Self Portrait Series 6
Self Portrait Series 6 is an intimate interrogation of authentic identity and my personal concept of self. This series was created with acrylic paint on refined plywood, with a heavy glaze and varnish. The raw plywood, damaged with knots and cracks, yet rounded into ellipses, a naturally occurring nearly-perfect shape, offers an organic foundation upon which to explore my most natural, authentic concept of self—refined with time and experience. These pieces, coupled in pairs of two, explore facets of my identity as I presently see myself. This series explores the concepts of introspection and self reflection; femininity and sexuality; and confidence and strength of self. Motifs of organic imagery, inlaid in vibrant abstract self-portraiture, offer an expressive testament to my identity as well as an intimate introspection of my growth from adolescence to adulthood.
Flowers, to me, are synonymous with memory. I keep a “garden” of dried flowers from significant life events in order to preserve these moments of growth. Thus, when reflecting on my life experiences and their impact on my present identity, flowers are omnipresent. Orchids played a significant role in my life from my adolescence to my ascension to femininity in womanhood. A symbol of sexuality, orchids traced my first relationships, loss of innocence, and later, revitalization of confidence in independence.
2016 & 2017 Exhibitions
I produced Self Portrait Series 6, a six-piece series of abstract self-portraiture, from October, 2016 through January, 2017. I exhibited this series in the Chace Gallery of the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University from Thursday, January 26, 2017, through Wednesday, March 1, 2017. During that period, members of the public could view the series on weekdays from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., in addition to five separate events that included the award ceremony for Emory Center for Creativity and the Arts, three public guided tours, and a private viewing with me. Signs prompted gallery visitors to participate in a brief, anonymous survey as they viewed the artwork. The survey asked them to interpret the artwork and to identify characteristics of the artist based on the content of the series.
On March 1, 2017, I hosted a private reception for close family and friends to view the exhibition. Attendees ranged from close family friends to fellow Emory undergrads to faculty to the Dean of Campus Life at Emory. The response from the community was overwhelming, and will forever be one of my most meaningful memories.
Creating Self Portrait Series 6
Before I began making the art, I established my intentions for the series. I wanted to paint my understanding of my authentic identity. Although I created this series for a public exhibition and analysis, I did not create it as a means to translate as many literal details about my identity to an audience as possible. I tried to refer only to my personal reflections on who I was, rather than cater to my potential future audience. This means that I tried, as best I could, to make paintings for me, as if the communicative imperative of art were suspended.
Rather than approaching this self-portraiture series as a coming-of-age series, I chose to reflect on my understanding of my identity as I saw it at the time of the creation of the series. I identified three primary themes of my self-conception that I wanted to represent in Self-Portrait Series 6: introspection and self-reflection; femininity and sexuality; and confidence and strength of self. I organized the series based on these three concepts, breaking the series down into thirds, each third delineated by size, color, and content.
Narrative of Production: Composition, Symbolism, and Method
I did not know what Self-Portrait Series 6 would look like when I began conceptualizing it. Apart from the rough thematic categories I identified above, I did not have a specific plan for the painted content, and created no rough drafts. The process of creation was organic and fast-paced. Overall, Self-Portrait Series 6 took approximately 260 hours to complete, and was separated into four sections of production.
The first period of production was dedicated to composition and canvas choice. As a self-portraiture series, I wanted to emulate the natural, raw formation of identity as unique and idiosyncratic to the individual, while recognizing the process of refining one's identity through personal choices and life experiences. Raw palette boards offered both the complexities of naturally occurring, unique, organic patterns in wood grain, and the ability to refine the raw material through inorganic means such as cutting, sanding, and priming¾all of which methods were used to refine the wooden frames. It took approximately 50 hours to complete this process.
The frames started out as four by eight foot pallets, which were then cut down into six ellipses of varying heights and widths. I organized these frames into pairs by size. The two smallest frames measure forty-eight inches in height and eighteen inches in width. The two medium frames measure seventy-two inches in height and twenty-four inches in width. The two largest frames measure ninety-six inches in height and thirty-two inches in width. In the gallery space, which was shaped like a hall, the paintings hung in the order of their creation on a single wall opposite windows, with the smallest near the entrance, the medium ones in the middle, and the largest at the end of the gallery.
