It's been 4 years since my last self-portrait & I'm not sure when I'll do another. For a long time, the practice was like self-therapy for me... I've never been to therapy but imagined the process of painting myself as a sort of window into my subconscious & opportunity for dissection. Like many adolescents I had a lot of demons that I didn't care to acknowledge, and it was only through self-portraiture that I did any kind of self-reflection...often the images that came out would surprise me. Sometimes they'd upset me. But I'd take stock of what came through in the process & re-invent myself in the aftermath:)
I'm 27 now & feel I've settled into a level of comfort with myself that no longer necessitates this process. I take time to meditate, journal, & practice mindfulness as often as I can. These habits contribute to a far healthier headspace than those of my tumultuous years as a young adult. For a long time I had a habit of willfully ignoring parts of my past which evoked feelings of embarrassment or shame, but I am grateful now to be coming to a place of acceptance- even gratitude- for every moment of life, good & bad, which makes me the person I am today.
This was a project for my sophomore art class, the prompt being to include words you think of when you think of yourself. In deliberate avoidance of getting too introspective, I mostly just used band names I liked at the time. I think I had actually put some personality descriptors on there but was so unsettled by their negative connotations that I covered them with leaves....
My middle-high school experience was very confused, angsty, stressed & lonely. I harbored a lot of resentment for myself & situation that had been building for years. When I was in elementary school my family lived in a small coastal town in California, where I had many friends & spent a lot of time outside. I was a very vibrant, joyful kid. But after 5th grade we moved across the country to Florida & I began 6th grade as a new kid at a huge, terrifying school with bars on all the windows & regular active shooter drills. Coming from an innocent small-town elementary existence, this was very traumatic for me. I was made fun of on my first day for being the weird new kid, not having breasts & wearing too many sparkles. When I hid in a bathroom stall at lunch time, I witnessed an exchange of sex for drugs. I barely even knew what those were at the time, but it broke something in me.
I threw away all my favorite sparkly clothes & reminders of childhood in favor of wearing all black. I sank into a dark place for weeks that scared my mom into pulling me out of school. Even though she had no experience, & her hands were full caring for my young sisters- she set out to homeschool me. Today my heart goes out for her efforts, because she really did try to get me to socialize with other homeschoolers & get outside - but largely I spent those 3 years in stubborn solitude in my dungeon of a bedroom. In the Sunshine State I lived like a preteen vampire, stewing with anger at my parents & the ugliness of the world.
By freshman year we had moved again, & I insisted on attending a real school. There was an art magnet program at a school an hour away, so my parents enrolled me there. I would later come to learn that this inner-city school was on the verge of being shut-down for failure to achieve state standards (which are already quite low for the state of Florida) & the art programs were set in place to "attract smarter kids". Even though my other classes were horrendous, I did enjoy the formal art training I received during my short time there. But the larger environment did not help my depression, & I did not have the tools to adopt a healthier mindset. These days I can feel grateful not to have lived in the vicinity of that school - my family wasn't quite middle class, but our neighborhood was quiet & relatively safe. I can't fathom the kind of upbringing many of those kids suffer in such desperate neighborhoods. I also didn't have it as bad as some of the other magnet students who were often targeted by race- there was one time when a group of black girls started a fire in the locker room trash can, & were about to lock the white girls inside but they let me escape. Fortunately a security guard came to the rescue shortly after (I was no hero) & no one was hurt, but these kind of events were commonplace. I was unable to learn much in my other classes due to the constant disruptions of cursing class members & mentally frayed or checked-out teachers. I'd hurriedly walk the halls with my head down for fear of harassment. I became familiar with the tumbleweeds of weave rolling through the campus.... And despite there being bars on all the windows & metal detectors at the doors, there were still several lockdowns for kids with blades or guns that semester, and a girl was raped on a school bus. At 14, I began engaging in self-harm - the scars for which I still carry to this day.
