Self Portrait: What’s Your Angle?

“Tell me about yourself,” he says.

Smiling Woman Red Hair and GlassesYou’re at an interview, or a cocktail party. Maybe you’re on a first date. It’s a common question and intentionally open-ended. So how do you answer?

Do you provide your name, some indication of where you’re from or where you live, followed by a thumbnail sketch of what you’ve accomplished? Or do you stick to labels that are readily recognized, albeit inexact?

For example, I might say: My name is D. A. Wolf. I’m a writer and a marketer. But does that tell you anything of significance, really, about who I am?

Maybe you take a more narrative approach, or one that is more personal:

I’m a writer, I collect art, I lived in Europe several times, traveling back and forth for years. I loved living abroad, not to mention taking my children with me on occasion. By the way, I have two sons and I’m divorced. One of my sons is in college, and the other is in high school.

This provides a friendlier mix, doesn’t it? Something about my past, my family, and what interests me. Assumptions can be made. They could be wrong, but a few will land you in the ballpark. Still, what insight has any of this provided?

Self Portrait

Last month my 17-year old was assigned a project. A self portrait.

As an art student, self portraits are old hat. His portfolio is filled with them, as is our home. The mediums have varied, and each resembles my son, or rather, some facet of him. My two favorites (framed and on the walls) capture something more of who he is – inside – which is what we respond to in the most successful portraiture. An essence.

Given that my son wants to become an architect, his assignment was to create a self portrait building – about three feet long and two feet tall. I will not recap the countless sleep-deprived nights and other dramas over this particular undertaking. Let’s just say, my house looks like the kid’s personal design studio, with stacks and trails of board, pieces of plexi, fragments of foam core, and other signs of an intensive ongoing process.

This morning when I woke, he was checking the finishing touches on his work, after another long night.

I saw him in it, immediately. No narrative, all essence.

Narrative, Personality, Character

How easy it is to wear the public face. Or several. It’s useful, and necessary. We seem to learn young – describing ourselves by the roles we perform, the jobs we get paid for, the places we’ve been: the quantifiable, the classifiable, the self-evident.

We make heavy use of the socially acceptable. Narrative and personality. We tell our stories. We charm with humor and body language, with behaviors we deem desirable and appropriate.

Self Portrait Student BuildingBut when does character begin to reveal itself? How many of us make friends, fall in love, give our trust, assume it in the other – without truly knowing the character of the individual we’re dealing with?

If left to narrative and personality, do we ever really get inside?

What we reveal to others, and how

It’s so like you, I say, as we drive to school.

“You seem to be the only one who thinks so,” my son replies.

What do you mean?

“The instructor thought it should show the years I spent drawing. It should show my humor. Maybe other influences, like piano.”

I thought for a moment. About self portraits. What his was telling me. What structures were still to come.

For now, there were triangles everywhere, in positive and negative space. They ripple through each view, conveying meaning (or so I suspect) that extends beyond his trio of interests – art, architecture, and music.

Interior_Self Portrait Student BuildingIt’s completely you, I say. The lines move in one direction, then shoot off in another, and you look again and realize they’re interrelated. You created parallels and references everywhere, but no symmetries, and nothing obvious.

My son nods.

There are masses of window, I say, but also wall. Transparency and obscurity.

Exactly.”

You’re a bit of a mystery, I say. He smiles, and we drive the rest of the way to school in the quiet. A peaceful quiet, for a change.

Interiors

There are several entries into my son’s self portrait building, but they aren’t obvious. That, along with its jutting angles, its repetitive linear patterns, its combination of complex elements and very simple ones – all form purposeful choices, documented as part of the project.

Once inside the structure, the space is larger than you expect. Rooms seem to shift and reconfigure as light flows through windows cut into roof, and running along the top edge of walls. The building rises to three stories at one end. That noticeable harmony of threes.

This is my son: the evolving interior, its unanticipated capacity, a contrast of light and dark, the potential for sudden change in mood – solid, complicated, clever – simultaneously open and closed. And yes, pieced together and well protected by walls, though you can peer in and enter – if you move around carefully and take your time.

