I have always been fascinated with self-portraits. Although the modern version of the ‘selfie’ is ubiquitous, it is the artist’s rendition of himself in ink or paint that interests me. The artist knows his subject intimately or, as we say, warts and all. So, to render his image permanently on canvas is a revealing exercise indeed. It is, perhaps, an entry into his visual journal: “This is who I am today.”
The recent Outsider Art Festival in Vancouver offered a vast and varied array of art created by artists on the margins of the art world. What caught my eye, though, were Scott Colin’s self-portraits, modestly painted onto buff paper. Pictured, left, is Spirit of the Halting: a demure figure, partially obscured by a mask of dots, his soft-focussed head blurring into the background. Pictured, right, is The Fall of my November, a more definitive and stronger statement of himself. The obscuring veil has lifted enough to see the world with both eyes. The masks that obscure Scott’s face in both portraits not only block his view of the world, they hamper our view of him. The person behind the mask is unknown, perhaps even to himself.
To impose an interpretation on an artist’s work, especially a self-portrait, is a risky exercise and my reading only grazed the surface of its meaning. I had a chance to talk with Scott and he told me, very candidly, about his debilitating struggle with drug addiction. These self-portraits were done just before a relapse, at a very, very dark time in his life. Scott describes himself as an extraordinarily ‘open’ person – a sensitive medium of sorts – who has trouble keeping the world at bay. These dots, then, are perhaps a screen to filter the barrage of sensations the world flings at him.
As tragic as Scott’s lost years were, he is now committed to ‘clean’ living and art plays a large part in his journey of self-discovery. What began as sessions in art therapy turned into a daily practice of personal expression. He continues to explore how to open up just enough to keep himself protected. I did notice, in fact, that there was no evidence of the protective veil in his recent self-portraits – the mask was replaced by a bolder, colourful version of himself. I got the sense that Scott is still surprised at what he is discovering beneath the mask.