The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA

Exploring Identity through Self-Portraits

Fay’s youngest artists have been exploring aspects of their identity this fall through self-portraiture. Students in Kindergarten through grade three are working with art teacher Cathy Gruetzke-Blais to create self-portraits that reflect different aspects of their identity. They are discussing how some parts of their identities are visible, while others are harder to see. 

“The skin I’m in is just a covering. It cannot tell my story.”

In Kindergarten, Cathy read Skin Again by Bell Hooks with her students, a book that illustrates how different skin shades are just a superficial covering. Each Kindergarten student selected paper faces from a selection of skin-toned hues that they felt best matched themselves. “I remind my students all the time that we are all different colors and that nobody is white like a sheet of paper!” says Cathy. Students observed themselves in a mirror and then drew, colored, and collaged details like hair and bows onto their pictures.
In first grade, students listened to and discussed Shades of People by Shelly Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, which uses photography to celebrate the broad array of skin tones in the world; the photographs are paired with rich descriptive adjectives right out of a Crayola box, such as sandy, peach, coffee, cocoa, and copper. First graders are ready to apply more precision to their work, and Cathy expanded the assignment, challenging students to include shoulders in their portraits; she also spent time showing students how to position facial features accurately. Students again spent time studying themselves in the mirror and used markers and oil pastels to draw their self-portraits.

Second graders created full-body self-portraits using “mini-me” cut-outs, markers, and oil pastels to draw and color their features. Students dressed their portrait in an outfit reflective of their own personal style and incorporated a meaningful symbol into the picture, such as a pair of ballet shoes or a mandala. 

Third graders created multi-layered self-portraits on large 18x24 inch sheets that incorporated several facets of their identity. First, each student designed a coat of arms that reflected aspects of his or her identity. Then they drew self-portraits from the chest up using pencils and painted them in watercolors. Students again studied themselves in the mirror to try to replicate features, positioning, and proportion accurately. They finished their portraits by placing their coat of arms on the shirt front and used a unique font or other technique to incorporate their names into the background of their picture. “One student designed a crossword puzzle for the background that included all her cousin's names. It was a unique way to incorporate family as an important theme in her portrait,” notes Cathy. 

As students explore different aspects of their identity this fall, art will continue to provide a rich medium for those conversations. “Art is always about your identity, and everything you do in art is a self-portrait,” notes Cathy. “Whatever the project may be, nobody is going to do it the same way that you will.”