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Honouring the Matriarch

It’s finally done. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me over three years to complete this family portrait of my grandmother, mother and her six siblings. I can at least partially blame the global pandemic for some of the delay, but the reality is that there were a number of mindset roadblocks that had to be worked through along the way.

Snow White. Mixed media on canvas. Artjamming Southside, 2023

Portraits are hard

The portrait was modeled after an original photo taken back in the mid- to late 1950s at a guess. My grandma is in the center, her eldest daughter (my mom) and son are on her immediate right and left, and my other uncles and aunties are grouped companionably around.

I’ve always loved this photo, and dubbed it “Snow White” after learning from my mom that their seven siblings had jokingly referred to themselves as the seven dwarves from the fairy tale. There is a stiffness and formality to their posing that is a signature of portraiture from that era, but it somehow doesn’t detract from their youthful energy and precious innocence.

Snow White original photo c 1957. Dr Em’s personal photo archives

I had never painted a portrait before doing this one, so I can’t imagine why I thought that I should even attempt to do a family group of eight portraits. I had always found portraiture particularly intimidating, particularly when the subjects are people that the artist knows personally.

It’s difficult to depict humans and animals exactly because we are constantly in motion. Even photographs can only capture our vitality in a single moment that is often reduced to a happy coincidence of lighting, angle and mood. As artists, we can only hope to represent an imperfect version of our subjects, an impression of their essence.

It’s massive

I’ve always enjoyed working on large pieces and murals. There is something grand and expansive about working on a massive scale. All that blank space feels so free, exciting and full of potential.

I guess it started out as a kind of personal dare. Like, could this even be possible?

I realize now that I found the idea challenging. I was captivated by the idea of spending time doing what I love, while also studying people that I had come to know and love so well.

Snow White focus study. Pencil on canvas. Artjamming Southside, 2023

But the problem is that large art pieces are always on display while in progress, because they are hard to put away, so your work is out in the open all the time. All your ugly mistakes and messy problem areas are in plain sight for all to see. It feels vulnerable and exposed. So I learned the truth of the maxim that to be an artist is to be willing to make and share good, bad, and ugly art.

It’s taken forever

I realize that the most important outcome from this project is not the painting itself, but rather that I’ve come to see myself as an artist. I’m not exactly sure when it happened. What I do know for sure is that three years ago I only thought of myself as “doing art,” but would never identify as a “real artist.” And somehow 3 years later, I’ve given myself permission to own it fully.

Working on Snow White c. 2020. Dr Em’s personal photo archives

I also know that the process had a lot to do with this portrait. Perhaps it’s because being willing to call myself an artist feels risky and outrageous at some level. And yet my central nervous system has become a bit more acclimated to that kind of feeling, over these past three years. Taking on these 8 portraits on a massive scale has taught me that I’m capable of setting audacious goals. Such as doing an art show and writing a book on brain health.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to make mistakes and to let others see my imperfections. Because I get to see what my work looks through their eyes when they are completely free of the agony and distress that I often feel. They aren’t carrying around some perfect vision in their heads, of how it’s supposed to look. For them, it’s simply about witnessing my process. They have complete confidence in my ability to carry on and resolve any problem areas.

If I’m being honest, I am not completely satisfied with the final portrait. But at some point, we artists must be willing to abandon our work and allow it to rest as is. I will always see this as my first set of portraits, and trust myself to have the courage to carry on honing my skills over time.

I am incredibly grateful to my artjamming coach, mentor and friend Betty Cheung, who dared me to undertake this project in the first place, and who has provided invaluable support and guidance. I look forward to sharing the piece with my Nai Nai as it hangs in her bedroom, in the months and years to come.


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