Readers of this column already know that March 15th was the third and final anniversary of my Daily Portrait Project (DPP), in which I made a non-photographic image of myself every day for three years. One of the best things for me about the DPP was that my commitment to it was by definition a commitment to a daily art-making practice. I had never had that in my life before, and it was terrific. So even though I was ready to stop putting myself in every picture, I wasn’t ready to stop making a picture every day. I decided that I’d let myself have a different theme every month, and that it could be anything – a subject, a media – or even just a color. It would be whatever evolved in my work that I would like to focus on for a month.
As a transition from staring at my own face for three years, I thought it would fun to throw a portrait party and look at some other faces. A portrait party is usually a get-together where artists draw each other. Originally I thought I would have a traditional live portrait party, then keep it going on Flickr. Flickr is a ‘photo-sharing’ website which also has a rich international community of non-photographic artists posting and commenting on each other’s work. Since I’m generally more interested in figurative work, and since self-portraits had been my focus for so long, most of the artists I was in contact with on Flickr were also figurative artists. Therefore, I thought I might be able to interest a few of them in posting photos of themselves for me to draw from, and in drawing me and each other.
Unfortunately, as the DPP was winding up, I found myself in the middle of a family medical emergency and in no position to throw a live party. I still wanted to start drawing other artists, however, so that left Flickr. A week before the end of the DPP, I started a Flickr group called “Julia Kay’s Portrait Party”(JKPP) and sent around some invites. I crossed my fingers and hoped a couple people would post photos by the time I was ready to start.
Well, apparently I wasn’t the only self-portrait artist in the world hungry for another face to stare at.
In that first week, before I even began drawing anyone myself, 60 artists jumped on board and drew more than 200 portraits of each other, including two dozen of me. After 6 weeks, we had 150 members from around the world who had posted more than 1400 portraits of each other, including more than 75 of me. Everyone was jazzed. Steve Huison told me this was the best fun he’d ever had with the internet, and another artist quipped, “..thank you for inventing this insane pas de millions… I love it”. And when I recommended another group to Flickr newcomer Elizabeth Hall, she told me “They’re not having nearly as much fun over there.”
Anne Watkins summed it up with this poetic metaphor: waking up to find new portraits of herself was like finding love notes in a bottle – treasures flung across the unknown – from people she could not hear or touch, only see and imagine. And then, some of the portraits became concrete objects in our hands – flung not just over the internet, but through the postal service- as purchases and as gifts, from me and to me, crossing borders and crossing oceans.
Not only the portrait count was growing – even as it expanded, the group was also growing closer as a community. Group members were commenting extensively on each other’s work, having conversations about different art processes, telling jokes. There was a funny moment early on when one of the iPhone digital artists asked a watercolorist “What App did you use for that?” Usually the digital artists posted to digital groups and the watercolorists posted to watercolor groups, so they weren’t used to seeing each other’s work. But here artists in all media were mixing it up and being inspired by each other. A wide range of styles also emerged — from realistic likenesses to wild and crazy semi-abstracts that are perhaps only conceptually portraits.
In addition to mixing up media & stylistic boundaries, JKPP has also crossed some national and language borders. Although the majority of active participants are from North and South America, Eastern and Western Europe, we also have members from Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and North Africa. I make extensive use of Google to translate my JKPP invitations, comments and guidelines. It gave me a kick to draw a double portrait of two artists in a cafe together who have never actually met. Michel Guerin is a French artist living in Italy, Andrew Mirzoian is a Russian artist living in Moscow. I drew them on my iPod Touch after an oil painting by Cézanne but in a style more similar to the flat planes of British pop artist Patrick Caulfield, who I had never heard of until British JKPP artist Martin Beek commented on the similarity. I liked the way this piece brought together different media, styles, and nationalities. Despite all the variety, I have found the JKPP to sometimes be strangely in-tune — one day everyone is drawing the Dutch artist known as Razor_nl and another day everyone is drawing the American artist Sandy Schmidt. Although I have heard of a couple instances of subjects being uncomfortable with their portraits, for the most part people have been able to accept even some pretty far-out interpretations of their photos.
