They say every portrait is a sort of self-portrait and I believe this to be true. I put a little of myself into every one I paint and the portrait represents a lit bit of me. Without one the other cannot exist.
It’s the same with people. It’s impossible to define ourselves without reference to others. From our earliest moments we are shaped by our closest relationships. In their eyes we see a mirror which shapes our self worth. Our skin, the largest organ, encases our physical being and defines where we end and others begin. But the characterisation of our personality is not so clearly defined.
We often measure ourselves by comparison to others: my mother’s daughter; the smartest in the class; the last one to arrive; the black sheep of the family; the most successful graduate. But had you been surrounded by different people, your distinctive qualities would be altered. Therefore, it is impossible to understand yourself without understanding those who define you.
It starts from the moment we are born, with mother and child. We are shaped by our primary carers, our siblings and grandparents. Next, we form our first significant friendships, our first lovers and finally we go on to meet many others. However, it is these earliest people in our lives, both friends and foes, that have the greatest impact.
The older we get, the less we are defined by our reflection in the eyes of others. We care less about what others think of us. Our outline becomes less blurred and we have a greater sense of self. What has been made, cannot be unmade. In our middle age we become more confident and more resigned. We are secure in the knowledge that we know who we are and we say: if only I had had this self-confidence when I was young! And yet, we know it is impossible, for we had not yet seen ourselves enough to make it true.
In old age, the short-term memory fades, and people often retreat into the world of their youth. While some memories may be fuzzy, the memories of our family and childhood friends loom large. In my grandmother's last days she would ask of her sisters and mother who has all gone many years before and it made me think that from whence we came, we will return, at least in our minds.
Childhood memories and familial relationships are themes that I often explore in my art practice. It is often the oldest relationships that have the most impact, even if they are no longer with us. The are partly responsible for who we are, whether we care to admit it or not.
Therefore in order to understand someone it is essential to consider the important people in their lives: those they have left, those they have found; those they have treated well and those they have not. When I meet someone I am always interested to know about their past: their family, their siblings, their ex’s, their friends old and new. This is the context in which they exist and it’s more important than their job or where they live. You can learn a lot about a person's values by looking at their significant relationships.
I feel privileged when I consider the people in my life. I am proud of everyone around me and each one of them represents a part of me. Even those who are no longer here, whether by choice or chance, have contributed something important to my life. I feel lucky for every meaningful relationship in my life, past and present, good and bad. But most importantly I feel lucky to have the ones that are still here today, who have accepted who they are and accept me for who I am, for without them I would not be me.
About the author
Leah is a financial professional turned artist. She creates artwork about fashion, feminism and family. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram @leahmarianiartspace.
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