On a strikingly cold yet crisp day in the Cistern Yard, Randolph Hall stood proud, and there is no questioning why it is revered as an icon of the College of Charleston. Underneath this elegant structure, however, something of even greater beauty was taking place: the Charleston Self-Portrait Project. This project, facilitated by graduate student Nancy Cooper, aimed not only to showcase the beauty of Charleston’s diverse culture of residents, but to get Charlestonians to dabble in hands-on artistic expression through this collaborative community project. To her, making art does not necessarily mean being artistic. No matter age, gender, race or lack of a single artistic bone in one’s body, the only requirement to participate in the project was being a resident of the lovely Holy City.
A simple and modest station was set up consisting of only a table, mirror and drawing utensils. The atmosphere was inviting and enough to draw anyone in–and it certainly did, as there were already pages upon pages of people’s completed masterpieces held in a leather folder. This strikes Cooper as good news because, as she says, “the arts often have a stigma around them, so this project is a reminder that the arts are for everyone. My hope is that by creating a small, ‘no pressure’ piece of art, Charleston community members will be inspired to embrace and enjoy other arts offerings in our city that they might have been intimidated by in the past. Many people think, ‘I don’t know anything about art. I can’t make art,’ but 99 percent of participants leave the project saying, ‘Oh, that wasn’t bad’ or ‘Oh, that was fun or cool.’ I want to provide Charlestonians with an activity that they don’t normally do in their everyday lives.”
Cooper says being a graduate student at The College definitely had an impact for the idea of the project, but she initially coined the concept when visiting Nashville, Tennessee for the American for the Arts Annual Conference. “Our Town, USA,” she states, “is a similar portrait project using printmaking. I created my own self-portrait there and loved the opportunity to create in a way outside of my comfort zone. The idea stuck with me, so my next step was figuring out ‘how can I translate this idea of community-engagement through individual artistic creation to the Charleston community?’ As a grad student, the opportunity and timing was perfect to facilitate the project as a hands-on learning experience.”
Finding beauty in oneself is just as important in finding the beauty in one’s own community, and people often have issues concerning their own physical features. Similar campaigns, like Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, seek to give participants an epiphany of their real and true beauty through drawings of themselves. “I often hear negative comments from participants about their features: ‘I hate my nose’ or ‘I have puffy eyes.’ At the beginning of the project, I created self-portraits with a group of five to nine year old girls. Before we sat down to draw, we talked about self-portraits: how do self-portraits differ from portraits? What makes us unique? But then, we talked about how non-visual traits can be shown. The results those cute, little girls made are some of the most expressive, telling works because they really thought about what defined them, in terms other than visual beauty. Now I make sure to emphasize showing who you are in ways other than how you look in the mirror.”
The point to these collections of sketches is not for Cooper’s keeping, however. At the end of the project, the hundreds of self-portraits will be exhibited for public viewing. Whether it be an exhibit, mural or something else is still on the table. But the project coming to an end anytime soon is the least of Cooper’s worries. “Opportunities for creating portraits in the community keep popping up–so much so that we’ve already scheduled events into April and May, but the collection of portraits will definitely be featured both in an online gallery and on a temporary public display, but I can’t say what for sure at this point since the end game is evolving as the project grows.”
If you want to be involved in this unique project, there are still many opportunities to do so.
Visit http://www.charlestonselfportraitproject.com/calendar.html to find a list of where the next station will be set up around the peninsula.