Say Cheese! Our Abstract Portraits are Ready for their Close-Ups!

When you think of portraiture, you most likely think of a person’s face, right?

Hello, Mona Lisa! Hello, Warhol!

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However, our recent study of abstract portraiture requires the viewer to look at the work of art with a keen eye and a heightened sense of symbolism and metaphor. Looking beyond the face to identify elements of our subject’s identities allows us to capture aspects of their unique being without relying solely on the physical. As you can only imagine, this was a challenging conceptual exercise.

Our mentor into this process for viewing and creating abstract portraiture was contemporary artist, Andrea Higgins, whose work can be seen on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts right here in our home town!

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Now that’s what I call a beautiful museum dedicated to WOMEN! Go girls!

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Hillary, 2002. Oil on canvas, 52″ x 40″.

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Hillary, Detail

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Laura, 2001. Oil on canvas, 52″ x 52″.

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Laura, Detail

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Betty, 2003. Oil on canvas, 40″ x 24″.

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Betty, Detail

Higgins’ abstract portrait series entitled, The President’s Wives, are large scale, meticulously hand painted, enlarged fabric swatches of memorable clothing worn by first ladies throughout their husband’s presidencies. Because these iconic women are un-elected, yet still serve important roles in American public life beyond bolstering their husband’s image, Higgins aims to bring attention to the way their physical appearances, and often times fashion choices (think Hillary’s pant suits), serve to hold “public power.” Can I get a Michelle Obama? Talk about clothes with power!

Miss ya, Michelle!

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Still don’t follow? Think about the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. Those who were alive to remember the tragedy playing out over the media may recall Jackie Kennedy’s iconic, high-fashion, bright pink Chanel suit.

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Excerpt taken from Wikipedia:

Jacqueline Kennedy was seated to the left side of the President in the back seat of the open-top presidential limousine as the vehicle traveled through local streets in Dallas. Immediately after he was shot in the head, her suit was spattered by his blood.

Upon arriving at Parkland Hospital, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife Lady Bird saw the car and said:

“I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw in the President’s car a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying in the back seat. It was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the President’s body.”

At the hospital, Mrs. Kennedy continued to wear the blood-stained suit, but she had removed her hat. William Manchester wrote in Death of a President:

“The Lincoln flew down the boulevard’s central lane; her pillbox hat, caught in an eddy of whipping wind, slid down over her forehead, and with a violent movement she yanked it off and flung it down. The hatpin tore out a hank of her own hair. She didn’t even feel the pain.”

The whereabouts of the hat today are unknown, and the last person known to have had it – her personal secretary, Mary Gallagher – will not discuss it. Several people asked Mrs. Kennedy whether she would like to change her suit but she refused. When Lady Bird offered to send someone to help her, she responded:

“Oh, no … I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”

Despite the advice of John F. Kennedy’s physician, Admiral George Burkley, who “gently tried to persuade her to change out of her gore-soaked pink Chanel suit,” she wore the suit alongside Vice President Johnson as he was sworn in on Air Force One as the 36th President of the United States. In the photograph of the ceremony the blood stains cannot be seen as they were on the right-hand side of the suit. Lady Bird recalls that during the swearing-in:

“Her hair [was] falling in her face but [she was] very composed … I looked at her. Mrs. Kennedy’s dress was stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked, it was caked with blood – her husband’s blood. Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights – that immaculate woman, exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood.”

Kennedy had no regrets about refusing to take the blood-stained suit off; her only regret was that she had washed the blood off her face before Johnson was sworn in.

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Jackie (Dallas), 2002. Oil on canvas, 30″ x 36″.

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Jackie (Dallas), Detail

This poignant example was used to emphasize the power of the visual image. Next, Maury 3rd and 4th graders were asked to embrace a similar process as they worked to identify someone or something that holds significance in their lives and would be worthy of making an abstract portrait of. Then they studied the colors, shapes, lines and textures that represented the essence of their subject. This process allowed them to think beyond the literal and into the world of abstraction, where the elements of art can communicate emotion often more than a realistic representation of an object. The results are incredible!

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Artists were given complete freedom to create in whatever medium they felt would best capture the subject of their portrait. This was our first real venture into total choice-based art making. During choice-based art, students must demonstrate impeccable care and responsibility for the studio and materials. All at once, during a 45 minute art class,  acrylic paint, hot glue, fabric, cotton, glitter, straw, and even dirt were in full use. The ratio of teacher to students was always 1:24+. This process forced me to tap into my inner optimist (5 stance shout out, woot! woot!).  The kids blew me away with their resourcefulness and ownership of the studio. They really get it, you guys.

One final note–the role of the art’s label also plays an important part in the display of the finished product. At times, a label gives the viewer just enough information to connect with the piece on a personal level. Other times, the artist may not need the viewer to make the same association. For example, Pumpernickel is the title of one artist’s piece. Family members of this artist may instantly connect to her work after reading the label because they may associate it with the specific name of their cat. Then, upon closer look, they might see that the artwork reminds them of a closeup of their cat’s majestic green eyes with shimmers of gold. A stranger may not have the same context to connect with her piece in this way. This does not prohibit them from enjoying the art, or even loving it, and creating their own personal association based on color, texture, and pattern. Labels with universal titles such as “Mom” or “Grandpa” give us a window into the work by allowing us to project our own associations of what those titles mean to us, which may or may not be the same as the artist who created the piece.

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Check out this fantastic “Turn & Talk” during our final critique. I think the conversations would have lasted all 45 minutes if I allowed them too. I love that Maury kids understand that an appreciation for art is not restricted to making art but includes discussion, reflection, feedback, and revision.

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Completed abstract portraits are currently on display on the first and second floor of the East building. Come connect with the deeply personal works of our outstanding fine artists and consider a trip to NMWA to see Higgins’ work up close and in person!

4 thoughts on “Say Cheese! Our Abstract Portraits are Ready for their Close-Ups!

  1. Kudos to you and your students. I saw this project in the making and it is superior! To see all the Art hung and shinning for all to view is a beautiful thing. Thanks to all for sharing!

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