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A Self-Portrait

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I created this as part of a project entitled 'Beginnings' - I was thinking about how body language sends an immediate message during initial encounters with people. I felt that the image of the girl was very powerful, and I chose to draw that in pencil to distinguish it from the brighter painted background that she appears so detached from. I was more interested in exploring the body language of negative emotional experiences rather than more positive ones, because at that time many young people around me seemed to be struggling through difficult periods of their lives.

In this piece I intended to express the way in which our mind can disconnect itself from our physical surroundings and place us somewhere utterly surreal. The flowers symbolise the calm presence of nature which the troubled girl desires, and the angel represents the guiding figure which seems to be lacking in her life.

Looking back on my life so far, it seems hard to believe that I am only nineteen.  I have had such a vast array of experiences over the last few years that part of me feels that I have grown up very quickly, and would now consider myself to be an adult.  However, another part of me seems determined to cling onto the child within me, to stay in a world of safety, security and blissful ignorance, in a desperate attempt to close my eyes to the daunting adult world; one which appears to be full of complications, problems and difficult situations.  Thinking about this, I realised that the world I am living in at the moment is one that is full of conflicting and contradicting ideas, which often makes life difficult to navigate a path through.  It was put to me recently that this phase is a time of transitions: from school to university, from child to adult, and from the security of living at home with family, to the unfamiliar territory of St. Catherine’s College.  And it is these transitions which evoke such conflicting emotions within me.  I seem to be bidding farewell to the comfortable certainties of well-established relationships and familiar surroundings, whilst looking to embrace the future and the challenges that arise at this exciting time.  I have moments where I cannot wait to come to Oxford, and I wish I could start now, right this second.  I think about meeting new people and living amongst friends, and the great nights out that I will no doubt experience.  I get whisked away into a daydream thinking about the clubs that I can get involved in, Oxford’s picturesque sights, the chance to explore a new city away from London and, of course, the prospect of studying in one of the world’s greatest academic institutions.  And at these times, I feel so lucky to be me – a person with so many opportunities, at an exciting stage of my life where I’m free to choose my own path into the future.  “The world’s your oyster” people say to me, “you’ve got it all”.  Perfect.  Sometimes, everything really is just as I want it to be. 

At other times, though, freedom seems like a daunting prospect.  My new-found independence and the responsibilities that I embrace and enjoy when I feel positive and optimistic suddenly become tarnished and shadowed, and the path ahead seems dark and clouded.  I want to curl up in a ball with the soft toy that comforted me during my childhood years, and I want someone to come running, to hold me and tell me that things will be okay.  It’s that childhood instinct that we carry around inside us even as we grow up, which is somehow impossible to leave behind completely.  It’s the part of me that wants to live a simple life, playing with friends and making decisions about which doll to buy, or what to draw.  But deep down I know that isn’t me.

As I think more about it, modern consumer societies come full of complications, but I realise that in our desires for more and more possessions, ranging from designer clothes to expensive computers and cameras, we have chosen to accept life with all its hiccups.  I remember when I went to Kenya a few years ago one waiter at our hotel took the trouble to speak to us every morning, teaching us a few words of Swahili and asking how our holiday was going.  One day he invited us to his house, and nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.  Having walked through rice fields and down basic mud tracks we arrived at his village - a collection of temporary-looking huts made from corrugated iron and straw roofs - which seemed almost to be in a different universe to our brick-built house in London’s outskirts.  It hit me that the suit he wore to work masked his true Kenyan lifestyle, and yet he was one of the happiest people I have ever met.  He welcomed us into his home with an obvious sense of pride, pleased that he had his own space in the world to inhabit, however rudimentary.  He talked with us about making enough money one day to come and visit England, and pointed to a Christian prayer hanging on the wall; obviously putting his faith in God to put the world to right.  That night, tears poured down my cheeks, as I thought about the realities of the world which are often masked in Britain.  So many news reports talk about the world’s atrocities, that it is often hard to absorb the horrifying pictures so that they have an impact on us.  But that day I felt I had woken up to the problems that face Africa, and the image of the village children smiling after we had given them just a few sweets is one that will remain imprinted in my mind for a long time.  Such gratitude was touching to witness, as I feel it has become a rarity in our modern lifestyle.  Often we are so used to getting what we want that any sense of appreciation is lost, and soon we are left craving another item on our wish-list.  The basics of our existence are taken for granted, and small treats seem to have less and less impact on us.  Arriving back in England after my stay in Kenya I vowed to always appreciate my life as I should do, being grateful not just for expensive gifts and presents, but also for my health and happiness.  But somehow in the UK it’s so easy to get wrapped up in busy day-to-day living that we forget to look at the positives.

So, when I am feeling rational, I know that if I want to live a comfortable modern life I have to accept the challenges that come as part of the package.  And the endless mundane tasks that are essential in adult life – filling in forms, paying bills, getting a mortgage etc.  But I am told that as I am an organised and efficient person, I will complete these tasks with minimal hassle.  And whilst I sometimes struggle to believe this, I know that my experiences so far have provided me with a host of practical skills, as well as the confidence to believe in myself and my abilities.  Looking back, it seems that a lot of people I know have become far more self-assured and also self-aware in the Sixth Form.  The GCSE era seemed to bring a lot of difficult times to many people, and I certainly had a lot less confidence back then.  I’m known for being a perfectionist, and being a Virgo, this is supposedly typical of my star sign!  Consequently, I struggled a lot with recognising my own achievements and successes, and as my self-esteem dwindled I found it hard to see my good points.  Nothing I did was good enough, I seemed to spend my life wanting to be other people, and I strived to be some sort of a perfect being in every respect, which was obviously impossible to achieve.  Throughout the Sixth Form, however, I feel that we have all developed as individuals, and we have been far more able to recognise everyone’s unique strengths and weaknesses, talents and abilities, so as to become more self-accepting and consequently much happier. 