Before the end of freshman year my family moved again, to a suburb of Chicago. The contrast of my new school was intense: clean, pastel locker-lined hallways & a majority population of rich white kids. I was very suspicious & remained pretty reserved, but I did make a few friends, & threw myself full-force into the enriching educational opportunities there. I loved my AP English, Art, & Art History classes most, & adored my teachers, but I did burn out a bit from the workload. I remember staying up until 2am writing lengthy papers on multiple occasions, and I think this contributed to my ultimately dropping out of college years later.
Still living at home, craving independence, & ready to shed the skin I'd worn so long
After burning myself out by working so hard for good grades in high school, it only took a few months before my dropout from college. Unlike many of my peers who'd gone away to art schools with their parents' money, I was stuck paying my own way through community college. I'd actually gotten a letter from the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago with the biggest scholarship they offered at the time, but the remaining exorbitant tuition cost was out of the question for my family. I was more than a little resentful that my whole life I'd been told "you must go to college", but when it came time- I had to work 5 jobs just to accomplish this goal that had never been my own. I worked as an editor for the art & literature magazine on campus, nannied for a family nearby, sold Cutco knives, took art commissions, and worked at Chipotle. On off days I would take the metra to Chicago & throw myself into risky situations in an effort to compensate for the "fun" I didn't have in high school, & continued to bury traumas both old & new, under layers of self-hatred. I was frustrated & aching for a different life, a different me... When I got a call from a friend inviting me to go work in Glacier National Park for a summer, I initially declined thinking "I can't just abandon everything I'm doing here". But then I realized nothing I was doing was bringing me joy or helping me grow as a person. More often than not, I was actually endangering myself. The list of responsibilities in my life would only increase & hold me back further the longer I stayed put, so I took the terrifying leap- packed a suitcase, & left the nest forever to begin my new life.
My first taste of true independence, & realizing how little of the world I truly knew
That first summer was a whirlwind. I was living & working at Many Glacier on the East side of the park, where there was no cell service & no wifi. I was surrounded by wild, nature-loving young people from all walks of life. Out from under my parents' wing, I finally had the freedom to explore new experiences, & myself, in a whole new way. I might've overcompensated for the relatively sheltered years I'd lived before...drinking, drugs & general debauchery were fairly uncharted territory for me & I went in with perhaps a little too much zeal. But overall, the people I met, experiences had, & the mountains I climbed - changed me forever & set me on the path of free-spirited park-jumping I'd follow for many years. With much-needed distance, I also began to view my parents in a new way, letting go of some of those long-held resentments once I realized just how complex & nuanced adult life could be.
My first experience falling in love, where I found myself in a very toxic relationship.
After the summer season working at Glacier National Park, I stayed with my amazing cousin outside of Portland, OR. She gave me a job, let me stay with her rent-free, even borrow her car- & provided the kind of guidance I desperately needed at the time. She was the best role model I could have asked for - a self-starter, who herself dropped out of school to lead a wild, well-traveled life & eventually still wound up with a great job & a house of her own! She defied all expectations & remained unapologetically her unique self, & I admired that so much. It was by her lead that I learned some of the nuance to navigating complex family relationships in a healthy way, and began to view introspection & personal growth in a more optimistic light. Also learned from her: the necessity of monitoring one's drink at the bar, staying hydrated, & having fun but also being responsible! The next summer when I went on to my next National Park, I showed far more restraint than my first summer away from home (my friends would often call me Momica, as the often more responsible party-Mom-figure)- & I attribute so much of this growth to her influence. Sometimes I shudder to think of the path I may have taken otherwise. But rather than mold me in an authoritative, parental sort of way, she also gave me so much space & freedom to learn things on my own too, which I think is the primary reason so many of her lessons stuck with me. I was so used to being lectured by my parents & resenting it, that this freer approach had a far greater impact.
