Most people aren’t in the habit of making self-portraits, especially not with rubber stamps and an ink pad. But that’s exactly the challenge a roaming art project called Our Town is posing to Nashvillians: sit down at a piece of paper with unfamiliar materials and make an image that says something about who you are.
Bryce McCloud got the idea more than a year ago when he was teaching an art workshop to homeless men at Room in the Inn. He suggested self-portraits just as an ice breaker but was wowed enough by the results that he wanted to share with the world—and work them into a larger project.
McCloud secured a grant from the Metro Arts Commission, had a mobile cart made for his supplies (it looks a little like it ought to hold popsicles, and the white coveralls he wears only cement that impression), and now makes a habit of wheeling it into all kinds of places: art festivals, elementary schools, senior centers, and, on this day, back to Room in the Inn.
Once there, the cart unfolds into a display stand. McCloud and his assistant, Elizabeth Williams, take out mirrors, ink pads and handmade stamps in geometric shapes and set up workstations on whatever kind of tables are nearby.
What Do I Do?
No matter the crowd, the cart and its contents attract the same kind of attention. People smile, but cautiously. They’re confused by the stamps. Who makes a picture of a face out of squares and circles?
Well, McCloud says, the first step is taking a moment to look in the mirror, to examine the stamps. After a minute, something clicks. A young man named Jishon realizes his face is made out of plenty of shapes. “I didn’t recognize at first, but I see now,” he says. “Look at my eyebrows, they’re triangles.”
Another man, named Anthony, makes a page full of simple smiley faces to match his personal philosophy: smile no matter what’s going on. Is it cold or raining? Smile like the sunshine. If you’re sad, smile. He makes eyes out of circles or squares, uses triangles for the mouth, grinning to himself as he stamps.
Sometimes the portrait isn’t even a face, exactly. Willie Groce methodically stamped a grid of squares, nearly filling the page before making marks that resemble eyes and a mouth. He calls it “My Wall Of Pain.”
McCloud admits the stamps make the process hard. They’re something of an equalizer, really. Whether the person at the table is a businessman or a small child, everyone is starting from scratch.
Even at gatherings of professional artists, the people who sit down have to figure out what to do without a pencil or paintbrush. But that just means it’s never about technical skill as much as simple, basic self-expression.
“It’s telling your story in a way that you don’t usually tell it,” McCloud points out. “This is about who you are and who you feel like you are.”
Who Will I Be?
Everyone who makes a self portrait has to decide which part of themselves will make it into the picture.
Take Lawrence, for example. As he experiments with the stamps, he tells how he left Memphis for Nashville in hopes of shaking an addiction. If he left bad influences behind, he thought, maybe things would be better. Then he got here and found that the problem wasn’t his friends, it was himself. Getting better is going to take more than moving halfway across the state.
Then Lawrence sort of shakes off his story, saying that’s not what he wants to focus on right now. Making the portrait allows him to show his best self, instead.
When Lawrence finishes, his portrait is dominated by a broad smile. He laughs, says he wishes it looked a little more masculine, but ultimately declares it to be himself, happy. “That’s me,” he says, satisfied with what he’s made.
Once the stamping is done, there are two more steps. A photo is taken of the artist holding his or her creation. Then comes the trade.
In exchange for giving their own self-portrait to the project’s collection, everyone gets to take a limited edition print of an image someone else made at another event.
Lawrence chooses the portrait of young woman who stopped at the cart during the Southern Festival of Books. He examines her face.
“It’s a whole lot of things going on in the mind. In the head” he says of the expression in the print. “I could look at this so many ways.”
He’d looked at the prints when he walked in the room, but now that Lawrence has made his own portrait, he seems to see them differently. These aren’t just pictures anymore. They’re windows to another person.