News & Views

Pandemic Self-portraits: Fourth Graders Document a Moment in Time

Nearly one full year into the pandemic, the fourth grade watercolor study has transcended the boundaries of regular art instruction and taken on a documentary quality, with each student painting a self-portrait wearing a protective mask.
“This is such a specific moment in time,” explains New Canaan Country School Visual Arts Teacher Liz Ferran whose students are finishing up a portraiture unit. “And because of this, and the potentially history-making, life-defining nature of the [COVID-19] pandemic, more than how they looked, I wanted the students to capture how they felt. Art is a tool of expression. I want them to get comfortable with using this tool.”
Each student painted their portrait and then added narrative text to the back.

“My happiest moment up until this time period has been the taste of tacos. My biggest concern this past year has been if my parents would be okay during COVID-19,” wrote fourth grader Max Tangen, of Norwalk, in his notes. His artistic style is best described as whirly, swirly pen and ink, washed over with a pale amount of watercolor paint. It has a frenetic vibe.

“I got the idea of writing the note on the back to try to document it all,” explained Ms. Ferran. “I say to the students, ‘You are going to look at this in 50 years and you are going to remember.’ It’s a time capsule, like a letter to their future self.”

“Will I make change in the world?” writes Keira Smith of New Canaan. Keira’s self-portrait is a combination of styles: realism, with each strand of her distinctive auburn hair articulated in delicate, individual pen markings, and expressionism, with bolder, broader brushstrokes in watercolor jewel tones and somber grays. She confirms that when she began, she felt enormous pressure to make everything “like a photograph,” but midway through, changed her approach. 

“At first I thought I had to get everything just right,” recalls Keira. “But then Ms. Ferran said that it’s okay to make mistakes in art, people don’t look perfect and it’s also okay to just capture the feeling of something. So I used a dark gray in the background because the mood right now is a little bit uncertain and because I like the way it makes the whole thing look.” Keira’s watercolor self features a lighter-toned gray facemask. 

“At this age they want everything to be right, look realistic. They are very worried about how things look. So I teach them a couple of things like how to get proportions right, and once they have that, they can look at different ways to apply the paint, the color. Some of them are very realistic, but some of them are splatter paint and purple hair. It’s giving them the option to start with something realistic and either stay there or go somewhere else with it,” shares Ms. Ferran, who holds a masters of fine arts degree from Yale and next year, will celebrate her 20th year at the Pre-K through grade 9 school.

Ava Lenhard of Stamford, didn’t paint her hair purple. She did however put a small bow in it, experimenting instead with the colors for her background and clothing. She settled on various shades of deep blues and turquoises and created a wavy, undulating design on her facemask. The overall effect calls to mind an ocean or a tropical vacation. “I’m optimistic [about COVID-19] and remaining calm,“ acknowledges Ava who writes in her note of her aspiration to one day visit Costa Rica and hold a real sloth. “We’ll get through this.”
New Canaan Country School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin and are afforded all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, age, sex, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry, or disability in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, financial aid policies or any other school-administered programs.