I chose to format each frame as an ellipse for the same reasons I chose refined wood: the symbiotic juxtaposition of both naturally occurring, unique shapes, with the refined perfection of symmetry. Each planet follows a predictable and elliptical trajectory around the sun—measurable and finite. The reason is that the inertia of a celestial body compels the body to move forward in a straight line, but the gravity of the sun curves the path of the orbiting planet, forming the ellipse. After I obtained the wood panels and needed to decide the composition of Self-Portrait Series 6, my mind continually returned to this shape. I had hoped that the frames would be less eccentric, wider at the center of the ellipse. I was limited, however, by the parameters of the gallery space. Each piece of artwork was hung on a distended section of wall in the gallery, approximately thirty-eight inches wide, so the wooden frames could not exceed thirty-four inches in width.
I produced the paintings in three 70-hour sittings, spent painting the series in thematic pairs. I began with the smallest pair of panels and progressed in order through the largest pair. When painting, I utilize color, form, and texture to narrate content. I designed my color palette based on the clothing that I wear. My wardrobe and other superficial aesthetic choices typically lean towards burgundy, red, magenta, navy blue, royal blue, and electric blue. While I knew I would be using acrylic paint to create this series, I wanted the paint to look and feel like a cross between watercolor and oil paints. Watercolor paintings typically rely on translucent layering of matte colors while oil paintings have opaque layers with distinct luster and vibrancy. I also knew that I wanted the grain of the wood panels to be present throughout the series. In order to achieve these three goals, I chose to alter the consistency of the acrylic paints by adding heavy gloss medium. Adding the gloss medium made the acrylic paint both dense and translucent. When dried, the thick layers of paint are shiny and reflective, and feel like plastic.
I used only six colors of paints to create this series. I did not alter the color of the paint, except for opacity, before applying it to the surface of the painting, but the translucent layers allowed me to create complex color patterns. Every panel received over fifteen applications of layers of paint. I would scrape a thick layer of heavy-body pigment on to the wood frame using a large metal palette knife. Once the layer dried, I would sand down the paint using both coarse and fine grain sandpaper. Sanding allowed me to alter the texture, weight, and hue of the paints. I repeated this process until I was satisfied with the abstract underlayer. Once the abstract underlayer was set, I began visualizing the form of the painting based on the pattern of the underlayer. I specifically looked for movement, directionality, and specific spaces where I wanted to highlight the texture and color of the underlayer. In this photo, Exhibition Piece 1’s over-layer had already been mapped out, while Exhibition Piece 2 was still in the conceptualization phase. I had not planned for either paintings to incorporate the opaque cobalt blue in the over layer. That decision came after an aesthetic choice was made for Exhibition Piece 3.
The three pairs consist of one painting with and one painting without human figural representation. When exhibited, the series alternates paintings without and with human figural representation. Orchids are a common motif in composition and symbolism throughout the series. The stems, buds, and flowers help guide the audience through the abstract portraiture, while adding complexity and symbolism. In the more abstract pieces, the orchids are the only concrete imagery offering information to the audience. In the pieces with human figuration, the orchids are inlaid with scenes of a woman’s body: hair and arm, breast and hip, a clutching hand.
The first, smallest pair centralizes the concepts of introspection and self-reflection. These pieces embody these characteristics through the symbolism of the orchids and young woman, the texture of the paints, and the size of the wooden frame. Because these frames are the smallest in the series, the audience is forced to stand the closest to view their details. This proximity, for me, helps simulate the intimacy of self-reflection. The young woman depicted in Exhibition Piece 2 looks at an orchid, which she grips tightly. Looking into the flower suggests looking in to oneself. The young woman is unconcerned with the audience outside of the painting looking at her. She is within herself, safeguarded by her hair, the closed position of her arm, and the opaque, muddied colors that mask her face and body.
The element of orchids is sustained through the entirety of Self-Portrait Series 6, but their form changes based on the conceptual theme—as does that of the figural representation. The second couplet of paintings, medium in size relative to the others, reflects on femininity and sexuality. This pair of paintings, in my opinion, is explicit: Exhibition Piece 3 shows a blossoming flower at the top of a stem, bountiful with unopened buds, and Exhibition Piece 4 alludes to the profile of a matured female body in the negative space between orchids. The buds, the pre-sexed organs of the flower, signify potential. The blossoming flowers represent my awareness of my own femininity.