Why did the community aspect of this group grow so much more and more quickly than many other Flickr groups? One reason is probably that it started with people who already had something in common — I not only liked their work, but had enjoyed my previous online interactions with them. But I think there was something else as well. Back in the 1980s there was a cartoon circulating of a dog sitting at a computer sending an email. The caption was, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” This internet anonymity has, for better or for worse, been a fact of “meeting” people online. But when we decided to draw each other, we chose to show our real faces. One of the many things that I didn’t predict about throwing this party was how seeing each other’s faces, and giving them the attention that artists making portraits must, also changed how we “knew” and interacted with each other. Although it’s still not the same as actually meeting in person, spending time with photos of each other with our families and pets, in our studios and neighborhoods, wearing silly hats or making silly faces, brought us into much closer contact than merely saying “Great painting – fave!” In addition, when someone makes a picture they claim is based on your face, whether or not you like it, whether or not you see yourself in the image, you have a more personal investment in the artist and their work.
What has the Portrait Party meant for me artistically? Ironically, I was looking forward to a less structured daily art practice when I completed the DPP. But while I could post any old thing and call it a self-portrait, I had to be more careful when posting images of other people. Even if there wasn’t a likeness, I felt there had to be a clear relationship between my image and it’s source. As the party host, I wanted to set a standard of respect for the source images and artists. I also wanted to say a little bit about what I appreciated in the work of each artist that I drew. In other words, I actually had a much more structured and time-consuming project on my hands.
What I’ve really liked is that it pushed me to look much more closely at the work of the artists I was drawing. The process made me think more deeply about what I liked in their work, and how their work differed from or was similar to my own. I’ve also really enjoyed drawing from all the different photos and learning from all the different styles. It’s especially fun to look at the many different interpretations of the same photo by different artists.
Where does the Portrait Party go from here, for the artists, for the body of work, for me? Many artists, myself included, prefer drawing from life to drawing from photos. Some artists were reluctant to join the party for this very reason. Although we’ve had fun working this way, a few of us have started discussing the possibility of using Skype or online video conferencing to have “live” portrait parties over the internet. One artist would sit and be the model while other artists in nearby time-zones logged in to draw. Or perhaps people would pair up, drawing and being drawn simultaneously. Obviously there are questions of security, and also the question of whether video would really provide a high-enough quality image to draw from. It’s another adventure to be explored.
Meanwhile, we already have almost 1500 drawings and paintings from 150+ JKPP members. It’s a fantastic body of work but it’s never going to fit in a gallery in the traditional way. It would also be hard to gather the pieces from all over the world into one place. So here’s how I imagine showing the party portraits. The way we’ve already experienced each other’s work is digital. It would do least justice to the paintings, but I think the best way to show this work as a group would be in a gallery full of iPads. Although more than 150 artists have joined JKPP, there is a smaller core group of artists who are fully participating by making images of all the other artists, and who might want to participate in a group show.
I imagine one iPad for each artist, loaded with their images of the other artists. The images would be loaded in the same order in all the iPads — alphabetically or geographically or perhaps randomly — but always in the same order, andsoftware would set them to flip images in the same sequence. So when you enter the gallery, all the iPads would be showing pictures of one artist, for instance Patricio Villarroel, a Chilean artist based in France. A short while later, they all switch and show images of a different artist, maybe Jerry Waese from Canada. While all the other iPads show portraits of Jerry, Jerry’s iPad might show a self-portrait, or a montage of the source images artists worked from. There could also be a few iPads set up specifically for viewers to interact with — choosing for themselves which artists they want to see, for how long, and in what order. There are many possibilities, and many details to be worked out. It would take organization, galleries, technical expertise and especially funding — but I think it would be an exciting way to display the Portrait Party. Please do let me know if you have leads to making it happen.
As for myself… I intended the Portrait Party as a six-week transition to a more open-ended daily art process for myself. Now that the six weeks have ended, I find myself in a bind. I’m the party host, and there are many portraits I would like to make that I haven’t made yet. But there are also other themes I want to pursue in my daily art, and many evenings when I really don’t have the time to do a considered portrait and write-up of another artist. How am I going to resolve these conflicting pulls? I guess I’m going to have to see what evolves… and let you know about it next month.