People are constantly looking for themselves in art. I am a studio art minor, and this semester I’ve made several self-portraits in an effort to explore and understand my ideas about my gender, sexuality, and mental health. These portraits felt deeply personal and exposed, but part of what gave me the courage to create them was that I am the artist and I have the power to create myself through portraiture. I cannot image having someone else create these portraits of me, especially if their topic dealt with a much rawer and more painful subject. Therefore I am in awe at the strength of the people in Penny Hood‘s Portraits of Courage who gave shared their images, stories, and selves with not just the audience viewing the portraits, but the artist creating them. Hood’s paintings are incredibly aware of how art (and portraiture in particular) can objectify and use the human body, and her work in this exhibit engages and challenges that artistic problem through her artistic process and the structure of the exhibit.
Today is regrettably the last day to go see Portraits of Courage, which is hanging in the lobby of the MHC art museum, just outside Gamble Auditorium. If anyone has a free minute today, I highly encourage them to go spend a few moments with Hood’s powerful and touching artwork. The exhibit is also available online, but the in-person experience of viewing these portraits is remarkable and suggests some really fascinating ways of thinking about the healing process and creating a community of support and healing. Penny Hood is a therapist and an artist, and sought to consider “how survivors move through Trauma” by interviewing sexual assault survivors and painting their portraits. She uses a wide variety of materials, such as printmaking, collage, photography, and a great deal of watercolors.
Upon walking into the lobby where the show hangs, you encounter a table full of brochures and flyers before you see the actual art. There’s information from Penny Hood herself regarding the show, but the MHC Counseling and Health Services, as well as student-led groups, have provided support and networking information about preventing, discussing, and healing from sexual assault and sexual violence. Although the art in this exhibit focuses on the experiences of specific individuals, the set up and exhibit as a whole focuses our attention and empathy towards the survivors around us. My favorite part was a basket full of post-it note pads, with an accompanying handwritten note from Hood: “Put a post-it on a painting — I will photograph your feedback for the subjects.” People left the kindest and most heartfelt notes on each of the 12 portraits. Some examples were
- “I can FEEL his armor!”
- “love this idea of support!”
- “everyone wears a mask”
Rather than take away from the portraits themselves, I feel as though the visitors’ notes evoked our understanding of the subjects’ personhood and how they may look for healing by participating in this project to begin with.
In her artist’s statement, Hood describes how she engaged with the portrait’s subjects, who “are given the option of telling their story, and can choose to have their image remain anonymous.” Her interviews with participants centered on the question: “Where did you find the strength, and how might we depict that?” I think that this was a very sensitive and intelligent way of engaging with the objectification inherent in portraiture and sexual violence. Though Hood ultimately created the physical work of art, the stories and figures belong to the portraits’ subjects, because they could control how they were portrayed.