Introverted Artist: Expressing Myself Through Self-Portraits
Born as an only child in an immigrant family, I grew up only knowing my parents, whom were only fluent in Mandarin. Given my natural circumstances, it was probably expected that I would be socially awkward. I had no siblings, and no other relatives or connections nearby except for a small group of friends at school. As a result, when exposed to social settings I immediately lacked confidence. I stumbled everywhere. I stumbled over words, over remembering faces, even over my own two feet.
Thus, I found my peace through the solitude of working on art. I had spent two years of my early childhood in China with my grandparents. During this time, my grandparents saw my interest in art when I was three. They told me years later that I had filled up an entire sketchbook with wobbly circles with a ballpoint pen within an hour. I had looked up from my seat in front of the computer table, gave a toothless smile, and had asked for “More!”
After returning to the US at the age of four, my mom immediately saw my potential and sent me to private art classes, where I absolutely prospered. Art never left my side throughout my childhood. Many teachers and peers complimented me on my technical skills in different art media, and how I was quick to learn.
However, it wasn’t until around the start of high school did I really consider the meaning behind my artwork. I was skilled in copying still lifes and landscapes to the smallest detail. People complimented me on the realistic look of my still-life drawings, and then moved on. It was satisfying at first, but each compliment slowly lost its value until I felt like I was back where I started, a forgotten artist who still could not effectively express herself.
Finally, an art teacher suggested that I try drawing a self-portrait, but I immediately hated the idea. Art was my escape to think about anything but my clumsy character, and now I had to deal with looking at the one thing I was trying to avoid for several hours? Drawing my own face was painful to say the least. Afterwards, I felt like it was a waste of time. I decided to set aside self-portraits and go back to drawing still lifes—back to being that artist that only drew what she saw.
However, as my high school years progressed, I began to think about my own identity. Everyone was changing around me, and people who I hadn’t seen since elementary were now back at my high school had completely changed. I remember back in elementary school there were girls whom I joked around with over the most immature childish topics. Years later I saw them adorned in fancy jewelry and heavy makeup, immersed in deep conversation over the next fashion and celebrity trends, something I felt that I just could not relate to. I began to see the division between various friend groups, and I started to wonder: Which group did I belong to? I wasn’t athletic at all, and neither was I very academic or especially social. I became a chameleon as I changed my actions to suit each of my peers, but I never felt like I truly fit.
This was when I decided to turn back to that initially horrible idea of drawing a self-portrait. I realized that I could rely on images to express myself rather than jumbled up words that I confused in my head. Art can be so ambiguous, so I knew that I didn’t need my self-portrait to be straightforward and clear cut. In fact, it was good that people who saw my artwork interpreted it in multiple ways. Art became my canvas of self-expression. Soon, I began drawing lots of self-portraits, and I found the process to be so much more intimate when I could relate to the subject matter.
Although today I still haven’t found a peer group where I truly belong, I did discover that I need to have a personal connection to my own artwork, as it is the one place where I can feel at ease with my own identity.