Why I Commissioned a Portrait of Myself in the Age of the Selfie

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The author at age eight, as painted by her mother, Elizabeth “Lisa” Goddard. More recently, Lisa served as executive director of the Newport Art Museum for seven years.

I have very distinct memories of being drawn by my mother as a child. There were nights when I would wake to her sitting at the foot of my bed, quietly sketching me while I slept. Other times I would pose for her in her studio, dressed in my Sunday best and hugging my equally resplendent doll. When I was sick and stayed home from school, she kept a cheery vigil in my room in between ferrying trays of soup and ginger ale up from the kitchen, and while I dozed, she drew.

I came to love the feeling of being carefully studied and transcribed to paper — it gave me the same warm, contented feeling as when she braided my hair or read me a story. Those were precious hours in which I got to revel in her undivided attention, moments that belonged solely to my mom and me.

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Local artist Andrea Perez-Bessin does a preliminary sketch of the author in preparation for a commissioned portrait.

Because of my eagerness to model, my early years are well documented in the most special form I can think of: my mom’s own brush strokes. But as I got older, life sped up and there never seemed to be as much time to sit for portraits. I left for school, and my mom founded a printmaking collaborative in Pawtucket, where she started exploring abstraction and landscapes. Without realizing it, I started to assume the role of documentarian, first taking photos of my family when we were reunited, then my friends at school, and then of all kinds of people as a professional photographer.

These days, I spend so much time behind the camera that there’s a real dearth of images of me. Although I’ve recently made a point to do more self portraits in my fine art photography, I generally prefer to focus on the world as I see it, rather than letting the world look at me. But this past summer, following a five-month bout of illness that resulted in surgery and a long recovery, I guess I was feeling my own mortality, and wanted to do something to appreciate my body in that moment of my life, however imperfect it might be.

Anyone who has dealt with chronic illness and the isolation it can cause knows how invisible it can make you feel. After half a year living in retreat from the rest of the world, I wanted to celebrate my recovery through the healing process of being drawn. I had seen the work of Andrea Perez-Bessin at last year’s Backyard Summer Art Series – a showcase of local artists and makers – and when one drawing in particular on her Instagram account struck a chord with me, I decided to commission my own portrait.

I suppose I gravitated toward a drawn portrait over a photo session because I wanted to recreate the feeling I so loved as a child, passing an afternoon with someone focusing their energy on me, carefully poring over the details of what makes me, me.

You might also like: In the Studio With Sue McNally

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It’s funny how old-fashioned the phrase “commission a portrait” sounds. Even though we live in an age that just might be remembered for its exploding culture of self-documentation, I would wager that most people are not leaping at the chance to have formal portraits done.

True, portraits are pricey compared to a camera phone and selfie stick, but Rhode Island has a rich population of artists, many of them students or professionals starting their careers and eager to work at reasonable prices. And consider how much time and money we invest in our smart phones, our appearances, and our social media accounts in order to create some record of the best versions of ourselves. Wouldn’t investing in the artists of our community and letting them distill a narrative of who we are be a more honest, enriching means of self preservation, not only at the individual level but also collectively as a culture?

Besides, an amateur, low-resolution phone photo isn’t generally worth comparing to a hand rendered work of art. A portrait artist is able to delve deeply into the character of their subject. “The challenge of a good portrait is capturing the essence of the person in each mark,” says Andrea, who is originally from Puerto Rico but now resides in Newport. “It’s nearly intangible. You want a true portrait to have a voice,” says the artist, who is currently studying at Rhode Island College. “Otherwise it’s just another boring, well-rendered depiction of a human, which a photograph can do so much better.”

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The finished portrait, an ink and charcoal drawing, incorporates a classical Greek pattern that the author chose as a background.

Essential to Andrea’s portraiture is the idea of reaching a compromise between herself and her subject. “If there is not a balance between the voice of the artist and the voice of the person requesting the piece,” she says, “nobody is satisfied with the end product.”

For my part, my input included – at Andrea’s suggestion – choosing a background pattern that was personally meaningful to me. (Integrating patterns, as well as cultural and religious symbolism, are hallmarks of her work.) I chose a cubical trompe-l’oeil pattern that’s common on floors in Greece, where I spent a year studying photography and classical vocal performance. In the finished ink and charcoal drawing (picture above), the pattern appears behind my figure.

I suppose I gravitated toward a drawn portrait because I wanted to recreate the feeling I so loved as a child: passing an afternoon with someone focusing their energy on me.

In the end, I got my afternoon of being back in the modeling chair – and a beautiful portrait as a result – but I also got a new friend out of the process. Although Andrea and I didn’t know each other at school (we both attended Brown), we discovered that we had a lot in common, both in our experiences at college and as artists. I can now say with confidence that sometimes the best cures for a weary soul are the simplest: friends, conversations, and of course, good art.

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The author creates a portrait within a portrait by snapping an image of her session using a cable shutter release.

Photos by Caroline Goddard.

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Caroline Goddard is a photographer, writer, and the blogger behind Hope State Style. A proud Rhody native with a degree in Visual Arts from Brown, she loves telling tales in images, focusing her camera on regional culture and off-beat, indy weddings. One part earth child, one part wanderer, she divides her time between Newport – where she's starting a tiny backyard farm – and the rest of the world. Recent travels have taken her to Paris; Reykjavik; and Paros, Greece. But since she just ordered a dozen fruit trees for her yard, she's probably going to stick around for a bit. Follow her adventures via Instagram @hopestatestyle.

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