Love of art architecture and piano by ASL 2011It is his character and nature reduced to an essence, at this still tender stage in his life.

This is not autobiography, though a flicker of it shines here and there. Perhaps I am the only one who recognizes that. If so, it’s fine. And I think it’s fine with my son. He knows who he is and what he wants. Just like his building. A self portrait.

Tell me about yourself

When someone says Tell me about yourself, how do you respond?

  • Do you consider the intention of the person inquiring?
  • Do you use label, credentials, narrative?
  • Do you deflect with personality?
  • Are you comfortable behind the assumptions?

I am a writer, I am a mother, and so much more. Some of it I will reveal. Some of it, I will not. Perhaps my son and I are more alike than I realized. Until this morning.


© D A Wolf

Comments

  1. I love that you saw his self-portrait and immediately “got” it. That says a lot about your relationship with your son. You done good, Wolfie.

  2. I almost always first indicate what I do for a living. And, I don’t just leave it at “project manager” but I have to put in “technical project manager” to somehow feel like it’s a bump up – I’m smarter. I know this is because my whole worth growing up was measured in how “smart” I was – sadly, it was pretty much the only compliment my parents ever gave me.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Ah. That “smart” thing. Yep. Some of us grew up with that as a critical part of self-definition. Any other legacies? Creating new ones for your own children, were they to try their hand at a self-portrait in words or otherwise?

  3. By the way – not having a creative bone in my body, I am so amazed but what your son can do. Very impressive – and how lucky he is to know so firmly what he wants to be when he grows up (at least professionally). I’m still trying to figure that out!

  4. I think that blogging sometimes reveals far more about ourselves than we realize. These posts and paragraphs offer insights into how we think, what we believe, what we love and what we fear. Or maybe that is just what I have noticed in my own blog.

    Outside of the blogosphere I am far more circumspect in what I am willing to offer. My answers are tailored to the situation, so how I describe myself to potential employers is different than how I would with others.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      What a great point about blogging, Jack. And the sense of openness we feel doing it. And yes – context is so important.

  5. NoNameRequired says:

    Essence?
    A bit steampunkie;

    Medieval herbalist,with side line in remaking clothing for theater and mystery play;

    Teacher for more than 35 years, but I think I started with show-n-tell in first grade

    By things I adore?
    old velvet and steam-pressed Irish linen

    old, old heavy-scented roses and tall, tall limegreen Hydrangeas

    new bike that is zippier than my age suggest, balanced by the 1990 soccer mom station wagon

    four beloved children, one whose ashes are scattered fully in the oak dale sideyard — oh dryad shade, who I think would be fully freckled now; one child on a planet too far for fly-by, let alone a glimpse; two children who know but dare not say

    Secret: when I am alone, I sleep with the TV on, to keep the deep, bone-gnawing loneliness within the bounds of endurable pain

  6. This building sounds beautiful and full of nuances that make it his design and his alone. I hope that the instructor is able to see it for what it is. I think it is wonderful that he created something that he believes is a reflection of himself rather than dong what the others suggested.

    My daughter recently brought home a little assignment on culture. Challenging for each of us as my family has been here for centuries – and the two members that immigrated left their cultures behind to start a new. We quickly realized that culture, for us, was quite individualist. It is part of how we define ourselves – but culture is something we define. That was an interesting thought for me.

    I vary my responses to the “who are you” questions depending on my mood and the vibes I get from the person asking. Some people aren’t interested – it is a question born of social niceties over interest. In either case, I am apt to do something unexpected or likely launch into conversation over a sketch of a person that I may be.

  7. What would I tell about myself? It would depend on who was asking and why. How I felt about the person. My mood of the moment. If I was being interviewed for a job, I’d talk about my skills, my experience, where I wanted to go. At a party? Innocuous, superficial parts of me. Nothing deep, nothing controversial. I would tell as much as I wanted that person to know, at that moment.

  8. What a wonderful interaction with your son. And how remarkable it must have felt for him to know that you were truly seeing him.

