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Karen Schwartz is an Atlanta- and New York City-based artist who mostly paints and draws. She’s also a clinical psychologist and finds that her practice informs her art in fascinating ways and that her studio practice offers curious insights into her work as a psychotherapist. (Photo by John Paddock)

My choice of who to paint is always dictated primarily by artistic considerations. I choose faces that snag my attention aesthetically. Drawing and painting are ways to figure out, to make meaning of what interests me visually. In the case of a portrait, I am interested in capturing some recognizable essentiality that identifies my subject. Prior to creating a portrait, it rarely occurs to me to articulate what that is to myself in words. I have trusted that the actions involved in creating a portrait — looking, mark-making — will carry nonverbal, unprocessed meanings that visual representation can render available to conscious awareness to me and my viewers.  

Up to now, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of not being self-conscious about whom I’ve chosen to paint. I’ve done portraits of John Lewis, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King without asking myself what it means that I, a privileged white woman artist, chose these great, Black, male civil-and-human rights leaders as my subjects. The national re-reckoning with race reminds me that I create and curate my art in a larger context of accountability. I must ask myself questions I’ve failed to consider previously. Has my sense of freedom to paint whomever I’ve chosen echoed the history of white privilege? What responsibilities do I have as an advantaged white woman artist for the impact that I may have on people who may see my portraits of Black people, known and iconic or not? Am I inappropriately appropriating faces of people who are not my racial group, and therefore, not mine to portray?

I hold onto the opinion that these humans, regardless of race, possess a strength of character and experience that marks their faces and bearing in ways that command my attention and choice to portray them. All of the faces I curated into my last show (John Lewis, Patti Smith, David Byrne, David Bowie, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin) are of people who offer me hope through their daring and creative leadership. Theirs are the faces of the people on whom I pin my ideals. “Exceptional Human” is their category. 

But perhaps this way of thinking just plain fails, once again, to account for race and how much it does matter and how it matters specifically in American society. It is noteworthy that my portraits are large, up-close faces. The closeup lens I’ve focused on my subjects needs to be pointed at myself and the unexamined assumptions and principles organizing my internal world with regard to race. Perhaps in this reversal of my lens, in making my own subjectivity an object of examination, I may begin to answer some of my own questions.

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