Some things however simply can't be taught, & sometimes you have to learn the hard way. When I met someone on a solo adventure, I was instantly overtaken by a kind of overwhelming madness I'd never felt before. It was my first time "falling in love" (over the years I'd come to define love in many different ways) and it just so happened to be with a very destructive bipolar type 2 person off his meds. With no real basis of comparison, the highs would seem so very high- but lows... The painting above came about after a camping trip gone very wrong, where he attempted to throw himself out of a moving car & screamed I was driving him to suicide. That night we discussed our respective traumas over the campfire with a bottle of whiskey & I blacked out for the first (and last) time. He took a video of me sobbing naked in the woods & tried to blackmail me on several occasions with it. The forms on the left are impressions of that video. I painted myself putting that pain & shame behind me, and looking toward the future... I didn't understand the decision of the red & blue to the right at the time, but today it evokes that concept from The Matrix of choosing one's perception of reality. I find it interesting to have put that there without the conscious connection.
First big break-up, re-inventing myself following an abusive relationship
Initial illustration of the bipolar relationship, soon painted over
After a few months of that rollercoaster relationship things came to a close. He'd broken up with me a few times before claiming he was simply a broken person, but in my naivete I'd thought love could heal all wounds. When I told my mom about some of the things that were going on - the manipulation; his threats of suicide; the violence & bruises on my arms - she told me with alarm that he sounded very much like my biological father (who I knew very little about save that he was a violent & cruel person). This disturbed me so much that I resolved to pick myself up off the floor & do better. I had been in such a low place, even hovering a razor over my skin on the edge of returning to the self-harm I'd wrought at 14. But something in me knew I didn't really deserve pain...there was a voice inside that told me I was meant to do- to be something else. That this lesson was necessary, because it showed me just how low I could sink, yet still rise from the ashes. So I rose to the challenge & emerged from that broken place, promising myself never to allow my emotions to override abuse again.
I still find it eerie that my first time falling in love should be with such a person, but I suspect there is probably a biological explanation for that sort of thing. Even though it was a deeply painful experience, today I am grateful to have learned what love wasn't- so early on. Because today I am proud to be well-acquainted with precisely what love, real love- truly is:)
Unraveling at the Grand Canyon - Nightmares
Unraveling at the Grand Canyon - Psychedelics
So I'd re-invented myself, & this new, resilient, somewhat overconfident version of me headed off for a summer spent working at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. By this point I was used to showing up in new places to start a new life by myself, & my newfound confidence landed me friends rather quickly. It's hard to choose a favorite of the many parkie experiences I've had, but in the friendship department I think that summer is at the top. Having moved around so much as a kid, I'd never really known what it felt like to have a solid group of friends to hang out with all the time, and the relationships forged that season at the Grand Canyon were really special to me. Many days of laughter & group art sessions were spent in my roommate & I's little cabin. The work culture was atrocious, but making friends with all the international students & experimenting with substances in the desert with a close group of friends was a chapter I'll always cherish.
I'd never been particularly superstitious, but a lot of weird things happened the day that I arrived. I observed strange synchronicities (a concept I was not yet familiar with) and spooky happenings like doors & windows opening of their own accord etc. There was a sort of heavy atmosphere that I shrugged off as perhaps an air of generational/cultural trauma (the South Rim is both a tourist attraction and a Najavo village, with their own library & school). But I was frequently plagued with unprecedentedly violent nightmares that whole summer. Trauma from my past would mesh with these war-like visions of bloodshed & rage, & it definitely messed with my head. I was dabbling with psychedelics more often & when I look back, I view this chapter as a time of unraveling. I'm still not fully sure what that means, but I now believe in stuff like energy & vortexes (concepts I'd scoffed at at the time). There are supposedly a lot of vortexes around The Grand Canyon & Sedona, and looking back at my experiences in these places I certainly believe it. I think I just wasn't quite ready for the intensity of whatever was happening energetically, and may have stunted my spiritual growth at that age due to overzealous substance abuse. One day I will revisit these sites as a mature, more awakened being- and I look forward to seeing what comes through to me then.
