Finding my Work: A Portfolio Story

In my final quarter as a college student at MCC Omaha, I took a class called “Portfolio Development and Professional Practice.” I finished this class a few weeks ago, and can say that it was probably the most challenging and time-consuming class I have ever taken in college. Seriously. And that’s after six years, three Art History classes, Algebra (and Algebra again, and again…), Geology, Astronomy, and two Spanish classes. You may wonder what could be so hard about a Portfolio* class….or perhaps, if you are not an art student or alumni, you are wondering what the heck a “Portfolio class” is in the first place. Let me explain.

The current course catalog from my college gives this introductory description of the course:

“This course prepares students to build a comprehensive, professional presentation of their work using skills and concepts developed in earlier visual arts coursework. In addition, the course covers legal, financial, and ethical issues for the self-employed artist and for the artist embarking on a job search.”

Roughly translated, the aim is to create a cohesive body of work demonstrating skills learned from previous classes in the program, and present it in a professional way, while also learning and understanding how to run a creative business the right way.

No big deal, right?

Except that for someone like me it is insanely easy to get caught up in the details, trying to be perfect even when I know I cannot, fear of choosing the wrong idea, fear of doing it wrong, fear of killing my career before it even begins, fear of not graduating, fear of ruining my entire life…..you get the idea!

Needless to say, the first few weeks and the first critique in this class were intense. My mind was swimming with ideas, but also doubts about my ability to execute those ideas. I began working on a concept surrounding the theme of Identity, since it seemed many of the ideas that I had already fit into that theme in some way. So I had an idea, or rather a whole bunch of them. The thing I didn’t have (yet) was the confidence that I actually wanted to do this project, or really an idea of how to execute it.

A post I made on social media demonstrating my delicate mental state early on in the class

Let me ask you a question here. Have you ever tried to make 20 cohesive pieces of art that are all unique but equally skillful, within the frame of one theme, in just 11 weeks, knowing the fate of your entire academic career is balanced precariously on the rusty old teeter-totter that is OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINION, while simultaneously battling self doubt, anxiety, depression, and the constant urge to nap and/or hide? No big deal at all.

After grappling for a few weeks with the concepts and process(es) I wanted to use, experimenting with a variety of things from cyanotypes*, vandykes*, anthotypes*, projected images, and even building a 10'x10' camera obscura* in my backyard from black plastic sheeting and a pop-up tent (more on this to come), I began to lose my grip on all these ideas, and my sanity. It was too much. I tried too many things. I was, as my instructor pointed out during our second or third critique “all over the place” (Thanks, Larry — you weren’t wrong). I had made a few things I really liked, and the ideas weren’t bad. It just wasn’t what I needed to be making.

So, in a state of panic with only a few weeks left in the quarter and nothing to show but a bunch of disconnected images that I didn’t even know if I liked, I decided I had to STOP working and just think it out. I sat down with a notebook and pen in my library, because sometimes the only way for me to think clearly is to write it out. I needed answers and I was the only one who could give them.

As I took a deep breath and tried to relax, I immediately noticed something rattling around in my mind, something I had been ignoring. It was the thought that I should just do what I know, and that is photograms*. I realized I had been complicating things, because I felt that making photograms wasn’t enough. I rationalized with myself that even if photograms were simple, and might seem easy or trivial to others, it’s what I love doing. Not only that, but I already had a process that was anything but easy, and if I got it to work, it was going to be really cool. So I accepted it. I would do what I do: photograms.

But of what???

Here was another challenge. Just as I had judged the method of image making that I already knew I wanted to use, I also felt that I should go beyond the materials that I tend to use for these photograms. I didn’t want to be seen as a one-trick pony. But again, there was this thing rattling around in my mind, that sounded like “nature, nature, nature”. It seemed obvious, but I fought it. I had used things like flowers and leaves to make photograms many times before, I told myself. Still, there it was. An idea blossoming. Taking root. Rushing forth like a river. Ready to soar! Ok, ok, no more puns. So I had this idea, that I should do photograms of organic materials, just as I had done before. When I asked myself “WHY?” the answer was simply, “because I love it.”

In a moment of intuitive integrity, I said “Fine, I’ll think about it” (no, I didn’t really say this out loud to myself but I felt it). Then I asked, “why do I love nature so much?” (didn’t say that either, I wrote it) and the ink started flowing.

I wrote two pages on the way that nature captivates me. I wrote about the hope that it gives me, the way it reassures my anxious mind, the way it shows me how to live, purposefully, without judging. Tears flowed as I meditated on all the things nature is, that I want to be. I had my answers.

A page of my ramblings about nature

When I came out of this meditation, I knew I had finally decided, and I was ready to get to work. I spent every day for the remaining weeks in the darkroom, making print after print after print, only quitting when I had run out of time. With my mind more at ease and a new sense of direction, I forged a body of images that I am able to be proud of (despite their imperfections), and feel deeply connected to.

I found the work that I needed to be making at that time by quieting my mind, and listening to my inner truth, or fairy godmother, Higher Power, or whatever muse whispers ideas in our ears when we don’t even know how to listen. I will likely return to some of those early ideas later, when the time is right and I don’t have a deadline or so much threat of failure looming over me. For now I am just glad that the answers came, I finished my Portfolio class (with an A!), graduated, and have this body of work to forever remind me that deep in my artist’s heart, I already know what I want to make. This work is a reminder to let that voice guide me, and not let myself be trampled by doubt, as I work to build a creative career and life for myself.

You can view my portfolio, titled Alchemy, on my website!

“Pheasant” from the series Alchemy ©Marie-Elena Schembri 2017

*Glossary of Terms

Anthotype: An image created using photosensitive material from plants by coating paper in an emulsion made from crushed plant/fruit/vegetable materials. Once dry, the paper is exposed anywhere from hours to weeks in sunlight and an image is formed either from a negative or photogram.

Camera Obscura: A camera created by the natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene is projected through a small hole as a reversed and inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening. Any very dark room can be made into a camera obscura.

Cyanotype: The process of making a blueprint; a combination of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide are applied to a paper or substrate, creating a UV-sensitive emulsion. Once dry an image is made by exposing to sunlight or UV light source.The resulting image is blue (positive area) and white( negative area).

Portfolio: A collection of works or documents that are representative of a person’s skills and accomplishments

Photogram: A picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. An object or objects may be placed on the paper, then exposed to light, creating a negative shadow image.

Vandykes: The process that originated the color “vandyke brown” that many artists paint with. A combination of Ferric Ammonium Citrate, Tartaric Acid, and Silver Nitrate create a light sensitive emulsion. This is applied to paper and exposed to sunlight or UV light source to create an image. The resulting image is a deep brown color.

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