Middle School art teacher Deva Watson brings a distinctive personal perspective to the School's annual 8th Grade self-portrait project, a highly anticipated tradition for the past several years.
"With the popularity of social media, we live in a society that has become 'selfie-obsessed,'" Ms. Watson notes, a phenomenon that has perhaps obscured the value of the self portrait for many. Selfies allow individuals to manipulate an image of themselves as they strive to achieve the perfect rendition of how they want others to see them. For many of us, these images of self are used as a way to receive validation from their social circles.
"The big difference between selfies and self-portraits," Ms. Watson explains, "is that, in general, we create a self-portrait that reflects how we see ourselves." Rather than focusing on others reacting to how we look, Watson adds, the process of creating self-portraits allows us to explore and reflect on the concept of self, personal self-expression and what makes us truly unique and special.
For this year's projects, 8th Grade students examine the history of self-portraits and the work of artist Kehinde Wiley. Wiley is best known for painting young black people he encounters and placing them in revamped versions of traditional portraits, often from prior historical eras. In so doing Wiley transfers the glory, power and prestige once reserved for privileged, primarily white subjects to modern black men and women wearing everyday clothing. "His work fuses the past and present in ways that force us to confront our notions of wealth, importance, race and gender," Ms. Watson notes.
With his rendering of Barack Obama's official presidential portrait, Wiley has no doubt become an icon for aspiring portrait artists and art lovers for decades to come. Watson explains, "We examined how Barack Obama's portrait has secret symbols of his past, present and future in his floral background. I asked students, 'how can your portrait background represent you?' As students examined themselves, I then asked them to reflect on the question, 'where do we find power in our own identities?'"
Students examine themselves through drawing their portrait using graphite pencil. They go a step further as they develop and paint a background that represents their cultural identity. For example, Jared Sandberg '23 examined his Filipino culture by painting a common Filipino textile in the background and including the hibiscus flower, a national flower of the Philippines, along his collar.
The 8th Grade portraits will be framed and will remain on display across the campus for two to three years; the work will also join the School's impressive inventory of existing student art in a new project undertaken by Ms. Watson to catalog and create an online collection of PDS student art. -Melanie Shaw
Photos of PDS students and student art courtesy of Deva Watson: Top, Jared Sandberg '23 with his self-portrait; below, Julian Liao '23 self-portrait study; Rania Shah '23 and Winston Ni '23 with their work; Kehinde Wiley's version of "Comforter of the Afflicted I, 2016" on right; "Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted I" stained glass, left.