I recently taught a self-portrait class to the kids at my studio. I didn’t offer them mirrors because I was hoping to give them the freedom to create themselves without the limitations of looking at their faces. The girls dove in and drew, painted and embellished fun versions themselves but the boys were resistant at first. They eventually settled in and had fun creating themselves as Minecraft blocks and super heroes.
I realized that asking someone to create a self-portrait is a tough request. How do you go about it? I think we are the sum of our life experiences, the things we love, and the places we’ve been. How do you capture that in a drawing or painting? I don’t know that most people can but I do believe that you can reveal your essence in a still-life self-portrait, which is essentially a collection of curated objects.
Still lifes are created when an artist paints, photographs or sculpts a collection of items, and self-portraits are paintings, photos or sculptures created of the artist by the artist. Still-life self-portraits are made when a person compiles things that are meaningful to him to craft a portrait of himself. These arrangements can be photographed or painted and may have a legend included with them. I first fell in love with the notion of the still-life self-portrait when I came across Still Life in The Wall Street Journal’s monthly magazine. The idea is instead of constructing an image of your physical self, you create a vignette of objects in your life that reflect who you are.
Each Still Life showcases a famous person. A couple of months ago, that person was the romance writer, Danielle Steele. She put together a collection of things that she loves, such as her deceased son’s stuffed animals, the typewriter she’s written her novels on, and a portrait painting of herself. I love these because they are beautiful and inviting and I found myself not looking at the separate pieces but at the vignette as a portrait of Ms. Steele.
I figured that I would try to do my own still-life self-portrait. It was not as easy as I thought. While I’ve made clutter portraits of my kids and myself, paring my life down to a few objects was challenging. In order to build a still-life self-portrait, you need to curate your things. I realized that I didn’t want to clutter my portrait while at the same time, I didn’t want to miss anything, plus I wanted the sum of the parts to make a “picture” that was me.
So I began pulling stuff from around the house and piling them on a desk in my living room. It was beginning to look like a junkyard. Things started to get out of hand when I began compiling the cosmetics, creams, and combs that I use to get ready each morning onto the bathroom counter. Kind of like Monet’s Haystack paintings, I realize that I am someone different during each part of the day, a benevolent Sybil. What to do? Do I create a montage of who I am or who I want to be? The best thing to do when confronted with a problem like this is to power through it. So I continued to pull stuff and as things piled up I realized that I wanted my portrait to be more simple and elegant.
What I discovered was that my collection was going in a different direction than I had anticipated. It wasn’t about the things I do or places I’ve been but about the people I love most. There was none of my artwork, or things from my travels, and nothing that indicated that I love writing more than anything else. My treasures were nestled on a silver mirrored desk, a nod to my love of glitz. Above the desk is a big Thomas McKnight lithograph of an artist’s loft, the first piece of art given to me by my mom and the artsy chair, the last, the pink tourmaline given to me by my dad to wear on my wedding day, my favorite photo of my kids, my favorite romance novel, and a hand-built house made by a dear friend. The final piece is a sculpture of a frog prince, given to me by my husband on the birth of our only daughter.
Not only was this a fun and therapeutic process, it also allowed me to create a meaningful vignette in my living room. If you are interested in creating and sharing your own Still-Life Self-Portrait, I’ve created a Still Life Self-Portrait Facebook Page where you can share your photos! If you need more inspiration check out The Annotated Room in The Wall Street Journal and Show Us Your Wall in The New York Times.