Of Self and Selfies

Most of the art I’m attracted to looks like shapeless blobs of color or pattern. Sometimes you can pick out a thing or two. Mostly not. But I also love portraits. Abstract art is, for me, about emotion, and portraits are about both emotion and thought.

I spend extra time studying portraits. The first way most of us connect to another person is by sight. If a portrait draws me in, I want to know who I’m looking at – not just a name, but who they are. What was the artist’s relationship with the subject? What does the artist think about the subject? If it’s a self-portrait, what does the artist want us to know about him or her?

Van Gogh, among the greatest of portraitists, wrote that he wasn’t trying to capture his subjects’ appearance so much as “the thought, the soul of the model.” (Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles.) Van Gogh painted a lot of self-portraits (mostly because models cost money, and he was always broke). Do his self-portraits show his thoughts and soul?

Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait as an Artist"

Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait as an Artist"

More than a third of Frida Kahlo’s paintings were self-portraits, and they are so iconic that I’m hard-pressed to think of a Kahlo painting she isn’t in. Her self-portraits are frequently disturbing. Compare them to Kahlo photographed by Nick Muray, who was in love with her. Her confidence is all there, but the hard edges and violence in her self-portraits are softened through Muray’s heart and lens. Kahlo’s self-portrait below is from 1940 and Muray’s photo of her is from 1939, so roughly the same time frame.

Frida Kahlo by Nicholas Muray, 1939

Frida Kahlo by Nicholas Muray, 1939

Frida Kahlo self-portrait, 1940

Frida Kahlo self-portrait, 1940

Artists can put their perceptions of their subjects or themselves right out there, but the artist can also protect the subject’s privacy by what he or she leaves out. One of my favorite portrait exhibits was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) a few years ago – Nick Nixon’s annual portraits of his wife Bebe and her three sisters over forty years. The black and white photos are enigmatic. The sisters rarely smile, and are almost without expression. Can we tell who they are? Do their faces show the joy, grief, and wisdom they must have gained over 40 years? Or are we only seeing these women age?

2010 photo from Nick Nixon's series, The Brown Sisters

2010 photo from Nick Nixon's series, The Brown Sisters

Can portraits influence social change? Images can communicate ideas. What’s propaganda if not communication of an idea with an intent to influence change? I ran across this article about a temporary public art project in Washington DC. Short videos of residents were projected on walls and windows in their neighborhood so faces became familiar, less threatening, and neighbors were no longer strangers to each other. It was created to facilitate neighborhood cohesion. The format reminded me of Jaume Plensa’s big video screens in Chicago’s Crown Fountain, which has a similar purpose. The people whose faces are on the giant opposing screens seem to be in conversation with each other. They represent a cross-section of Chicago residents: male and female, old and young, multiple races. They remain strangers to us, but are warm and welcoming, not threatening.

Jaume' Plensa's video in Crown Fountain, Chicago

Jaume' Plensa's video in Crown Fountain, Chicago

Or a subject can play a role – appear to be someone they are not. Cumming says, “That portraits are like performances is a truth rarely in need of mention.” (From The Vanishing Velazquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece.) A Rembrandt self-portrait I saw in Amsterdam showed him as the Apostle Paul. Cindy Sherman has made a career of photographing herself as various, usually edgy or downright creepy, characters.

Rembrandt as the Apostle Paul

Rembrandt as the Apostle Paul

Selfies generate plenty of sneers but I think they’re fascinating. Group selfies verify us as social beings, as part of something. Here I am in this time and place, with these people. A solo selfie shared on social media is a choice we make about how we want to be perceived, and it asserts our place in the world. Selfies let us curate our lives in a way that wasn’t possible before social media. If portraits are about seeing thoughts and souls, then selfies show the heads and hearts of the masses. I don’t think they are about ego, necessarily. Pictures document our lives, same as always. They say to the world: I exist.

