by Julia Kay
For most of the 90s and early 2000s I lived in large live-work
warehouses and made mural-sized paintings. My Oakland, California living spaces were
hard to heat, hard to cool, and hard to keep clean, but I was clearly
living the life of an artist. The paintings were hard to sell, hard to
move, and hard to store, but they made a big statement.
mid-2000s, in my mid-40s, I found myself happily living with my partner
in a real house. Temperature-controlled rooms! A functional kitchen! A
neighborhood you could walk around in! The master bedroom was my studio
and I had east and north-facing windows with great light. All should
have been well, but I was having trouble finding my way in the new studio.
The house constrained the size of my paintings and other commitments –
a new job, a return to school, commuting over a bridge every day – had
also reduced the amount of time I could devote to painting. And I no longer had before my eyes the
subject of my last series of paintings (see right) — been the intense western light that had poured into my previous studio
every late afternoon and cast fabulous shadows of my tropical plants
across the studio floor. I needed a new subject.
Over the course of a couple years, I wandered through different
subjects and series but nothing really took off for me. I was feeling
very frustrated on March 15, 2007, when I stood at my studio table and
scribbled a magic marker drawing of my face (right). People have been one of
my main subjects, and I've been one of the main people depicted in my
work over the years – my simple explanation of this is that I'm always
there. So it wasn't surprising that when all else failed, I turned to
drawing myself – again. It only took me a few minutes to make that
drawing, and I thought to myself, "Well, OK, you don't have a lot of
time every day – what if you just do this – just make an image of
yourself every day." And thus The Daily Portrait Project was born. Since I'm also a geek, I decided to start a blog and post the drawings
every day. My commitment was to myself and also to my nebulous internet
As the daily portraits started to unfold, I became interested
in seeing them in context – the context of my images of myself going
back to my years at the High School of Music and Art in New York City.
So I also began an archiving project – it's not yet complete, but I've
scanned and photographed hundreds of my images of myself going back to
the 1970s. These images (like the 30-year-old image at left) became part of the blog as well, a record of my changing face portrayed over time by my changing hand.
As time went on, this small, almost off-handed
commitment – to simply make one small image on the one same subject,
but every day – has turned into one of the most creative, fruitful,
productive periods of artistic production for me.
For the first few
months, I simply stood in front of a mirror and drew my face.I
explored different media such as magic markers, charcoal, and pencil,
and different degrees of realism. I worked on not always having the
frowning concentration which is clearly my expression while drawing,
and this resulted in some drawings in which I'm trying to smile and
instead I look manic and crazy. I don't remember exactly when I
decided that not all the drawings had to be 'portrait busts' but I do
remember the 'duh' moment when I realized I could take a photo of
myself with my digital camera and immediately be able to work from that – a non-frowning face!
As it turned out, using photographs opened up the subject matter
entirely. Suddenly I was making narrative drawings of my daily
activities. I became an expert at holding the camera away from myself
to take pictures of myself in interesting locations, and started
drawing in my partner, my community, and the occasional stranger, to
help by taking pictures of me during my travels, while training in
Aikido, on camping trips, performing household chores.
Before this project, my subject matter was almost always in the nature
of a portrait of a single or possibly double subject – one person, two
dogs, one tropical plant with three large leaves. For years I had
struggled to have more narrative context in my art – I would start with
a bigger canvas, for instance, so I could fit in more 'story'. But
instead I would end up making a bigger dog, a bigger person, a bigger
plant. Now I was working small and my subject was supposed to simply be
me – and suddenly I had overcome this 'problem' and was telling stories
with my pictures.
In December of 2007 I had the opportunity to go to Thailand, to visit an aunt who was in the Peace Corps. Until that point, my media had mainly
been various kinds of drawings, but I had run into some technical
difficulties. The wonderful brush magic markers which came in fabulous
colors and claimed to be archival, actually faded substantially when
exposed to normal daylight for as little as one month.
I hadn't quite
figured out how else to get color in my pictures when I was also faced
with packing materials for 21 days of drawings into one smallish
backpack along with everything else I would need for my trip. 100s of
magic markers and a stack of 8"X10" paper was not going to work. I
swallowed my misgivings and pulled out a tiny watercolor travel set and
4"X6" watercolor postcard paper that I'd had forever. I'd had it
forever because I'd never mastered this medium – in fact, I'd never
been able to get anywhere with it. But it was the logical thing to
bring on the trip – so along with some pens and pencils, that's what
went in my bag. The flight to Thailand is long, so I made my first watercolor on the
Later I made paintings wherever else I had to – if the hotel
had a writing table, great. If there was no table or my Aunt had
already gone to sleep, then I worked on the floor of the bathroom – the
room that generally had the best light, anyway. There was no question
of carrying around a mirror, and no computer to download pictures – so
I squinted at the tiny screen on the back of my digital camera and made
a watercolor every day. When I could get to an internet cafe, I
uploaded my pictures (as at right) to my blog. In the process of continuing the
Portrait Project while on this trip, I learned two fantastic things
that should have been obvious long ago – that I could make interesting
work in any media I wanted to, including watercolors, and that I could
draw – whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and under any
There are many other stories I could tell – in the last few months I've
been making landscapes in acrylic paint with me hidden among the
trees – another subject area I'd long thought wasn't in my skill
set. I've gone modern and made completely digital drawings using my
finger and my iPod Touch. I explored the ancient impulse to draw
by making images with beet juice the week we made Borscht and created whole series with my eyes closed and using my non-dominant hand.
made drawings of my face, my hands and feet, my shadow(as at left), and
my reflection — drawings where you have to search to find me in the
picture, but some part of me is always there. Two weeks ago I hung
the first off-line exhibition of this work – 60 portrait project pieces
grouped around themes that had emerged naturally from my process of
making them. It's not the first show I've had since I moved into this
studio, but it is the first show exclusively of work made since then.
I started by focusing on
something that was my strength – straightforward drawings of my face –
and ended up overcoming what I considered to be my weaknesses –
narrative, landscape, and watercolor, for example. And I look
forward to what I'm going to learn and discover in the next year, as I
continue The Portrait Project and continue to push the boundaries of
what those three words mean.
Julia L. Kay is a painter, printmaker, photographer, muralist and digital artist who was born and raised in New York City. The summer before second grade, her family visited San Francisco, and she knew immediately that she wanted to live in the Bay Area. Before she was free to move West, however, she needed to see to her education, so she finger-painted her way up through the grades, attended the High School of Music and Art in NYC, received her BA in Photography from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and did graduate work at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. Finally, she came out to California and settled in sunny West Oakland, where she lived for 12 years before moving to San Francisco.
Julia’s images of people, plants and animals distorted through the funhouse mirror of her imagination have been shown in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, San Francisco, around the East Bay, and on the internet. Her work has won local competitions and a mural commission.