I had not planned to use orchids or the female body as recurring imagery prior to production. Upon reaching the juncture where I needed to transition from the abstract underlayer to the detailed over-layer, orchids came to the forefront of my conceptualization. Orchids have become an integral component of my identity throughout my development from adolescence to young adulthood. I had arbitrarily selected these exotic flowers as my favorite around age sixteen. Shortly after, I entered an emotionally abusive relationship where my boyfriend gave me orchids as apologies to reinforce our relationship and his hold on me. I would wear orchids frequently, either in my jewelry or real flowers, for events such as prom and graduation. Orchids became extremely sentimental for me. I began collecting the dried flowers on a decorative wicker panel next to my bed. I still maintain this collection of orchids as my garden of memories. They help me remember how I’ve become who I’ve become. It was only fitting for me to use them as I reflected on the culmination of life experiences that aided in creating my current concept of self.
Exhibition Piece 3 was the first piece I used the matte cobalt blue in. The decision to use the cobalt blue as negative space¾forming the content out of the background of the painting¾was purely utilitarian. I had originally completed Exhibition Pieces 1 and 2 with no cobalt blue. When I drew the orchids in Exhibition Piece 3, they were not visible. I had already used the cobalt blue sparingly in the background, but it was not meant to be at the forefront of the paintings. Out of sheer desperation to reveal the indecipherable flowers, I began filling the spaces between with blue. After completing Exhibition Pieces 3 and 4 (Figure 5), I retroactively painted cobalt blue in to Exhibition Pieces 1 and 2.
As a child, I did not identify, nor portray myself, as a particularly “feminine” individual. I did not question my heterosexuality, nor my given gender, but the way I presented myself was never perceived as feminine. Specifically, the way I dressed (in all black), the sports I played (rugby), and the friendships I kept (primarily with boys), altered not only my peers’ perception of me, but also my perception of myself. I found myself either being bullied for my lack of feminine traits, or, later, chastised for my overt sexuality. Ironically, far before I began viewing myself as a sexual being, people projected their insecurities about sexuality on me. I was only ten years old when I began “developing early,” and only thirteen when my peers decided that I was a “slut.” At fourteen, I had my first kiss. Just before I turned sixteen and fell in love with orchids, I changed the way that I presented myself, partially based on a desire to assimilate with my ever-so-distant female peers, partially based on a desire to stand out, but also in a way to come closer to my changing concept of self. I changed. Amidst the critique of my family and peers, I began to look at my femininity and sexuality less as a weight bearing down on me, and more as a foundation upon which to build my selfhood. The culmination of my awareness of my femininity and sexuality is now constitutive of my present "authentic identity." Exhibition Piece 4 reflects on the physical, mental, and emotional development of my awareness of my own sexuality. The hints of a woman's figure, constructed out of the stems, buds, and blossoms of orchids, speaks to the overt over-sexualization of my body, and my grasp on my own confidence in my sexuality.
The final couplet of Self-Portrait Series 6 portrays confidence and strength of self (Figure 6). Though I do not view identity as a final destination that is achievable or finite, I do view confidence in my identity and conviction in my decisions as important characteristics of my "authentic identity." I have culminatedThe culmination of a series of life experiences that has given me confidence in my concept of self, and fueling the ongoing process of my cultivation of self. These concepts, however, proved to be the most difficult to represent in my artwork. I ruminated over potential compositions for hours before I finally settled on two fully bloomed orchids, forward facing and unobstructed, for Exhibition Piece 5. Exhibition Piece 6 was by far the most difficult work to produce in the series. I could not determine a composition that felt confident to me. I began drawing different options in chalk on the wooden frame: a full woman’s figure wrapped in vines of budding flowers, long billowing hair, a body made of orchids; they were all too complex, too forced. It was the only drafting I did in the entire production of the series.
Confidence, to me, is simple, yet bold. I realized that it was not my body, or my orchids that made me feel strong. It was my hands. My hands gave me the opportunity to gain a firmer grasp on my concept of self, and how it changes, through the creative process. From my creations came my ability to reflect on my self, to observe my relationships with others and with my self, and to manifest my thoughts into paintings¾the most authentic way I know how to communicate. What could be more fitting then, than my hand grasping the symbol of my memories? The orchids symbolize formative life moments, while the buds represent potential for change.
The production of Self-Portrait Series 6 provided me with insight into the process of attempting to represent my identity in visual art. This narration of my creative process is my attempt to preserve the thought processes that occurred throughout production. The themes discussed in this section will parallel the themes discussed in the next section, “Artist’s Intent,” as both the narration of production and my written supplements help express my intent ofSelf-Portrait Series 6. After providing the artist’s statement and answers to my survey in “Artist’s Intent,” I will examine my audience’s responses to their surveys. I will then highlight common trends in audience response, compare my audience’s survey responses to my own, and reflect on my observations of my audience.