Most people talk about enjoying drawing when they were kids, says David Curtis as he explains his International Self-Portrait Gallery. That’s a big part of why he sets up small tables and mirrors for people to immerse themselves in drawing.
“People draw all the time,” he says. “When language fails us we resort to illustration, whether we resort to the stick in the sand or a drawing on paper…. Today a friend was showing me how to sharpen a knife and he said ‘I’m no artist but let me draw it for you.’
“We know how to do it, but we don’t have a lot of faith in it.”
Curtis started the International Self-Portrait Gallery (ISPG) in 2009 as a reaction to the still-unresolved debate about housing Canada’s official portrait gallery.
A sentence on the Portrait Gallery of Canada’s website bothered Curtis.
“There was a line about the gallery focusing on people who were ‘important shapers’ of Canadian history,” recalls the artist and commercial fisherman.
It got him thinking about how institutions impose values on us.
“My immediate reaction, being the good little socialist that I am, is to ask who’s making the decisions and who’s being left out? I began to think, what about all the other people outside that official gallery?”
Curtis started the ISGP at a group show in 2009 at the ODD Gallery in Dawson City, where he lives.
Currently, fresh sets of pencils, pencil crayons, pens and mirrors are installed at the Community Gallery at the Yukon Arts Centre until April 5.
There are three drawing stations anyone can use to create a self-portrait. One station, which was a hit at the 2010 Riverside Arts Festival in Dawson City, is a curtained wood-and-cotton booth that allows people to draw privately.
If Curtis wants to exhibit portraits of “the every-person”, why not draw everyone himself?
“I wanted people to be able to represent themselves, because that’s more egalitarian,” he says.
“But I also wanted to reintroduce people to the tactile experience in ways that photography and typing and so on do not. What happens when people have to turn something from 3D to 2D, all the things going on with their synapses and so on, is really interesting.”
Thinking about the difference between someone taking a photo and drawing themselves, Curtis pauses.
“I know that I’m resisting photos – people do it all the time anyway, for Facebook and so on. That’s about presenting yourself, not necessarily about representing yourself.
“When you sit down in front of a mirror there’s a far deeper psychological connection that happens; it’s a more honest approach.”
In the long term, Curtis wants to take the ISPG outside Canada. Right now it’s international because people visit the Yukon from many countries, but he would like to take it to malls, airports, correctional facilities, hospitals, elder care homes, homeless shelters and more, in Canada and beyond.
Images on the website (http://internationalselfportraitgallery.com) are anonymous, to reflect the idea of a gallery about the every-person.
For the person drawing, that also adds an element of freedom – no one will know who drew what once you walk away. Your synapses will fire away, and only you will know if your portrait is true or fantastical.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.