Between the ages of 21 & 23 I did not make any self-portraits. This is largely because those were the happiest years of my life at that point! I was in a healthy, functional relationship & felt less confused, & closer to my truest self, than I'd ever felt. I developed into love with a good friend & we spent 2 years working at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, living in different parts of the country during off seasons. Without the crushing sense of loneliness & overcompensation, I felt able to pursue a connection with my silly inner child, which I'd never really allowed before. The terrible nightmares began to wane. I continued to have amazing experiences in beautiful places with great friends. But though I'd crested a sort of peak in personal growth with the introduction of stability, freedom & great joy - I was still ignoring a lot of the baggage I'd been carrying around. After two years, I began to feel I had spent too much of my precious early years of adult life desperately searching for an end to the loneliness, and too little time truly being with myself in a growth-oriented way. And though this certainly could have been possible while still in the relationship, I decided I was young enough to claim the independence I felt I'd squandered, & ended the relationship. I didn't do it in the best way - I told him I wanted to just "take a break" instead of being upfront like he deserved, and that was yet another lesson learned the hard way. But though I could have done it better, I am grateful to have taken that exit when I did, because it lead to a year of transformation & rebirth as an independent adult that proved critical to my journey overall.
As a newly single person, I decided not to commit to a relationship until I felt I'd grown up a little more. There was a lot of work to be done in accepting past trauma & learning to love myself, without the crutch of someone else to do it for me. Inspired by a friend who'd recently donated her eggs & used the money to travel the world, I decided to try for the same. This was a very morally conflicting decision, as I'd already been having reservations about bringing a child of my own into such a messy world & uncertain global future. I often thought that adoption seemed the more ethical route when the day came that I was ready - but now I was selling part of my body to bring a child into the world for someone else. I think it likely would not have been the meaningful experience it turned out to be, had things gone differently. I was conflicted & ashamed right up until the day I met the intended father. This is a rather long story for perhaps a future blog post, but in a nutshell: it was a single man who'd lost the love of his life to a car accident. The egg foundation did not want to allow contact between us per their standards, but we ended up meeting, exchanging stories, & crying together in what became a truly beautiful experience. Getting to know him & the life he planned for this little human that would partly come from me, I began to view the whole thing in a completely different, hopeful light. It also triggered an abrupt recognition of my many demons, and the night before the extraction I poured my sorrow into pages upon pages of writing. I was gripped with terror that this future little girl might one day face the kind of trauma, sexual assault, or emotional & physical abuse that I had. But simultaneously I forgave myself for the things that had happened to me & the way I handled them. Suddenly I saw the beauty in how even when there is darkness in life, or in the world - how precious are those moments that shine through it all? How incredible was it to express & share that pain with another, and to exchange an energy of healing & hope together in the creation of a new being who would one day also come to understand?
Needless to say, it was all very overwhelming. But in a powerful, pivotal sort of way. I painted the piece above, as a synthesis of self-portrait of my own psychological rebirth- alongside this vision of that future child. I also wrote many imaginary letters to that future child, with assurances of the universe, of pain & beauty & nature...Of the duality of life as a human on this planet, and so much more. But they were also letters to myself, and my own inner child. For the first time in my life, I sat with myself & took stock of my baggage. I accepted it for what it was, and I hugged the little girl, the broken teen, and destructive young woman I'd been. I embraced the infinite light-filled possibilities of the universe. All of this & more, was poured into that painting...
Empowered, & finding balance for the first time in dealing with trauma
After recovering from the egg donation, I bought a Eurorail pass, flew to the Syrian border of Turkey & backpacked from one end of the continent to the other over the next four months. I had friends I'd met while working in the National Parks peppered through some countries & remain eternally grateful for their hospitality & guidance! Turkey especially was not a country I'd advise a foreign woman to travel alone, so I was very lucky to have those friends, & even make some new ones. I spent a month traveling around Turkey, & being the only country I visited that bridged two continents - I was absolutely fascinated by the differences to Western culture. The food, museums, and warm welcoming families I stayed with were nothing short of incredible. There is so much to say about that 4-month adventure, that I will save most of it for a future post along with snippets of my travel sketchbook. But in a nutshell, I only paid for a hostel maybe once or twice and when I didn't have friends to stay with I would use the Couchsurfing app & stay with strangers. This of course horrified every friend & family member I told back in the states, but I'll assure you that I vetted my hosts as vigorously as I could😅 By ensuring each host had at least 100 positive reviews, checking at least 20 of those reviewers' profiles (& reviews of them) to ensure they were legit- & by the grace of God nothing bad happened & I was only blessed with incredible connections, experiences, & unique recommendations I wouldn't have had otherwise. I spent more time in Eastern Europe as by the time I started to make it further West, things were getting more expensive & I wanted to save money for my ultimate destination: Norway.