One of the most successful exhibits ever at the Art Gallery of Ontario was In Your Face. It was initially planned to be kind of a throwaway, something to fill a gallery during the museum’s remodeling. The museum asked people to send in a 4 by 6-inch self-portrait, made from any medium. People sent in portraits created from yarn, magic marker, pen, paint, whatever. The response was incredible – 20,000 people sent in self-portraits. Visitors would look at the portraits and comment about the similarities between themselves and the subjects, not about the differences. The AGO set up an Instagram page for the self-portraits; people added theirs to the Instagram exhibit long after the one in the museum closed. The self-portraits were later moved to Canada’s National Portrait Gallery.  

In Your Face at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

In Your Face at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

An exhibit called This Is Not a Selfie is making a distinction between self-portraits that are art and selfies which, it strongly implies, are not. The exhibit is substantially about art snobbery, judging self-portraits in a one-dimensional way as art or not-art. One of the quotes says that artists’ self-portraits show “who we are as a culture.” And selfies don’t?! Sorry, but I think Facebook says a lot more about our culture than Cindy Sherman does. There are clearly qualitative differences between the pictures of myself I put on Facebook and Nick Muray’s photos of Frida Kahlo, but that’s ok. My intent wasn’t to make art.

Cameras democratized portraiture. Middle and even lower-income people could afford to have a portrait made, to document an event or a family member going to war. Affordable personal cameras took it a step further, though there was still an expense when we had to pay for film processing. Digital photos and especially phones gave photo power to the people. Virtually everyone has the power to document anything, no matter how trivial, for virtually no cost. And I think it's awesome. 

BONUS MATERIAL: My sister introduced me to this band, Lake Street Dive, who named a whole album "Bad Self Portraits." Love the title song!!

This is a story about people who have a remarkable resemblance to people in portraits. It is a fun way to spend two minutes of your life. The likeness between the painting and the young woman in the first picture is amazing.

Martin Gayford, who wrote the Van Gogh book I referenced above, also wrote Man with a Blue Scarf about his experience sitting for a portrait by Lucien Freud and about portraiture generally. Recommended reading.

Selfies in the news: Museums encourage selfies in galleries, knowing that the subject will give the museum free promotion, including when someone falls over and breaks the art. Which happens a lot.

As always, thanks for reading!

Placemaking and Aging Harley Riders

As a baby boomer with parents in their late 70s, their living situation is a growing concern for me. My folks are still ok driving, they maintain the yard and house, and they are physically active. But we all see a day coming when they will not be as self-sufficient and active as they are now.

As their likely caregiver, their location dictates where I spend a lot of my vacation time in the next few years. Happily for me, that’s Skidaway Island in Savannah, Georgia (pictured above. Thanks Mom and Dad!). The island has 10,000 residents, about as many as Cadillac. There is a good grocery store, library, health club, a restaurant, a couple of churches, and a pharmacy accessible by road as well as a walking/golf cart path, but doctors and other stores are off the island and require a car – there’s no public transportation. I’d like to see them stay in their house if that’s what they want, but clearly they will need some help as they become less mobile.

They may also find that their social opportunities diminish with their transportation options. Mom’s book club and bridge group are on the island but not walkable. Dad’s social circle is his golf group, which plays off the island. A criticism of the “aging in place” model – put some grab bars in the bathtub and you’re good to stay – is that, sure, you can stay in your house, but unless you can still drive, you can’t actually leave your house. In some residential situations, people who age in place may become more isolated than if they were in an institution. New York Times columnist Jane Brody wrote this column a few weeks ago about aging in place - from the perspective of a woman in her 70s. It's worth a read if you're interested in the topic. 

The World Health Organization has identified eight factors that contribute to age-friendly communities: community services and health care; transportation; housing; social participation opportunities; outdoor spaces; respect and social inclusion; opportunities for civic participation and work; and communications and information. The AARP has livability fact sheets for community planners that cite bicycling as a transportation option, dense, walkable neighborhoods, trees, and traffic calm as assets to make “great places for people of all ages.” Hmmmm, sound familiar? These have a lot in common with that list of placemaking characteristics I included in a previous post (see below). If we’re going to do placemaking, it should be for EVERYONE. Not just hipsters, not just artists, not just bloggers.

