Through the Looking Glass: a Self Portraiture Exploration of Selfhood and Identity

May 4, 2020   /  

Student: Kelsey Nolin
Major: Studio Art
Advisors: Bridget Milligan, Walter Zurko, Tracy Cosgriff

During the lifetime of every being, we are only guaranteed one companion that will never leave us:  ourselves.  And, as with all relationships, we must engage with our partner, growing with them, and shedding the skins that no longer suit us. In this Senior Independent Study Project, I utilized the medium of photography to further explain my own relationship with self and identity. Through the exclusive use of self-portraiture, I was forced to confront all aspects of myself, both the darkest corners and the brightest lights.  By taking this in-depth exploration into my emotional and psychological experiences throughout the course of my senior year of undergraduate study, I gained greater understanding of who I was when I began this journey, who I am now, and who I am meant to be in the next chapter.  It is my hope that this body of work will not only provide the viewer with a greater understanding of my experiences as I engage with the themes of identity and womanhood, but that they will also leave this exhibition encouraged to turn the lens inward.

Kelsey Nolin website

Kelsey will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

37 thoughts on “Through the Looking Glass: a Self Portraiture Exploration of Selfhood and Identity”

  1. Self-reflection is never comfortable, and that came through. I love the use of paint, pencils, and charcoal to highlight the photographs. Sometimes the painted background and the hyper-real photo is so stark as to be a shock (as in the first Job 12:8 (Detail)). And the various Dreams are also thought provoking. The half-in shadow PMS (Detail) with the negative and positive words hits a little close to home. Wonderful show! I am so glad you shared it.

    1. Amy, thank you so much for your feedback and appreciation. The PMS image you mentioned has been a reflective piece for many viewers, and it’s definitely not always a comfortable one. I’m glad that you noticed the juxtaposition of materials. That was such a key element to my process.

  2. Self-reflection is difficult, but you were able to creatively capture the beautiful and disturbing images–the intertwined parts of the whole. Well done!

    1. Robin, I’m so glad you enjoyed the work. It was important to me to represent both sides of life, and I’m so pleased that you were able to experience that.

  3. Wow. These pieces of art are beautiful. I really enjoyed your website and how you displayed your work. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you Rebecca! I’m happy to hear you liked the website. I’m not fond of technology, so the positive feedback is very encouraging!

  4. Hi Kelsey,
    Congratulations on getting everything done and this is some wonderful work! I struggle with analyzing and breaking down art, but there are strong themes in your work that I can connect with. Your combination of photography and drawing really complements each other nicely and brought the work into a powerful whole. I especially like your “Dreams: when too many people were talking to translate” and found it to be a wonderful representation of a feeling that can be really hard to describe.
    All the best and I hope your enjoying the time home!

    1. Thank you John! It gives me such joy to know that you could connect with the work. I truly wanted my art to be accessible to viewers from all backgrounds, and not just the artists and art historians. As to the translation dream, I had someone else describe it as, “a true introvert moment.” Hope you’re doing well!

  5. Hi Kelsey, I’ve studied and taught about dreams as a research psychologist and I had actually never seen anything quite like your dream series: It pulled me into the unsettling suspension of reality that happens in dreams while also realistically reproducing imagery from actual dreams; and it did all of that while working so very well as art. It gave me a great deal to think about. If I ever lecture on dreams again, I’ll hope for permission to work an image from your dream series into my lecture. Thank you, and congratulations!

    1. Ari, I’m so glad you stopped by! I’m quite infamous in my small circle of friends and family for the crazy content and imagery in my dreams, so I had to include some visualizations in the final exhibit. I would be honored to share some images if you ever have the need. Just reach out using the contact page on the website.

  6. I love the certainty that emanates from your pieces. Every mark is intentional and purposeful and speaks to the greater meaning behind your images. With mark making, did you know what you wanted to do before you took your photographs or did the ideas come to you spontaneously after studying the images?

    1. Lydia, what a great observation AND question! I’d say that the mark making process was a mix of planned and spontaneous, leaning toward spontaneity. If I knew what emotion I was conveying before I put the piece together (i.e. anxiety in Breathe), I would tailor the marks towards gestures and shapes that would best convey those sensations. But I think that for most pieces, I started with the image and followed subconscious intuitive choices while incorporating my own personal “hand.”

  7. Dear Kelsey,
    I am so impressed with the work you have created. It has human relevance-capturing the mystery, wonder, tension, and confusion that we all experience at times in our lives- occasionally and other times daily. Your introspection has served you well and your ability to visually share that story will continue to connect you with your audience. I am so glad that I got to know the person behind the work.
    Now, about technology, what ever your underlying resistance was, I believe you are soon to be over it.
    Congratulations and all the best to you, always.

    1. Jodi, thank you for the beautiful words. I’m so glad that we got to work together this year. Since beautiful work can be made from struggle, maybe my next series will be inspired by all the technological hurdles I’ve faced!

  8. Dear Kelsey,
    Your work is very brave and sincere. It must take a lot of courage to choose yourself as an object of research and share the result. I admire the depth of your project and personality as well as your versatility. I wish you all the best. Congratulations!

    1. Marina, thank you for taking time to view the work! It was sometimes challenging to use myself as the subject, but I found that the pros definitely outweighed any cons. I had to learn to accept all parts of myself, and I truly feel that I know myself so much better after this year.

