By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Between classes, students at Niskayuna High School can often be found with smartphones at arm’s length, alone or with friends, snapping pictures of themselves and then posting these selfies on social media for friends to see.
The process is usually quick, just a few minutes or even seconds from conception to publication; it’s a lightning-fast way to create a self-portrait. But in the art wing, lining the inside of the student-curated gallery near the back of the school, a colorful display provokes thought about the quick, disposable images of our own faces that have become a reflex for smartphone owners of all ages.
“Selfie: The Art of the Self Portrait” is the high school gallery club’s latest installation. It includes an array of drawings, paintings, photographs and even sculptures of elementary, middle, and high school artists in Niskayuna.
Immediately, while sorting through submissions, the gallery club members realized they would have to settle on a definition of “self portrait” before they could launch into curating the show. Some, for example, were still-life images of items that represented a person, rather than a face.
“With self-portrait, it’s a reflection of yourself,” senior Nick Paquin said “We wanted to have a broad reflection of that.
“We have photography and sculpture in all different forms, and none of it is the selfie you think of when you’re putting your iPhone out to take a photo of yourself,” he added.
In the end, the club members chose to display images of actual faces, though the interpretation could be as literal or fantastic as the artists pleased.
Gallery club member Beca Piascik went with a straightforward approach: her self-portrait is a photograph titled “Exhaustion,” which depicts the student and varsity swimmer sitting at her desk, leaning away in an office chair. A bright shaft of light swipes a highlight along the contours of her face.
The inspiration for the piece was exactly what you’d expect, given the title.
“I was really tired when I took it,” Piascik said. “I’m tired most of the time, I guess. I’m a varsity swimmer; I swim six days a week for two and a half hours every day.”
Facing Piascik’s portrait of the worn-out high school athlete, from the other side of the hallway, is Paquin’s interpretation of himself, “The Throne Room,” a charcoal drawing far less attached to reality. In it, he sits in on a throne with a scepter, surrounded by gilded arches and a pack of wolves.
The 4-foot-by-6-foot self portrait, which Paquin estimates took him between 60 and 70 hours to create over the course of two months, was born when a friend teased Paquin for saying something egotistical.
“They were like, ‘You’re acting like such a king,’ ” he recalled. “It was sort of like a light bulb idea.”
At first, Paquin said, he wasn’t sure the piece really reflected much about himself at all. He just wanted to do something different and splashy; something he could show to colleges that would help him stand out. But slowly, he realized he had infused it with personality.
“I just do art because I love to do art,” he said. “But we were talking about it, and there’s a sense of humor to it, and I think that’s something I reflect in myself,” he said.
Kelly Jones, director of the high school art department, said she enjoyed working with the gallery club students throughout the process of creating the “Selfie” gallery. Some of the artists, including Paquin, are also her students. The amount of effort and self-evaluation that went into the final works was especially notable, Jones said.
“We were talking about the selfie before and how instantaneous that is, but how much thought and effort goes into each of the pieces that are up here,” she said. “That really contrasts the way that people take selfies; I think that’s sort of an interesting idea.”
Paquin and Piacsek paused while browsing the gallery to consider whether the instantaneous, smartphone-created “selfies” could be considered art, along the lines of the images they’d worked so hard to create.
“I think yes and no, depending on what you do with it,” Paquin said. “There are artists nowadays who are incorporating the selfie and the iPhone itself into work … It can be an art form or personal.”
Piacsek agreed: whether it’s art, she mused, depends on the creator’s skill and intention.
“Everyone who has a camera’s a photographer now,” she said. “You have to know what you’re doing; you have to put meaning into it.”
However, Jones, an art teacher of more than 20 years, spoke to the similarity between the snappy selfie and the portraits on display in the gallery.
“It’s who you think you are, and also how you want to be perceived,” she said. “If you look at the subtlety of Beca’s piece and contrast it with the intensity of what Nick came up with, but they’re both self-portraits. I think it gives real insight into each of the artists.”
Piacsek said that was true of each of the two dozen images hanging along the corridor. Many were created by her friends, and she said she was struck by their accurate expressions of each artist’s personality.
“I’ve known them for a while, and I’ve seen them progress,” she said. “That’s who they are. There’s no lying here.”