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Hidden Identities: Uncovering Yourself Through Art

Stories, know-how, and guidance from the experts in educating boys.

Jacqueline Keller
 
SchoolArts magazine, September 2021 issue, High School art lesson, Hidden Identities, Self-Portraits
Graham D., The Release, grade twelve.

 

Hidden Identities: Uncovering Yourself Through Art

One of the most fulfilling projects I’ve taught in my AP drawing class is based on the idea of the developing (and often conflicting) identity for young men. We start by watching clips of the film The Mask You Live In by the Representation Project. Students write about their reaction to the film, but we avoid group discussion until after they begin their drawings. I want students’ drawings to be intuitive and self-led. They use the basics of black paper and white pencils. Students need to compose an image that addresses what is hidden about themselves, contrasting with what is exposed, and how the physical and emotional interplay.

Two years ago, I attended an International Boys School Coalition conference in Maryland. I had the opportunity to listen to and later befriend Andrew Reiner, an experienced lecturer at Towson University and a writer published in the New York Times and Washington Post. Most of his research centers on the emotional health of young men.

We discussed ways that boys have been stereotyped and their responses and behaviors framed as aggressive or suppressive. We also discussed how we as teachers are essential in reestablishing what it means for boys to be successful by exhibiting qualities such as empathy, vulnerability, and compassion, along with determination, curiosity, and honesty.

 

SchoolArts magazine, September 2021 issue, High School art lesson, Hidden Identities, Self-Portraits Bon B., Self-Portrait with Butterflies, grade twelve.

A Safe Space: Our Open Studio
Avon Old Farms is an all-boys boarding school in rural Connecticut. We have a studio space that is open, bright, colorful, and available to students most evenings and weekends. There are places for students to sit on stools or traditional classroom chairs, stand at easels, or relax sinking into bean bag chairs. Music is often playing. Students rest between classes on the couch at the back of the studio, sometimes browsing through coffee table books on various art subjects.

I’m more convinced than ever of the importance of this open studio environment and the relational learning that takes place within it. We tackle important questions about identity, often intentionally and always intuitively, as we make work, question it, discuss it, pin it up, laugh about it, and fall in love with it.


SchoolArts magazine, September 2021 issue, High School art lesson, Hidden Identities, Self-Portraits Tony L., What They Saw and Said, grade twelve.

Intuitive Drawings
One of the most fulfilling projects I’ve taught in my AP drawing class is based on the idea of the developing (and often conflicting) identity for young men. We start by watching clips of the film The Mask You Live In by the Representation Project. Students write about their reaction to the film, but we avoid group discussion until after they begin their drawings. I want students’ drawings to be intuitive and self-led. They use the basics of black paper and white pencils. Students need to compose an image that addresses what is hidden about themselves, contrasting with what is exposed, and how the physical and emotional interplay.


SchoolArts magazine, September 2021 issue, High School art lesson, Hidden Identities, Self-Portraits Matthew S., Self-Portrait with Crown, grade twelve.

Real and Imagined
Next, I help students take self-portrait photos. I help each student individually and without an audience. They will use these photos for layout and value replication in their final artworks. The face becomes the tangible and physical reality—the self they present to their classmates, families, and teachers.

I then encourage students to start building the alternative—the imagined self, sometimes the hidden reality, their desired self. Before I meet with each student individually, I give them guiding questions such as, When do you feel like you have to “be a man”? and Do you always feel comfortable in your own skin? Students move from the realistic rendering of their portrait to communicating the metaphor or symbol.


SchoolArts magazine, September 2021 issue, High School art lesson, Hidden Identities, Self-Portraits Pengyu S., Never Revealed, grade twelve.

Student Reflections
One student, a scholarly, intuitive, and yet emotionally introverted young man, wanted three versions of his face peeling back like onions—but never revealing any truth underneath. “I have three selves coexisting in me: the mask I am wearing (the public self); the self I construct in my mind (the constructed self); and the actual, innermost self (the inner self).”

Another student spent hours giving detail to the value of his ironed school shirt and tie, and then he spent equal time on the anatomy and colors of the various butterflies laid out behind his head. Original designs included a doorway, window, or prison bars embedded into his chest, with “delicacy and sensitivity, characteristics of femininity” bursting from the enclosure (the artist’s own interpretation of his “feminine” qualities—compassionate, strong, wise, and well-loved).

Roses, figurative masks, stinging words erased into smoke, partially revealed faces, frenetic lines, beads strung together, shadows, fire, still-life objects as old-world symbols—these all have shown up in the drawings students have created over the past few years.


The Resulting Layers
This project gives students permission to counter and combine what they see as exterior pressures and definitions of their identity, and use drawing as a tool to give form and power to their own growing voices as young adults. This project draws out the layers of meaning that many of these boys return to in later projects, but also acts as a catalyst of acceptance in the art room and opens conversations about expression, boyhood, expectations, frustrations, successes, and desires.

KEY TAKEAWAY

Every so often, we stand in front of the wall where the drawings are pinned up, and we talk about ways the boys feel they hide. They talk about the tough kid they are on the team, the responsible son their families need them to be, and the liberation from expectations and roles that art allows them to experiment with. It’s the space, the relationships, and the pencil in hand that allows us to stab at the conversation in a beneficial way.


About the Author

CRISTINA PINTON

Visual Arts Chairperson

pintonc@avonoldfarms.com