    Until very recently, I would have responded to the request, “Tell me about yourself,” by saying that I am a teacher – which is sort of odd, since I haven’t taught in 3 1/2 years. Now I always lead with the fact that I am a mother, but, depending on my audience, I often pad my response with another pertinent detail (e.g. I stay at home with my kids now, but…).

    I suppose that “but” probably says a lot more than anything else I say.

  9. What do you do is my least favorite question right now. I spend much of my time changing diapers and folding laundry, but that doesn’t define who I am. And who am I? Well. That is either a quick question or something to discuss for a lifetime.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Kate, I love the idea that it’s something to discuss for a lifetime. Changing diapers and folding laundry is what you do, among many other things that you may not take as much note of (because of all those damn diapers and clothes). You’re also teaching love, through touch, through constancy. And no doubt a hundred other things that are essential to early childhood development that we don’t give ourselves credit for.

      It’s hard when you’re dealing with babies and toddlers. It’s all so mess-related and 24/7 and exhausting. It describes tasks, but it doesn’t define you.

  10. wow powerful. I love the assignment that the teacher gave (as I too wanted to be both a writer AND an architect when younger and now so far, am neither).
    I also think it was a bit left-handed of the teacher to entrust the students with an assignment in self-identity and then attempt to tell them who ‘they’ are.
    I love that you had such a great bonding moment, it seems it was both warranted and due.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      One very beat kid arrived home this afternoon. Apparently, the finished version was well received. It sounds like this go-round, she “got it.”

      What sort of things did you want to design and build? As a design engineer, what sorts of things do you do? (Been meaning to ask you that for ages!)

  11. I can imagine that his finished product was beautiful.

    I believe the answer to “who are you” is so complex that it takes years to figure out. I still don’t know who I am, although I know pieces, and it doesn’t bother me. I figure I’ll learn with experience and trials.

  12. I wish I could see photos of his project. I love the way you describe it, and describe him.

    Your question of how I answer “tell me about yourself” is perplexing. Part of the issue is I don’t get out much around people I don’t know.

    I suppose it depends on who I am speaking with and how they are acting. If it’s a macho-type who is stuck on his own superiority, I like to make him squirm and blush by talking about my past as a childbirth educator and board certified lactation consultant. If it’s a barbie-doll type who thinks women shouldn’t show their brains, I talk about my past as a political campaign manager and also mention that I am published in JAMA and the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. If it is someone who is a friend of a friend, who already feels like an old friend of mine, I talk about my daughters, my husband, my family, etc.

    This question will keep me thinking for quite a while… Thank you!

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      As Carol mentioned, how we present ourselves depends on who we’re talking to. But I love that you add the twist of who you’re talking to and how they’re acting. Shameless, you’re shameless! I love it! (Your examples cracked me up.) You add a whole other dimension to the question – the power to perturb with the persona we project.

  13. Bravo to your son. The building sounds exquisite.
    I often want to reveal more when people ask me about myself. I hesitate though because I don’t want to come across intense. I have recognized that people usually form different judgments depending on what label I have used to represent myself, whether it is mother, lawyer or writer. Interesting post BLW.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      How we come across. Yes, we worry about what the other will think of us. You have many sides and choices (mother, lawyer, writer). And they all carry such images (and assumptions) in the labels alone.

  14. I wanted to design houses that were not cookie cutter cutouts. Unique houses with a comfy retro feel to them.

    I headed in the design engineering field and ended up designing medical devices and products… catheters, soap dispensers, a diamond spine disk replacement, and others. I am a creative/artistic sort. I like to design but would love to design/invent something much more personal.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Very cool. I think what you design sounds pretty important. But with the creative / artistic streak, do you think you may have the opportunity to design a house for yourself some day?

  15. I certainly hope so! As soon as I marry a millionaire. It has been all I could do to keep this shack I live in. It seems that female Engineers make a little bit less than the male engineers… but I am working on that.
    Thank you. It can be rather exciting and boring at the same time. Much too much paperwork.
    I have started a couple book ideas however. If only I could put words together as you do.

  16. I deflect with personality (I hope!) and I want to see that building. It sounds magical! Perhaps his teacher was looking for something more obvious; a building shaped like a grand piano? Good for him for doing something more subtle and good for you for seeing it!

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