Episcopal artists -- you can see them as they see themselves

April 28, 2008

Thirty-one artists contribute works of self-expression to the latest exhibition, Portraits of the Self, launched on the Episcopal Church & Visual Arts website this month.

It is the first exhibit of 2008 and the 25th on the Episcopal artists' website since the organization was inaugurated in 2000.

The artists in this exhibit of 40 self-portraits present themselves within a wide range of interpretations. "From the introspective nature of self-conception to the outward-looking nature of creating visual art, from revealing to concealing identity, self-portraiture is characterized by persistent contradiction," said the curator, David C. Hancock, in his introduction to the exhibit." Honesty and deceit each play their part in facing the 'self' with its deep hidden truths, and in sharing these personal discoveries with others."

Some interpretations, he said, resemble the physical likeness of the author, and the viewer will quickly identify these as self-portraits. "Others subordinate identity to the language of design, reminding us that a self-portrait is a glimpse of the self-injected into a world of visual dynamics, with all the peculiarities of the visual language and the limitations of a medium.

"Identity is always constant and in flux. Self-discovery is a changing process and it carries its own elements of surprise and compromise."

Michael Chesley Johnson, an award-winning oil and pastel painter working primarily in the American Southwest and the Canadian Maritimes, said he found himself doing a series of self-portraits that featured some of his many hats. Johnson is known as an "en plein air" painter, a French expression which means "in the open air" and is particularly used to describe landscape painting.

"Wearing an unusual hat for a self-portrait seems to give the painting a dimension of humor -- something rare in a painting these days," said Johnson of Lubec, Maine, who has two self-portraits in the exhibit, one with a red toque and one with a black winter beret. "Viewers may ask, 'Why the hat?' Humorous hats make the viewers laugh and I like that."

Roberta Karsletter of Delavan, Wisconsin, said the invitation artists received in Lent helped her think about things that keep her separated and distant from God. "The 'me' represented in my piece [mixed media art] has a collection of masks over one eye -- I too mask some things, hide them from others, and am not as open as I should be with God," she said. "[My] hands represent willingness to give to others and share Christ's love from my heart, and I cling to the cross..."

"I'm a bit of a Jill-of-All-Trades," said Samantha Ellis of Petersburg, Virginia, in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, whose photograph reveals only her eyes communicating with the viewer. "I dabble in many different types of media. Primarily I'm a quilter and photographer."

Describing her photo, with her face almost totally hidden behind a black embroidered scarf, Ellis said: "As open as we may think we are, we as imperfect humans rarely show our true selves to others. Whether as a defensive measure, or in reaction to past hurts or cruel comments, the person other people see is not the person God sees."

She said her most recent project is to take one photograph a day for an entire year. "Each day is a clean slate and I have to wait for the photo to make itself known," she explains. "Patience and 'letting-go' are hard virtues to master."