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8th Grade Self-Portrait Project Encourages Individuality

Contributed by Head of Middle School and Assistant Head of the School for Academic Life Renée C. Price.

At a recent Middle School Focus Assembly, Middle School Art Teacher Deva Watson and students from her first-semester 8th Grade Drawing elective discussed the iconic annual 8th Grade Self-Portrait project. Ms. Watson gave a historical framework for portraiture and explained ways in which self-portraiture continues to evolve amongst contemporary artists. "What is portraiture?" she asked. "It's a choice. It's the ability to position your body in the world on your own terms."

Ms. Watson and her students have studied portrait artists including Kahinde Wiley and others.

Andrew Voulgarelis '24, created an artist statement: 

"I learned about Lina Viktor. She is a modern artist who is changing the status quo. She does work similar to work by old masters, but she puts people of color where white people were. This art showcases her culture. She is of Liberian descent. She includes many African and, specifically, Liberian patterns in her painting. This is what I did in mine, just using my Greek heritage. I used a cultural color in the back, and I used patterns on my jersey. I painted myself in a hockey jersey because it is a part of who I am. The sleeves and middle of my jersey are how they really look, but the rest is a Greek pattern."

Adya Jha '24 highlighted detailed elements from her self-portrait:

"My artwork is very symbolism-heavy. Just like Andrew, I used my heritage to inform my art. Each detail has meaning. The entire artwork is inspired by a kind of art, Mithila Art, from where my family comes from in India and Nepal. I used similar patterns and mirrored color palettes that are used there. For example, the halo is trying to capture the idea of a 'sun' and 'moon.' These are common features on the Nepali flag, shown at the bottom right. On the border, I used a fish pattern, which is common in Mithila Art, as it is a staple food. In between my circles, you can see more of the sun and moon motif. I made sure to incorporate Lina Viktor's gold in my artwork, as gold is an important element in South Asian culture as well. Above all, this portraiture class was an exploration of yourself. I learned a lot about my culture, as well as art. I think that it is important that artwork, especially self-portraits, reflect something about the subject back to the viewer. Even if my portrait is not perfect, it has meaning to me, which is what matters." 

Ms. Watson shared data on representation in art from a 2019 national study conducted by researchers from the University of California and Williams College. The study concluded that 85.4% of the works in the collections of all major U.S. museums belong to white artists; 87.4% are men; Asian artists total 9%; Hispanic and Latino artists constitute only 2.8% of the artists; only 1.2% are African American artists. There is work to be done to increase representation of those individuals that produce and consume art in major museums, we learned. We were also inspired to see our own PDS 8th graders provide such thoughtful, symbolic representations in their own self portraits.

Ms. Watson said, "By studying our reflection, we become more aware of what makes us truly unique and special." PDS provides students opportunities to explore who they are so that they can lead lives of extraordinary purpose. I am grateful to be a member of this community.

The 8th Grade portraits will be framed and will remain on display across the campus for the next few years; the work will also join the School's impressive inventory of existing student art in the ongoing project begun last year by Ms. Watson to catalog and create an online collection of PDS student art.

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