Self-portraits are revealing not only of the artist, but of the time period the artist lives in and a historical representation of universally shared human experiences with local, national, and global communities who occupy the same timeline. When the artist is shown as an Observer, the painting of self is merely a cameo appearance. In “Natalie at the Fountain“, the viewer sees only the back of me as I’m taking a picture of the featured subject, the fountain.
When the artist is depicted as an Observer, the painting may have a nostalgic, vintage, or surreal vibe, like seeing the presence of a time traveler. In the fountain art, I painted in the present what I had done in the recent past, that would then be viewed far into the future. All of that can bend the mind into pretzels if we think about it long enough. When the Observer is painted differently from the overall composition- different color (like my red dress), style, perspective, or in any other way that draws attention to the cameo appearance- the Observer looks even more like a time traveler who witnesses a fleeting dot on our shared timeline.
When the artist is more than an Observer, but instead a Participant, the self-portrait drives the painting. In “Come to the Garden“, I am part of the composition as I sit on the swing with my mug in hand, sunhat showing you that it’s a warm sunny day here in coastal Georgia, and the tilt of my head guides you to join me in being captivated by the birds, flowers, and trees. In this way, my presence serves as a storyteller who brings all of the eclectic elements of nature together under one cohesive work of art.
Instead of standing separate and apart in a red dress among a subtle earthy backdrop like in the fountain painting, this time I’m wearing the subtle hues while the rest of the composition pops with vibrant color and striking contrast. While I’m a Participant, I am not the Star. The self-portrait doesn’t upstage the featured elements of the composition, but instead complements and supports the art.
When a self-portrait is the Star, it is the main feature of the painting. “Fred” was inspired by a black and white photograph that my late father took of me when he needed willing subjects for his photography class. The picture of me peeking out from behind the neighborhood fire hydrant was taken at Grissom Air Force Base housing, where Dad was stationed at that time. The entire painting is about the self-portrait, and that’s where the story is. Subject placement makes this obvious, but the lack of details in the surrounding landscape (while there are many details in the featured subject) also points the viewer toward the self-portrait as the Star.
Whether a self-portrait of an artist is depicted as an Observer, Participant or the Star, a painting that reveals a glimpse of the artist and the timeline shared by all who occupy it, is a historical marker. Sharing one’s life with others adds to the tapestry of this universe that we call home. In this way, art is like time travel. Will you journey with me?