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The Only One

JANUARY 25, 2010
For this posting, instead of showing the typical few sketches and final, I thought I would try to get more into the thinking process of a painting and what goes through my head when working on a job.  Sometimes, a job is pretty easy and flows.  Other times, like in this case, a swirl of thoughts accompany the job as it moves along.  Sometimes they don't make sense as the job progresses but in the end, all the thoughts, memories and personal experiences play a role in developing a piece. It's hard to describe these thought processes in the context of making art because it can be pretty abstract and honestly, this post would be 3 times longer if I attempted to write everything that my brain was churning over during this job but hopefully the general thoughts come across here.

I got a call from Valerie Downes at Teaching Tolerance/Southern Poverty Law Center to do what turned out to be a real interesting job.  The story started off about an African-American girl who was the only person of color in her school surrounded by Caucasian students.  The story went on generally discussing the issues revolving around their own identity and dealing with different cultures and what may or may not be expected of them.  Within that, there was words about how the majority of the students and even the teachers stereotyped the singled out student.

"Tia Hall wanted to learn German.

As a student at an elite private school, Hall felt that this was a reasonable request. But she still recalls the teacher who ridiculed her, saying, “Why on earth would a black kid want to study German?”

An appalling comment, indeed.  I guess growing up in a fairly liberal household and ending up having incredibly racially and socially diverse friends through my life, the thought that these words are spoken to someone, even a kid, is shocking to me.

While racism was one of the foci in the article, I really didn't want to focus on that.  As I read on, it became important to me to visualize the separation of the races but try to tap into the psychology of it.

Starting this job, I got to thinking about my experiences growing up and going to elementary school in Connecticut.  I was in schools that were largely white populated and in my 5th grade class, I remember there only being one black kid.  His name was Leonard.  He was totally into model trains and we would design track layouts on scraps of paper when we were done with classwork.  He taught me that one inch on the rule equalled one track length in the design.  An odd memory but I smile when I think about it because he was so into making these designs and he taught me something about it.  We both had model trains at home.  Oddly though, on the play ground, I noticed he would walk around alone sometimes.  I remember one instance asking him if he wanted to play with us over wherever and whatever we were doing and he declined.  I never thought about what was possibly going on much until this article.

I got to thinking about this and the job at hand and started wondering about Leonard's experiences.  I haven't communicated with him since the end of the 5th grade when I moved to New York so I am not sure how growing up as he did affected him.  Maybe feeling out of place?  Maybe feeling 'alone' even though surrounded by hundreds of other kids?  There were others of different descents throughout the school but it was certainly a minority.  I can speculate all I want of what he was going through but my assumption was that he probably did feel out of place for the most part.  In my own life, I am grateful for the move to New York when I was in 6th grade (and later going to college in NYC) and find myself in more diverse situations.

An idea that stood out for me is the self-awareness of race differences with the students that experience being the 'only one' and having to force themselves into accepting the majority 'culture' out of necessity. They have to be more accepting of other races in order to survive the cultural unheavals they may feel inside themselves because they are surrounded by so many of the same 'different' type of people.  This idea became one of the anchors for this piece.

"Fabiana Kimberly Silva, a college student in Santa Barbara, Calif., said she was the only Bolivian when she attended middle and high school. While seeking acceptance from Mexicans and Anglo students and staff, she almost lost her culture.

“I had faced discrimination and racism from Mexicans in school because they didn’t understand my culture. They saw me as an intruder,” she said. “And also from white Americans because I was a Latina and they usually thought I was Mexican.

“I had to adapt to these cultures by interacting with both, mixing my Spanish with the Mexican way of talking and learning English at the same time."

As I started sketching, I immediately wanted contrast.  Black and white.  I did about twenty sketches not too much different than the sketches above just various compositions really, so I am sparing everyone the monotony of it all and showing the three I sent to the art director.

Two elements that I wanted to be part of this image was the contrast of a single black image along side an expanse of white/light imagery and the other, later on in the sketch process, a rainbow image which is usually a good visual metaphor for race ideas.  When I decided on the rainbow image to be part of the piece I knew I had to make the rainbow an internal and external symbol to connect with the idea that students who are singled out have to be much more accepting of other races than the people around them.  I thought a fully white rainbow with a single black band symbolizing how 'non-rainbow' the situation was but somehow tie in a fully colored rainbow to show internal growth of acceptance and perseverance.

The internal growth part was important because the girl with her story in the beginning of the article was later a parent who was dealing with making a choice for her daughter whether to send her to a largely white populated school.  She decided to do so but made sure she was a very active parent at the school.

"She never forgot how it felt to be the “only one.” As an adult, she married a man who’d had a similar school experience. The two thought long and hard before sending their children into the same situation.

In the end, though, the North Carolina couple did decide to send their four children to a small private school. Hall’s son is one of four students of color attending the high school. "


From the thumbnail above to my final sketch, you can see that I flipped the image.  This was the art directors suggestion because of page placement.  I was totally fine with that as it didn't interfere with the aesthetic of the piece at all.

Blocking in major shapes.
Detail of the finish.
All the while working out the sketches which took a few days of brainstorming, I think about my own influences in my art and what I can play off of.  Lately, I've been creating stark black images and using whilte or different color inks to define the lines within the space.  The Alien example is a recent piece I did for a group show in Los Angeles and I thought that I could use this element in this illustration.  Next to it is an image from Jasper Johns that popped in my head immediately when I started thinking about the mass of white-on-white I was intending to put into this piece from the very start.  Monochromatic works are very pleasing to me and actually can be difficult to work out because you are dealing with values that are very close together but need to visually read at the same time.

I also take objects from around me as inspiration.  This plant and its leaves I have in my house are inspiration for plant designs that I enjoy putting in many of my paintings lately.  The plants and other similar elements in this piece were to symbolize growth and learning.

The rest is compositional choices and just how I paint a picture.  The desk wasn't in a circle in the original ideas.  As I was working on the piece, I realized there needed to be a bit more of a balance to the large 'flower' on the right side of the painting so I added the circle as I was completing the painting.  The original circle was pretty dark too.  This was the third version of the circle that seemed to work best with the overall value/tone of the painting.


On a more serious note, as Black History Month comes upon us this year, it is a time to learn about issues like what was presented in this story.  Not just specifically about black history either but Native Americans and other nationalities and races that have fallen under the same appalling scrutiny throughout history.

American history has a lot of black eyes because of race relations and amazing strides in our culture has given us many wonderful changes - like our first President of color.  Still, I see, and I am guessing most of you notice there still is undercurrents of stereotypes all the way down to blatant racism prevalent in our society.  It is shameful.

My thoughts on racism and the psychological aspects of it are certainly not comprehensive in this post and my blog is more about art and art creation anyway. I am hopeful, though, that with continued education and thoughtful discussion, the hurtful and negative situations of racism and other social issues that are constantly at odds such as gay marriage could improve.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Martin Luther King, Jr. 

You can read the full story here. Teaching Tolerance - The Only One