Travel by train was the best way I could have done it, & I adored my time spent in solitude with my journal, watching the landscapes roll by through the window. I reveled in the feeling of solo exploration to castles, canyons, cities & more. It was very challenging at times to navigate non-English speaking countries on my own, and there were more than a few occasions of plans gone awry where I had to sleep on train station benches or walk for miles through cities, bedraggled with a way-too-heavy backpack- just to find someplace with a bathroom or wifi. There were times that I cried from the blisters, frustration & loneliness of it all. But for the most part those hardships only spurred my growth further, and made the many blessings of that trip shine all the brighter. I had many existential crises & revelations during those four months. About love, life, struggle, and so much more. The painting above was a culmination of many of these. There's a lot of symbolism even I haven't fully unpacked yet, but the key elements I'll convey are these:
Much testing had been done for the egg donation & one of the many things the father & I bonded over was our discovery of shared Scandinavian heritage. He gave me his great grandfather's hand-pounded pewter necklace of a viking ship, which I wore through my whole backpacking trip, illustrated in this piece, & eventually got tattooed. I was very inspired by Norse mythology & consuming a lot of traditional Norwegian music/legends, so the birds pictured are Odin's divine ravens Huginn & Muninn, which are thought to be symbolic of the human mind: respectively, Thought & Mind/Memory. This really resonated with me, as during much of my journey I'd come to understand the personal significance of choosing growth-oriented thoughts over being forever burdened by painful memories (I eventually got these ravens tattooed as well). In this piece you'll notice the ravens holding a red thread, symbolic of my life like the Norns who weave the threads of our lives. (This may be a bit of a disturbing detail to add, but I had a cut that was bleeding at the time & inexplicably decided to paint a bit of my blood into that thread. It felt like a kind of powerful self-healing magic at the time, & in the creation of this piece overall.) At one end of the thread is a dagger, and beneath- crystalized skulls. A reminder of the dangers in hardening oneself due to pains of the past. At the other end, a key- and beneath, the growth of medicinal plants. A reminder that there is opportunity for growth & unlocking that inner power, even from the ghosts of our past- just as there is infinite growth after death in nature. I painted myself nude as it felt like another rebirth- and for once, in a pose of empowerment: twining these threads of my life above my head with Thought & Memory around me. This is very different than every other self-portrait I have done. And while there is vulnerability in nudity, I was finally beginning to see my body as simply a vessel for the energy or spirit within, and I felt emboldened by this new vision of myself. Also for the first time, I began to feel I held a sense of real magic- as though I were transmuting a tangible power in this new approach of accepting the duality between pain & beauty... there's a lot more in there but I'll leave it at that.
None my self portraits were ever really intended to be shared, and simply served as my own little personal therapy sessions/conduits for transformation. But I also never imagined I would eventually pursue art as a career, or feel compelled to provide a bit of a window in getting to know me better as the artist. It wasn't totally comfortable sharing all these things here, but I also didn't share everything, & do feel a little lighter for having gotten some of this down. As though putting all these pieces in one place with these introspections has spurred a kind of personal growth once again, even all these years later:) If you've made it this far I'd like to thank you for joining me on this vulnerable but empowering journey. We all have our demons & respective journeys in making peace with them - and I hope you find some inspiration here for your journey as well. My inbox is always open for conversation❤️ thank you friends, sending many blessings & wishes that you too choose growth in seeking out the beauty in the universe🙏