In the spring of 2019, Adriano DiCerbo, a St. Mary’s College art teacher, took a group of students on a tour of New York City museums and art galleries.
There, in The Big Apple, the group saw for themselves great works of art, including the self portraits of 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn.
That field trip inspired DiCerbo’s spouse Genevieve, also a St. Mary’s College art teacher, to assign a group of Grade 11 and 12 St. Mary’s art students to pick up their paint brushes and produce self portraits of their own in the current school year.
Ten students, out of a group of 17, are literally taking a look at themselves and portraying what they see on canvas, while seven others are producing portraits of friends or celebrities they admire.
SooToday dropped by the spacious, well-lit and tranquil St. Mary’s College art room to take a look at their work, and while it is clear all the students have enjoyed the assignment, at least two stated their self portraits have taught them a lot about themselves, confirming their decision to make art their career choice.
And by the way, the self portraits produced by the students are very well done, depicting their features which are concealed for most of the school day under non-surgical masks due to restrictive COVID-19 precautionary measures.
“My family’s Dutch so I always wanted to see those paintings and it just so happened they were doing an entire exhibit on Dutch painters (in New York City in spring, 2019), so that was really interesting,” said Madison Delfgou, basing her self portrait on one of Rembrandt's works.
“The museum was gorgeous. Rembrandt’s portraits and still lifes were amazing...they (Rembrandt’s self portraits) were impressive. They didn’t have a camera (in those days). He would have to look in a mirror and paint himself. It impressed me that he was able to do that, to capture what he looked like, what he was feeling, what his eyes looked like, just from looking in a mirror,” Delfgou said.
Fellow art student Jay Rector was equally impressed by seeing Rembrandt’s work up close.
“They say he always had one eye in focus and the other eye slightly out of focus so it looks like he's definitely looking directly at you. That’s what I wanted in my portrait too, so it makes eye contact with the viewer,” Rector said.
Both students said their class assignment has produced the first self portraits they have done on a serious large scale.
So what do you learn about yourself as you look at your own features and transfer what you see, through paint, onto canvas?
While acknowledging everyone has their own insecurities, Delfgou said “I feel like this portrait has given me a new perspective. I love the painting and I love how it looks. I just look at it and I feel beautiful and I feel good. I feel like I’ve put a part of myself in the painting and it becomes more real, more personal.”
“It’s my ‘ghost’ inside the portrait, just trying to get out. That’s why my hand’s up (reaching out in the self portrait). I decided to make myself look like I’m trying to break through in the painting, the hand flexing out so that it looks like I’m trying to break through the painting,” Rector said.
“I’m really loving it. It’s become one of my favourite pieces I’ve ever done. The process of it has been really interesting,” Delfgou said.
The self portrait project involves a technique called ‘glazing.’
“Glazing is a really thinned out oil painting, so you have linseed oil and mineral spirits and you do very thin layers of paint and usually you can’t really see colours at the first glaze, but once you build it up your colours become more vibrant. You have to have an ‘underpainting.’ The underpainting gives you your dark colours, your highlights. You have to have a full underpainting first,” Delfgou said.
“It takes patience. So much patience. You have to have thicker layers of paint to build it up,” Rector said of the class portraits, which can be described as mixed media works, a blend of oil and acrylic paint.
“I’ve been interested in art for a really long time. My grandfather was very into art. He did watercolours. He inspired me. I’ll be going to university for fine art. I’m excited about it,” Delfgou said, intending to perfect her fine art skills at the postsecondary level at Algoma University.
“Art feels personal to me. I put myself into all of my art pieces. It’s calming and it’s expressive. I love creating it.”
“I’ve been interested in art forever,” Rector said.
“It either grounds me or it takes me to a different place. I’ve been doodling on everything I own. I want to do concept art for animated shows and designing characters. I think that’s the most amazing thing, to design a character and then have people make it move and have people write things for it. To just design the base for that, I’d love to do that,” Rector said, hoping to attend Oakville’s Sheridan College, known for its art programming.
Both students encouraged any artist to produce at least one self portrait in their lives.
“You put yourself in all art pieces but this is really exploring who you are, putting yourself in the painting and it takes a lot of courage to paint yourself. It’s a good experience for artists to take that leap and discover things about themselves,” Delfgou said.
“It doesn’t even need to be realistic. It’s just your interpretation of self. To just put it on canvas and display for people to see just what you think of yourself, what you see in yourself, it’s really special,” Rector said.
Feedback among classmates, non-art students, staff and teachers at St. Mary’s College has been positive, Rector added.
“I love what I do,” said art teacher Genevieve DiCerbo.
“It’s rewarding to make art every day with young people. It’s sometimes challenging getting students to move from ‘this is my assignment I have to do for class’ to ‘this is my piece of art,’” DiCerbo said, stating it’s gratifying to see art students develop their skills and their passion for art in their journeys from Grade 9 to Grade 12.
“It gets kids to realize who they are on a deeper level, not just who they are in a hallway in a high school, but who they are.”
DiCerbo and spouse/fellow St. Mary’s College art teacher Adriano DiCerbo have been art instructors for over 20 years.
“I believe in the power of art. I believe very strongly in the role of art in education. I see myself as an art teacher and art advocate at the same time. I want to make sure these young people have opportunities in their school for self expression in and outside the classroom. I really think the kids find solace in this (art) room, a sanctuary of sorts,” Adriano said.
“When you stand in front of a Rembrandt self portrait it feels like you’re meeting the person in real life. There’s something about the gaze,” Genevieve said.
“They look through you, his portraits...you learn about them in textbooks, but when you see them, it’s moving. Art moves people. It’s beautiful,” Adriano said.
Adriano said the main lobby of St. Mary’s College will be adorned with finished work from the school’s art students once the current quadmester is complete.
A link to the St. Mary’s College art department can be found by clicking here