some have entered the gallery after seeing the show advertised on Facebook or Twitter; others have stopped by on a whim and agreed to pose for the camera.

Each of the photos features a red, white or black backdrop, and the artist is busy arranging them in an American flag design on the wall. After each photo, Genis asks the subjects to write on a sheet of paper how the recession has affected them, and she superimposes their handwriting at the bottom of the picture:

"I can't enjoy a nice dinner out with my family anymore. Dad has to work multiple jobs."

"My hours have been reduced at work, due to budget cuts."

"My school's art and music programs may be cut. I want to be a musician and my music classes are my life."

When curator Darlene DeAngelo began lining up artists for "Open Dialogues," in which visitors can observe the works in progress over a five-week period, she didn't have a set theme in mind. Still, Genis' piece, "Economy Portraits," has proven an apt sign of the times as Huntington Beach struggles with its own budget cuts.

The center, which has seen its city funding reduced by $58,000 this fiscal year, had to fall back on donations from its foundation, the community and the artists themselves to put on "Open Dialogues." In the end, DeAngelo said, the struggle paid off, as the show has featured multiple receptions and brought in a steady stream of patrons.

"People have just been coming out," she said. "It's amazing."

Joining Genis in the 2,300-square-foot gallery are three other Southern California artists. Photographer Robin Repp has taken photos of day laborers and invited them to come to the center to help her construct fences, which then have the photos attached to them. Assemblage artist Jeffrey Frisch is constructing a massive "dreamVessel" out of donated materials and has smaller model boats on display.

Laurie Hassold used found materials of a different kind — her sculptures, which line the walls of one of the center's galleries, are made partly out of real and pretend animal bones. Hassold said the skeleton-line pieces represent the kind of animals that might populate Earth an age or two from now.

"After the human race is out of the way, I'm curious what's going to be at the top of the food chain," said Hassold, who became interested in anatomy as a child when she watched her father perform surgeries. "And, of course, they get to use whatever we leave behind."

If You Go

What: "Open Dialogues"

Where: Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St.

When: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 6 p.m. Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday through April 9

Cost: Free

Information: (714) 374-1650 or http://www.huntingtonbeachartcenter.org