I certainly look back on the last two years with fond memories.  Although my A-Level subjects have been challenging and demanding, they have by no means prevented me from having a lot of fun.  I have also enjoyed being a ‘Silver Badge’ – this is the name given to my school’s team of Senior Prefects.  Being given so many responsibilities has enabled me to realise what I am able to achieve, and also the areas in which I need to ask for assistance from others.  In the Sixth Form I was also part of the Peer Support team, and being able to talk to fellow pupils about difficult issues that arose for them was a hugely rewarding experience.  Of course, I have other interests which I hope to continue as my life progresses.  I very much enjoy nights out at the theatre, where I am able to escape from reality for a few hours, and immerse myself in the fictional drama as it unravels on stage.  I also love writing – an activity which can hold my attention for hours, and which for me is a very therapeutic way of expressing myself and reflecting on life.  Painting is another of my hobbies, although it is becoming more and more difficult to make time for artwork in my busy schedule. 

Another experience which has had a lasting impact on me is my expedition to Northern Peru in 2002.  When I committed to the challenge eighteen months before-hand many people were surprised by my decision to take part, as they assumed that my tidy girlie side would get the better of me.  However, to me it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to visit a very diverse and interesting country, and one which I could not miss.  Retrospectively, I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.  During the month that we were there I faced many challenges, from being Team Leader and having to organise tasks, despite my extremely limited Spanish, to completing difficult treks at high altitude.  However, the challenges that we overcame made the trip even more rewarding, and one that I will never forget.  It was amazing to trek in the Andes and canoe through the Amazon rainforest – wonderful memories that will remain with me forever.  The whole expedition also gave me a lot more confidence and belief in myself and my own abilities, and useful skills which have been invaluable since.  I also made some brilliant friendships which I value a great deal.

I do genuinely feel so lucky to know so many fantastic people, who have helped me along and been there for me on so many occasions.  Many people I have had to say goodbye to, at least temporarily, and although I hope to keep in touch with those whom I treasure close relationships, it will be strange not to see my friends and peers on a daily basis in a familiar environment.  I always find it hard to leave parts of my life behind, especially those which I have enjoyed so thoroughly, but I know that many of my experiences will remain with me and have helped to form the person that I am today.

I am always interested thinking about the way the world works, the way we interact and how different people with different personalities inter-relate.  Sometimes I find it fascinating to ponder over the mysteries of the universe and the meaning of life, although these are no doubt unanswerable questions.  There always seems to be such a conflict at this age between being thoroughly concerned about important world-problems and moral issues, whilst also getting caught up in the trivial matters, such as which CD to buy, or what colour nail varnish to wear.  Hopefully, as I grow and develop, I will find a healthy balance between the issues that are important to me.

I hope this gives some sort of an outline as to the person I am.  Although I often come across as confident and bubbly, I can sometimes hide my true feelings behind a happy smile and I find it hard to fully trust people until I have got to know them well; I guess a part of me is just fearful of being hurt or betrayed.  Although I do open up to people a lot more than I used to, and I am far more comfortable now with who I am than I have ever been.  I have come to realise that people respect me for being my true self, and finally I feel like I want to be no one else but me – the good bits, the bad bits and the messy bits, which will maybe click into place one day.  I had a conversation recently with someone who knows me inside out, and she put it to me that we should view life like a painting – we can stand back and look at the general picture, or we can focus in to look closely at a particular detail.  I am often asked why I chose to study Geography, and sometimes I find it hard to provide a meaningful answer, but this person suggested that I enjoy looking at the wide terrain and landscapes of a country, as well as the small details that help to make up the whole.  And this, she suggested, is similar to the way people are - there is a general sense of the person and their personality, as well as some intricate details which may only be revealed in close relationships between very good friends.  Who exactly I am is difficult to pinpoint, as there are so many different sides to me that I have sometimes struggled with defining exactly which one is me.  But I now realise that I am a collection of all those people, the different personalities and details put together.  I am bubbly, yet sometimes shy, I am creative but also methodical, I can be unconventional and conventional, I am quirky, motivated, reliable, individual and fun.  I exist as a combination of these qualities, and as I progress through life I hope to understand more about me as a person, in all my strengths and weaknesses, my hopes and fears, my consistencies and inconsistencies.  The future can seem daunting, but also exciting, and I hope that I succeed in learning more about the world and myself as I continue my journey through life.

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I was thinking about various philosophical concepts, such as the question of whether the glass is half full or half empty, and the masks were intended to symbolise our varying moods; happy and sad being the most basic of these. Generally it is a symbolic still life representing different areas of life such as religion and nature, each object having both a personal and a wider meaning.

My inspiration for this piece came from a photograph I saw, and I was fascinated by the powerful, energetic mood captured in the image. I tried to replicate the sense of nature's force in my painting, showing the huge whale's incredible ability to leap from the water, disturbing the tranquility of the ocean.

October 2004