From a fairly early age, I was fascinated by what life was like for people living in other places. The subject of pen-pals came up in school several times. I really wanted one, but it never worked out. I don’t remember now if it was because the programs didn’t get off the ground, or my pen-pal didn’t write back. It’s almost unimaginable today, that you sent a letter into the void and had to wait weeks or more for a response—even if the recipient replied as soon as they got your letter.
As a young artist out of graduate school, I was surprised to discover that the camaraderie of the studio classroom did not extend into “real life.” Natural communities did not seem to form—or I did not find them—based on artists living in a certain area, working in a certain style, or all showing at a certain gallery. I think the problem was primarily that making and looking are essentially solo activities, so to be together you have to schedule additional time—it’s not inherent in the activities of being an artist. Since I longed for community, I tried organizing groups of artists to rotate studio visits. Unfortunately, these always struggled over scheduling—our lives were busy and hard to keep in sync.
And then along came the Internet. In the middle of a three-year project to draw myself every day, I started interacting on flickr.com with self-portrait and with other artists all around the world. We were in each other’s virtual studios, we were viewing and discussing the art we were all making, and we didn’t have to be in the same place or even online at the same time. The conversation carried on across time zones and borders, and between looking and chatting, we came to know each other, and some of us became friends.
When my self-portrait project ended, I invited these artists and others to draw each other via the Julia Kay’s Portrait Party (JKPP) Flickr group. Unbeknownst to me, self-portrait artists all around the world were hungry for other subjects to draw, and the group became a great success. The process of making a portrait is also a process of getting to know the subject. You consider your subject’s face and expressions; you try to understand who they are so you can portray them. This naturally brought us closer than if we’d all gathered together to draw another subject, such as landscapes. JKPP started with a core group of artists who had already been interacting, but as we expanded we continued to be a community. Today we have about a thousand members from 55 countries. I found my pen-pals. I found my artists’ community. But I also found that all is not well in the world.
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Of course I already knew that, but knowing artists all over the globe makes the world’s political situations more visceral, more personal. I constantly worry about the safety of the artists I know in Iraq; I learn about the latest European “incident” when members mark themselves (thankfully!) “safe” on Facebook. I pay close attention to news of the Korean peninsula and I watch elections around the world more closely. I’m not just thinking, for instance, about how the impact of new leadership in France might affect me here in the U.S., but how it will affect the artists I know in France, some of whom are immigrants. And, of course, the concern flows in all directions. After the shooting in Orlando, I checked in with the artists local to that area (they were OK but their community was deeply affected)—and received notes of sympathy from as far away as Poland.
In the midst of all this worry, and in a world that seems to be turning towards nationalism, we continue to create a community across borders, religions, and ethnicities. We get to know each other through portraiture, by looking at and discussing each other’s art, and sharing our lives. Some of us have now had the opportunity to meet in person or over Skype. We are a thousand times enriched by all these experiences, and so is our new book on portraiture, Portrait Revolution. The book shows a great variety of portraiture in different media, styles, and themes. Underlying that is the great diversity of the participating artists, looking over each other’s virtual shoulders into our studios and beyond, quietly influencing each other’s art and lives.
PORTRAITS OF MARIAH O’NEILL
“Although I felt honored by many beautiful portraits, I am more interested in doing them than being a subject. I am not a huge verbalizer about art either. I feel that art should go beyond words and that using words to construct concepts about it limits it.”
Zoraida de Torres Burgos, Spain
Brushes app on an iPad using an iFaraday stylus, dimensions unknown.
In this digital linocut the eraser tool was used over a black layer to expose the white layer underneath.
Herman Schouwenburg, Netherlands
acrylic paint on wood, 7¾ x 6 inches (200 x 150 mm).
William T. Ayton, USA
brush and ink on paper, 8½ x 11 inches (216 x 279 mm).
Barien Kani, Netherlands
India ink on paper, 7¾ x 7½ inches (200 x 190 mm).
Diane Marie Kramer, USA
oil pastel and pencil on paper, 7 x 10 inches (178 x 254 mm).
I did this sketch quickly—just one pass with no edits or remakes. This is the way I usually like to work.
Featured image: Cover detail, Portrait Revolution: Inspiration from Around the World for Creating Art in Multiple Mediums and Styles. Left: Natalia, USA by Marie Aschehoug-Clauteaux, France; Right: Beata, Poland by Joan Ramon Farré Burzuri, Spain