  9. Really strong work, Kelsey! I look forward to reading your full thesis paper. Your work reveals deep emotion. Were there any technical/mechanical revelations in completing this project that you would like to share?

    1. Thanks for visiting, Amy! I think that before this project, I hadn’t delved too deeply into multifaceted multimedia projects. For my junior thesis, I did some work with photomontage, but I stuck to black and white photos with colored pencil integration. I think that my strongest take away in terms of medium for this project was the diversity of the photographic. I tried to push myself beyond traditional forms of display and treatment because I wanted to explore the medium as much as I could. I also took an art history course centered on collage and it highly influenced my later works that integrated tearing and more sculptural elements. Although I still consider myself a photographer, I was pleased by the fact that many of the finished pieces could be confused with paintings or drawings. Combining materials and pushing the boundaries of mediums will definitely be something that I take with me into future works.

  10. Dear Kelsey,
    Your work inspires overwhelming emotion, and I know I’ve said this before, but you have clearly done so much scholarship and reflection. I especially loved reading about the circumstances behind some of the pieces outlined in your written thesis. Breath exactly captures that feeling of anxiety and dreading, and the powerful statements made with Job 12:8 and PMS really connected with me. Could you talk about the inspiration and creative process behind Pieces? It is one of my mom’s favorite from the collection! Again, congratulations on such an amazing show!!

    1. Thank you Kate! I’m glad the works spoke to you. I would love to explain Pieces more. That piece was actually one of the last works that I created. I had several conversations with different artistic advisors, and I was encouraged to experiment with reductive processes since much of my work had been additive until that point. I engaged with this idea by ripping up images and reorganizing them into new forms. I created Breathe first, and was left with a few extraneous prints. I didn’t have a detailed plan when I tore up the print that became Pieces, but I knew I wanted to play with the idea of sculptural presentations of a traditionally 2D material. As with much of the exhibit, once I had the final work, it finally took on meaning. My own interpretation of Pieces is two-fold. The first is the fairly obvious connection to the title. The pieces of the print represent of different experiences that make up a person. But the secondary meaning deals with ideas of perception. As the viewer would have moved through the gallery, my face and body would have taken on different distortions and appearances. Sometimes parts would have been completely hidden. This was meant to represent the varying perceptions people have of each other. It symbolized the idea that often times our judgement of others come from not having the full picture, or not seeing all of the pieces. Only through viewing the angle with all the pieces at their strongest visibility would a viewer be able to see the most complete image.

  11. Hey Kelsey,
    So glad your dad shared the link to your project. Mark, Bethany and I just finished looking at your project and reading your thesis. So profoundly insightful and artistic and brave. Especially appreciated your thoughts on the Job 12:8 series.
    Proud to be related to you. Wish your Grandma could have been alive to see it.

    1. Thanks Aunt Susan! Job 12:8 was an incredibly satisfying piece to work on. It helped me gain a sense of resolution to tensions I’d had with my faith, and I truly enjoyed doing research on the subject. And I too was thinking of how much both she and Ada Margaret would have enjoyed coming out to Wooster. I still wear a piece of heritage jewelry when I have important presentations and performances.

  12. Hi, Kelsey–

    (I’m the daughter of one of your dad’s friends from work.)

    Firstly, I am so sorry that your Xzibit was not able to be presented as you had originally planned. That being said, I very much enjoyed reading your personal reflections and interpretations of the pieces that you have presented. I am very much an amateur photographer, and I very much appreciate the approach that you took to make yourself the object and focal point of your work. That brings an entirely raw representation to the work of any artist when the centerpiece is oneself.

    1. Erica, having to go digital was a disappointment, but I’m still glad that I’ve had the chance to share my artwork. I’ve found that my most powerful work has always been connected to deeply emotional and personal subjects, so choosing to do self portraits just made sense! Thank you for taking time to view the work.

  13. Congratulations, Kelsey!! What a milestone! For the pictures called “Dreams” were they actual dreams that you had that you captured in pictures? What a creative idea!! Blessings to you as you continue in your adventure, Julie

    1. Julie, so glad you could see the work! Yes, they were all pulled from actual dreams. I kept (and have still been keeping) a dream journal. The journals likely would have been displayed with the Dreams series to allow viewers to actually see the notes I had recorded.

  14. This is a spectacular exhibit of self-portraiture, Kelsey. Thank you so much for sharing such personal work. As you said so well yourself, it has definitely inspired me to turn the lens inward. Thank you and congratulations on completing this important project!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to view it! It’s greatly appreciated, and I’m glad you were inspired!

  15. Wow!!! Love this so much. Excellent work exploring the self in such a vulnerable way

  16. Hi Kelsey,

    I’m a friend of Eric’s from school; he showed us all your work. I really enjoyed getting see what you had created, and reading about the process behind it. I honestly hadn’t expected to make much of it; as far as art goes manipulating photography has never been something I connected with. I was surprised by how powerful some of the pieces are. You challenged a lot of my preconceived notions about the use of the medium itself. I particularly enjoyed Job 12:8. Shadow, Stonehenge, and Breathe were also particularly poignant and moving for me.

    1. Rachel, nice to (sort of) meet you! Thank you for taking time to look at the work. I’m glad that it was meaningful for you. One of the things I loved about engaging with a multimedia approach was how much it opened up so many paths of visual expression.

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