Know Thyself

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"Adolescence is tough for everyone and self-identifying in a visual way can be pretty empowering," says Megan Wells, an art teacher from Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana, who believes that self-portraiture can be particularly important as a tool when facing identity quandaries (as most teenagers do). The achievement for the students is not just in visual academics, but also in forming ideas of how they want to see themselves.

A long time ago, before every human had a readily available camera to capture duckfaces, the self-portrait was the only way to observe the self as an art object. Painters, sculptors and printmakers contemplated their physical appearance and its transcendence by representing their likeness through their work, thus preserving themselves with the first known form of time traveling, and allowing future art historians to endlessly ponder the artists' philosophies, intentions, love lives and sexualities. Most of my favorite painters go heavy on the self-portraits: Frida Kahlo, Rembrandt, Francesco Clemente, Van Gogh and Caravaggio, because (aside from being able to observe the color and composition choices made by the painter) I am also able to see their choices in how to represent themselves. Self-portraits are often the most revealing way we can learn about who artists are by being a snapshot of self-presentation.

"I like the range of colors you can play with when painting skin," says Robert Meko on the value of self-portraits. - ROBERT MEKO
  • Robert Meko
  • "I like the range of colors you can play with when painting skin," says Robert Meko on the value of self-portraits.

Besides, still life self-portraiture is probably the most popular assignment art teachers and professors alike employ to teach their students how to translate life onto paper or canvas. While many are quick to call out narcissism and self-centeredness, it is important to note self-portrayal, both explicit and metaphorical, can be instrumental when learning about ourselves.

From her teaching experiences, Wells finds that high school students have more fun completing self-portrait assignments.

"They have a better grasp on visual interpretation and are less frustrated with their lack of skill," she explains. "I think my older students are learning how to express ideas in a visual way, and the younger kids think their work is not going to be successful unless it's realistic."

Wells often asks her students to think about self-portraiture as showing the world who they are, and as a result, they sometimes end up feeling more proud about their portraits than any other works they create.

Meko enjoys the practicality of self-portraiture, saying that he is the most available model he has to work with. - ROBERT MEKO
  • Robert Meko
  • Meko enjoys the practicality of self-portraiture, saying that he is the most available model he has to work with.

Robert Aurel Meko, a local artist, avid self-portraitist and former classmate of mine, believes that self-portraiture is not necessarily always about identity exploration. While he agrees that using oneself as subject matter can lead to great self discovery, he also sees a utilitarian side to it. "A lot of it is just as an object," he says, "I like painting humans, and I like the range of colors you can play with when painting skin -- I am the most readily available model I have," says Meko.

He often uses himself as a visual reference for the construction of other human characters in his work. "I have painted myself as other people or crazy versions of myself," he adds.

In fact, I remember in our junior year of painting, Meko presented a series of self-portraits as different characters he observed while living in Fountain Square (before the area had its facelift). The series was not only humorous and original, but it also featured the honest value of understanding the unavailability of the characters to pose for these particular paintings. It worked in concept and in practicality, but it also inadvertently told a part of Robert's life story.

This is why I love self-portraiture. It speaks to me about the magic and the vulnerability of the human condition without the constraints and limits of verbal language.

Meko creates self-portraits sometimes as a visual reference when painting other humans in his works. - ROBERT MEKO
  • Robert Meko
  • Meko creates self-portraits sometimes as a visual reference when painting other humans in his works.

Our newsfeeds continue being populated with our acquaintances' selfies. Journalists continue to wonder whether society is collectively suffering body dysmorphia. But let's put our judgment aside and consider that without exception, everyone's physicality is fleeting. In spite of human efforts, the only thing some of us have is our cell phone camera to contemplate all of the forever-gone-moments of our object selves.

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