This post lists some examples of portrait and figurative artists whose practices tell stories and foster connection. It is part 2 of a 3-part series examining portraiture as ethnography. If you missed Part 1 on the ethics of portraiture you can read it here.
Personal Inspiration: What Started the Fire
Sarah Norquay, Mounira Al Solh
The first theme I will explore here features two artists who, while different from one another, both inspired me greatly in their approach to portraiture.
As a young artist, when I first started my string portrait series, I worried that simple, front-on portraits would be seen as overly traditional, passé, and irrelevant to contemporary spaces and the institutions governing the art world. That wasn’t enough to stop me from following the deep drive I had to execute the project, but I did sometimes feel like I needed to justify its existence. When pitching to galleries and shows I would emphasize my unique approach with materials, and conceptual grounding in the connection I saw between the process of stringlism and psychological theories around the formation of personal identity. They couldn’t just be portraits. I was even discouraged at one point by a mentor to eliminate the word “portrait” from the project completely, focusing on the textures and topology of each piece, framing them as “maps” instead. And in a way they are. With that being said, being a subject in Sara Norquay’s “Citizen of the World”, and hearing her speak about her work, was a grounding, encouraging, inspiring experience as I navigated this territory of understanding and defining my own art.
Maren visiting Sara Norquay’s “Citizen of the World” 2018
I was introduced to “Citizen of the World” in 2017, in my hometown of Edmonton, Canada. I saw some posters up at the University of Alberta hospital, and took a few minutes to visit their gallery where Sara was set up to take photos of anyone who was interested in being a part of her project. She was friendly and gracious and made me feel as comfortable as possible in the sometimes awkward reality of someone snapping your photo. She took a couple shots, pretty candid, just as I was in my toque and spring jacket. It was quick. She showed me the image previews and I got to pick the one she used. Then, eventually, when she had finished carving a linocut print of me based on that image, she made two prints- one she kept for her series and the other was mailed to me to keep. In this way, I felt included, respected and thanked for the use of my likeness.
My face “in the crowd” in Norquay’s “Citizen of the World”.
The following spring I saw Norquay’s project on display at the Harcourt House Artist Run Centre in Edmonton. There was my face, alongside a good 200 other crisp, blue and white images of people from all walks of life. Some of these subjects were from Norquay’s innermost circles, while others (like myself) had just met her in the context of this project, for a brief conversation and snapping of photos. The images were playful yet crisp and aesthetically coherent, and the title “citizen of the world” felt fitting for the interplay I observed between the diversity of each subject but unified effect of the masses of faces that formed the whole. There was a togetherness there.
When Norquay spoke about her work at the exhibition opening, I was struck by how much she just seemed to let the work just be what it was. She seemed open and curious and instead of the project being explained and justified, she just spoke about how it had grown sort of organically based on her interest in connecting with people, and how she just followed the process as the project developed and expanded. It was an experiment, maybe. A side-effect of her just being the artist she was, her relationships, and following her own creative process. It made me feel permission to trust my own process too, and to be ok with exploring my drive towards portraiture.
from Sara Norquay’s “Citizen of the World”
“Citizen of the World” has continued expanding. For Alberta Culture Days 2021, Harcourt House mounted a follow-up exhibit called “Citizen of the World: 300 Portraits”. The increasing scale of the project makes me think of Lincoln Clarke’s reference to an ‘obsession of documenting’ that I mentioned in my Part 1 blog post. Perhaps some of us are deeply, unstoppably driven in this direction. As fundamentally social beings, hard-wired for both connection and creativity, this comes as no surprise.
Mounira Al Solh
Mounira Al Solh is another artist who came to my attention in 2018. I was driving to work and I heard her interviewed on on CBC radio. It was one of those radio segments where I felt my ears perk up like a cartoon bunny; Solh’s voice seemed to speak to my soul. I couldn’t take notes because I was driving, and I couldn’t take notes when I got to my destination because, well, work. But I hung on her every word, trying to pay as much attention as possible, repeating and hoping to memorize what I could.
In the interview, the Lebanese-Dutch artist was speaking about the North American Debut of her exhibit “I strongly believe in our the right to be frivolous” at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show centred around her portraits of Syrian refugees as well as folks from other places in the Middle East and North Africa who had been forced to flee their homes because of war and humanitarian crises.
It started in 2012 when she was living in Beirut. With the outbreak of the Syrian war, many artists and intellectuals began to flee Syria, passing through Beirut. As an artist and intellectual herself, with Syrian heritage, Solh was driven to welcome the many new faces who were arriving in her then-home city. She invited them to her studio to meet and exchange conversations, sketching their likenesses and taking handwritten notes from the sessions at the same time. Then in the expanding fashion of Norquay’s “Citizen of the World”, she continued from here, including encounters with people in Turkey, Chicago, various European cities.
This project was informed from a deeply personal place. Not only did she still have family in Syria at the time, but having grown up during the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) meant that she had her own experience with war that, until then, she had never been able to unpack, reflect upon, and understand. In war, she says, “it’s more about surviving. It’s beyond words”.
Many of the pieces in “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous” were created on yellow lined legal paper bringing a roughness, immediacy and accessibility to the work. I imagine when she was sitting with her subject this brought down the level of stiff formality compared to the process of something like using a canvas or fancy white paper. Likely, it also brought up the speed of immediate creation and allowed her to easily write bits and pieces of the words that came up in the conversations. On a personal level, this informality and roughness of materials combining sketching and writing reminded me of my life-saving practice of sticky-note journaling.
