“There are however little snakes among the beams.”
One day somebody said to me, “when I look at you and think of your fame, I seem to see your head encircled by radiating beams of light.”
“Ah,” I added, sighing, “there are however little snakes among the beams.”
- from Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Souvenirs
From the beginning, I knew I wanted my self-portrait for Subjective to be about what it’s like to be a female artist and, more specifically, a female portraitist. And when I read Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s reference to Medusa in her Souvenirs, I knew there would have to be snakes in my hair too. Vigée-Lebrun was one of the more successful female artists in history and certainly one of the most successful portrait artists of all time—female or male. Her Gorgon analogy expresses perfectly the difficulties inherent in being a woman and a portraitist.
Portraiture is a strange genre, full of unexpected duties and privileges, and it’s the distinct power dynamic between portraitist and sitter that has made the genre troublesome for women. No matter the status of the subject of a portrait, she-he is ultimately at the mercy of the artist. And because female artists should by all accounts be the bottom of the hierarchy—both the hierarchy of genres and, even now, the hierarchy of people—women portraitists have long been considered threatening. As such, Medusa, the tried and true symbol of dangerous female power, is a good fit for women portraitists. What’s more, because the Gorgon’s power lies in creating effigies of her victims, the metaphor is complete. Sure, Medusa may be killing them by turning them to stone, but she’s also making some lovely three-dimensional portraits while she does it.
An added attraction to making myself into the Gorgon was the mirror I knew I would include in the composition. Perseus killed Medusa by watching her in the mirrored surface of his shield, and a reflection is important to a self-portrait. Before photography, artists had to rely on a mirror to capture their own likenesses. I included this idea of reflection in my portrait of Becca for Subjective, and this doubling is important to the series as a whole. For example, both my portraits of my father and of Becca’s father make reference to kings. I did that because it fit for both of the subjects individually but also because a father is the king of a family. Similarly, the mirror reference makes sense for Becca personally but also for Becca as a portrait artist.
As I began to lay out my self-portrait for the series, I was nervous.
As a rule, I tend towards simpler and more focused compositions.
The thought of painting two versions of me that were supposed to match up was a bit intimidating.
But more than the composition, I was nervous about the snakes I would be painting in my hair.
Even at this early stage, I was having problems with them.
I was trying to wing it.
I’d looked at plenty of images of the Gorgon, but I didn’t want to be locked into a traditional portrait of Medusa so I didn’t want to work from one in particular.
But, as is painfully obvious in this process shot…
...and even this one where I was starting over with the snakes, making it up as I went along wasn’t really working.
I continued to make attempts at the snake hair…
...but I also turned my attention to the remainder of the composition.
I was hoping that if I could bring the rest of the painting together the snakes would work themselves out.
They didn’t. In the end, I spent a lot of time looking at images of snakes—instead of Gorgon portraits—and found my own brand of snake hair.
With that problem mostly resolved, I took a closer look at the mirror shape.
It’s a reference to the most striking feature of my parents’ house: an eight-sided picture window.
This painting is full of twists and turns for me.
Much like this portrait also from the show, there is a lot of time between the layers of paint, and many things happened to me on the way to it being finished.
When I started it, I thought that the reference to Medusa was an interesting commentary on being a female portraitist, but as I worked I came to identify more with the Gorgon for various reasons.
Most especially, I liked that, as scary as she was, Medusa was the mother of Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek myth who was associated with the muses and who created a spring wherever he stamped his hoof on the earth.
To catch Subjective, visit the Arts Center by 31 March. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday between 12:00 and 5:00 PM.
Artist talk: Thursday 11 March 12:00 PM
The Arts Center
700 SW Madison
Corvallis, OR 97333