12 Steps to a Great Public Space

  1. Protection from traffic
  2. Protection from crime
  3. Protection from the elements
  4. A place to walk
  5. A place to stop and stand
  6. A place to sit
  7. Things to see
  8. Opportunities for conversations
  9. Opportunities for play
  10. Human-scale
  11. Opportunities to enjoy good weather
  12. Aesthetic quality

To which I would add:
Opportunities for active engagement and participation
Opportunities for quiet and reflection
Places to get food and drinks

Ideally, elders wouldn’t be segregated unless they wanted to be. A well-designed and executed community wouldn’t need special housing or amenities for the elderly and/or disabled, because health care, transportation, opportunities for civic participation, and outdoor spaces would be there for the hipsters, artists and bloggers already. Communities that are walkable with nearby services allow people who don’t drive to maintain all or most of their activities as they age. Walking creates all kinds of benefits – health, social, local economy, and environmental. Amenities for pedestrians usually translate pretty well to people on wheels – wheelchairs and walkers as well as bicycles and strollers.

This ad is from 1962. Lawn bowling! Archery! Shuffleboard!

This ad is from 1962. Lawn bowling! Archery! Shuffleboard!

There is a range of housing options targeted to aging people. And the concept of placemaking, no surprise, is influencing developments for older adults.

Age-restricted communities were hatched in the 1960s – gigantic suburban-type developments for people over 50 with onsite activities like golf and shuffleboard (Sun City, in the ad above, was one of the first). Contemporary aging boomers are more interested in bike trails than shuffleboard, and many of us will be working until we drop, so more age-limited communities are being built near cities where residents can keep working, ride the trails, and have diverse opportunities for social and civic engagement, rather than be isolated in the middle of the desert.

Elders who don’t necessarily want to be segregated, but may be by circumstance, are influencing nursing home development too. Nursing homes are not really “places” in the sense that we use the term, but this article describes an alternative to traditional / institutional nursing homes that incorporates placemaking concepts. The Green House model described is based on 10-person units where private rooms are built around a living room where residents can socialize. Each unit has a kitchen, and residents and staff work together to plan meals and activities. Green Houses’ smaller scale facilitates interaction between residents which include mixed populations (not all elderly people)… all placemaking concepts that make these less institutional facilities and more desirable living communities. Other nursing homes are facilitating social interaction between elders and youth, from preschoolers to college students.

And then there are theme retirement communities. Born to be wild? Harley riders, feel confident there is a place for you and your people even as you age. Some college campuses, including University of Michigan, have affiliated retirement communities with classes available to residents.

Born to be wild in a retirement community for Harley owners. Are those golf clubs on the back of Fonda's bike??

Born to be wild in a retirement community for Harley owners. Are those golf clubs on the back of Fonda's bike??

As with anything else, it’s all about having options. My parents like their suburban setting and I’m happy to visit them there. If we can figure out their transportation off the island, aging in place may be a great option for them. My grandmother relocated from Royal Oak to an age-restricted independent living apartment in Florida to be near her five cousins, transitioning over time to assisted living. My favorite neighbor (who’s 86) wants to move into town where he can walk to meet his buddies for breakfast and to the bank to flirt with the tellers.

The AARP says that one in three Americans is over 50 years old, making us demanding boomers a pretty substantial force for retirement housing choices and associated amenities that meet our needs and innermost desires. Oh the places we’ll go!

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
― Dr. SeussOh, The Places You'll Go!

Bonus material!

The Times published several articles a while back describing issues that affect elders even in walkable, densely-developed cities: where can older people congregate within a walkable distance for them, socialize, but not be isolated with only other older people? Here is the first article in the series about police evicting loitering 80-year-olds from a Flushing, NY McDonald’s, followed by responses to it, then this editorial.  This last article describes McDonald’s as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community – the places that people gather because of convenience and amenities.

And the last word on the subject of aging boomers…

As always, thanks for reading. I welcome your comments, ideas, suggestions, and innermost desires for your own retirement situation, either through the comments section here, by email at ordinaryvirtues@gmail.com, or at www.linkedin.com/susanwenzlick.

#ordinaryvirtues