There is another level of meaning to the use of yellow legal paper, as well, specifically in Sohl’s context of connecting to refugees. The 2018 AIC Exhibition statement for “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous” included the following:
The oral histories of displaced individuals to which Al Solh bears witness are as much administrative accounts as personal ones: many of the portraits are drawn on yellow legal paper, a material index of the painstaking bureaucratic processes immigrants go through in order to obtain citizenship.
“I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous” tells the stories of its subjects through drawing, writing and embroidery. Like Clarke’s “Heroines”, it bears witness to people who are too often stigmatized and shoved into the shadows. It honours, renders them visible and humanizes them in a way that contrasts North American media’s unfortunate tendency to flatten, simplify, homogenize and “other” refugees. Her drawings contain marks and lines that are complex, delicate, harsh, and multi-faceted, just like the humans whom she sits with, session after session.
While making this work, I have met with hundreds of people. The encounter would always be very intimate, face-to-face. I am drawing, and they’ll be chatting with me or waiting patiently and curiously until I finish their portrait. At times, I ask some questions to trigger the conversation. Those sessions are moments of truth, of sharing the pain, ideas and aspirations, jokes. I am deeply indebted to everyone who agrees to meet and sit with me and give me their time and, in a way, give me their faces!
Connecting in Institutions
Jennie Vegt, Kristen Ervin
Institutional settings, from hospitals to prisons to the courts to long term care homes, can often have an effect of erasing individual identity and preventing a sense of community by virtue of their necessary focus on efficiency and functionality. They can be scary, lonely places at times.
Jennie Vegt is an artist who also works as a Recreation Therapy Assistant in long term care, and her “Resident Portrait” series (2020-21) showcases individuals she connects with at a human level through the process of drawing. Physical and cognitive barriers mean that some of the residents she works with are unable or hesitant to engage in the art-making activities she facilitates. She noticed, however, that when she set residents up with a project and began to draw or paint herself, there was curiosity and engagement there. Inspired by this, she began sessions drawing residents she worked with and connecting through the mutual vulnerability of drawing and being drawn live. At the end of these sessions, subjects of these series get to keep the drawings she makes of them for themselves.
Much like Mounira Al Solh, stories and conversation are a natural occurrence when artist and subject share time and presence in these drawing sessions, and Vegt has had “amazing conversations” with residents because of the project. Interestingly, Vegt noticed that the trust gained through these sessions also meant that some residents were less hesitant to engage in recreation programs after their portrait had been drawn.
Reading Vegt’s project statement makes me imagine just how much this project can elicit the sense of “you are important, I am here, and I see you” that we all need at a deep level as human beings. She says it beautifully herself:
The more time I spend in long term care, the more I realize the value of simply being present with someone. When I draw a person, they have my undivided attention and the knowledge I am content to sit with them in silence, listen to music together, or listen to anything they might like to share.
Vegt Project Statement from HEART of Healthcare exhibit (2021)
Airports are very different from an institution like a long term care home, yet they can be scary, lonely places too. They are a study of contrasts- excitement, potential and reconnection swirl around with great fear, grief and loss, uncertainty and trauma. These expansive, echoing structures hold such a range of the human experience for people at intense moments of their lives. And all this happens in a racing jumble of bodies moving all directions while others wait and wait and wait.
In the summer and fall of 2018, modern folk artist Kirsten Ervin went to the Pittsburgh International Airport every Thursday, not to travel but as part of an artist residency. The result was her “Passenger Portrait Project”. Even though we all become part of a lumped-together ‘passenger’ category when we pass through these spaces for travel, people in airports are so unique and diverse, from all walks of life and many cultures. Ervin’s portrait series, drawn in bright, colorful soft pastels, highlights that beautifully.
Ervin would set up her supplies in the airport with a friendly cardboard sign that read “Pittsburgh Passenger Portrait Project” in multi-coloured collaged hand-cut letters. Then, anyone who was curious and had some time to spare was welcome to sit for a portrait. Every time someone sat she began with three ice-breaking questions: Where are you going today? What is the best trip you ever took? If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? The handwritten answers to these questions were included with the final portrait. Over 15-20 minutes, she would sketch out someone’s face. Then, she snapped a pic of them alongside her work-in-progress. Backgrounds and finishing details were added later in her studio, and, like Sara Norquay’s “Citizen of the World” project, interested folks who gave Ervin their addresses were mailed their portrait after the project was all said and done.
Like Vegt and Solh, these portraits are created in ‘real time’ in a single face-to-face sitting, leading to conversation and a rough intimate quality in the finished work.
I love the kinds of conversations that happen with people as you draw their portraits. You’re literally paying attention to every aspect of their face, their affect. You’re paying attention to every detail in a way that you don’t do with photography or other art forms…
Drawing or painting a portrait is a very deep meditation on another person as a human being.(5)
Ervin is on to something here. Sketching someone can be a real exercise in empathy, and there is even some science to back that up. Sustained, in-person eye contact has been shown to increase our innate tendency to match our body language with the person we are with, and activate “mirror neurons” in the brain that are linked with empathy and understanding one another.
Pittsburgh Passenger Portrait Project, Kirsten Ervin
The “Passenger Portrait Project” brought lightness and joy to the impersonal place that airports are, both in the process of how she executed them and also how the art turned out- vibrant and full of character. The final 65 were exhibited in the airport in 2019.
My next post will be the final in this 3-part series, featuring more present-day artist examples who have inspired me and helped me reflect on this topic.