All art is self-portraiture. It is unavoidable. Through my Polka Dot Theory, we can come to see that something as simple as a polka dot expresses something, however minute, about ourselves. My polka dot is different than your polka dot. Each dot potentially expresses everything from what kind of mood we are in, to how we hold a pencil, to how our entire life’s story is subtly expressed in how we touch a surface and more.
I came to this knowing simply because I have had the opportunity to see literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of folks mark paper. It is always different. It is always unique to that person, that life, that moment. So, no matter what an art project is, we can always trust this. It is unique, singular. It reveals, expresses. It is self-portraiture.
(Recall the Polka Dot Theory was discussed in Part 4 of this series)
Now I generally like to really drive the point home and work with art projects that are in fact images of ourselves. But trusting that even in as much of a polka dot we are expressing ourselves, we can explore absolutely anything as self-portrait. One of my all time favorite projects is the Frida Mirror. Now this project never fails to amaze me. I have dozens of stories from grown-ups to littles about the power and breadth of this project.
I used this project with educators at the local conference, Teachers 4 Social Justice. I focused the project a bit more this time because we were going to do two other similar projects as a way to more deeply explore the experience. I often stay open to how I’m going to frame a project based on my experience of the class and what seems most effective and relevant to the moment. Artists were asked to use the Frida Mirror to show what they found ugly this time.
I once did this project with 600 kids at the same time in an assembly. At the end I had them all stand up and hold their Frida over their head. I was deeply moved to see a sea of Fridas, each different, each beautifully expressive facing me and telling the tale of each artist, each child. I have seen Frida as a wrestler, a devil, an angel, a flower. I have seen her rendered delicately, idealistically, covered in miniscule geometric shapes, whited out, covered black, made to weep more, laugh more, scare more. I have seen someone try to render her ugly, grief-stricken, bereft. The stories that Frida can tell about us are sometimes different than the stories we can easily tell about ourselves.
Based on the effectiveness of this project, I have recently expanded to include other valuable images to use as mirrors. At this conference I also used Martin Luther King Jr.’s image and the Burrowing Owl. For the MLK Mirror, artists were asked to show something themselves that cannot be discerned just by looking at them. We talked about what we can and cannot see about someone by looking at them.
Although we sadly didn’t have time to do the Animal Mirror, there was so much enthusiasm and interest in it, people were actually pleading to take it home as homework. I had to laugh my head off with them. For the Burrowing Owl Mirror I asked artists to show what their greatest strength, their wisdom was in “the night.”
Using images like MLK as a mirror is obviously a great opportunity to learn more about the person and his work and how to continue that work. When I chose an animal image, I looked for an animal specifically relevant to our geographic area. What was great about this, is that different women shared their current experiences about these interesting owls. On the back of this handout, I included basic information about the owl and its habitat. In the future I’m also going to include symbolism, myth and indigenous stories. But this was a last minute idea, so I just got to the basics.
Creating art like this not only serves to bring each artist greater understanding and expression of themselves, it can also help us relate to concepts, like equality and the Civil Rights Movement or the courage to stand for what you believe in non-violently. Martin Luther King Jr. then becomes a part of us and we a part of him, making learning about him more personally relevant. I was so excited to see what the Burrowing Owl would reveal. I know for myself nature serves as a great teacher and reflection. Not a day goes by that I am not captivated by a tree or charmed by a bird. But I guess I will have to wait until the next time I get to play with a group of artists to use this one.