Origins and Purposes
For as far back as I can recall, I have been drawn to the liberating and transcendent power of art—the music that makes my heart sing, the poetry that soothes my soul, the dance that releases my rage, the novel that takes me to distant lands and brings me home, and the painting that offers me a new angle of vision. And for most of my adult life, I have had a deep respect for the rigor and discipline of science. I have admired the rules of design and the rituals of methodology, and have been engaged by the process of intellectual debate informed by evidence and argumentation. I have been challenged by, and devoted to, the search for authenticity and authority, for resonance and truth. “Portraiture” has become the bridge that has brought these two worlds together for me, allowing for both contrast and coexistence, counterpoint and harmony in my scholarship and writing, and allowing me to see clearly the art in the development of science and the science in the making of art.
With portraiture, I seek to combine systematic, empirical description with aesthetic expression, blending art and science, humanistic sensibilities and scientific rigor. The portraits are designed to capture the richness, complexity, and dimensionality of human experience in social and cultural context, conveying the perspectives of the people who are negotiating those experiences. The portraits are shaped through dialogue with the portraitist and the subject, each one participating in the drawing of the image. The encounter between the two is rich with meaning and resonance and is crucial to the success and authenticity of the rendered piece.
My story of invention begins with this central encounter, experienced first as the subject of a portrait. In The Good High School (1983), I describe two inspirational and provocative encounters—the first when I was a child of eight, the second when I was in my mid-twenties. The former was a swift sketch in pastels as I sat in my mother’s rock garden, and the later a laborious, carefully crafted oil painting that took several weeks to complete in an artist’s studio. Despite the great differences in these experiences, I learned many of the same lessons about the power of the medium, about the relationship between artist and subject, and about the perspective of the person whose image and essence is being captured. These were my first methodological lessons.
I learned, for example, that these portraits did not capture me as I saw myself; that they were not like looking in the mirror at my reflection. Instead, they seemed to capture my essence—qualities of character and history some of which I was unaware of, some of which I resisted mightily, some of which felt deeply familiar. But the translation of image was anything but literal. It was probing, layered, and interpretive. In addition to portraying my image, the piece expressed the perspective of the artist and was shaped by the evolving relationship between the artist and me. I also recognized that in searching for the essence, in moving beyond the surface image, the artist was both generous and tough, both skeptical and receptive. I was never seen or treated as object, but always as a person of strength and vulnerability, beauty and imperfection, mystery and openness. The artist needed to be vigilant in capturing the image, but always watchful of my feelings, perspective and experience. I learned, as well, that the portraits expressed a haunting paradox, a moment of time and of timelessness. In the portrait of the young woman, for example, I could see myself at twenty-five, but I could also see my ancestors and the children in my future. Time seemed to move through this still and silent portrait of a woman, rendering the piece—now twenty-five years later—both anachronistic and contemporary. It is still a vital document of who I am (and who I may become), even if it no longer looks like me.
More than a decade later, when I was searching for a form of inquiry that might capture the complexity and aesthetic of human experience, I had the benefit of those early experiences as an artist’s subject from which to develop my methodological tools. In trying to create what I called “life drawings” of high schools and trace the connections between individual personality and organizational culture, I felt the echoes of being on the other side of the artist’s palette. I wanted to develop a document, a text that came as close as possible to painting with words. I wanted to create a narrative that bridged the realms of science and art, merging the systematic and careful description of good ethnography with the evocative resonance of fine literature. I wanted the written pieces to convey the authority, wisdom, and perspective of the subjects, but I wanted them to feel—as I had felt—that the portrait did not look like them, but somehow managed to reveal their essence. I wanted them to experience the portraits as both familiar and exotic, so that in reading them they would be introduced to a perspective that they had not considered before. And finally, I wanted the subjects to feel seen as I had felt seen—fully attended to, recognized, appreciated, respected, scrutinized. I wanted them to feel both the discovery and the generosity of the process, as well as the penetrating and careful investigation. Inevitably, I knew that these would be documents of inquiry and intervention, hopefully leading toward new understandings and insights, as well as instigating change.