Kelly Mellos
Making Peace with the Portrait
TEDxSanDiego 2016

The human face has captivated us since the beginning of time. It is the first thing we see as we enter this world and serves as a portal to our universal experience as a species. You might recognize the face above in one of Rembrandt’s expressive self-portraits, a timeless masterpiece created in the 17th Century. As we look into his eyes, we connect to something, both personal and eternal.

My own obsession with painting and drawing the face began about a decade ago during a period of awakening, which has led me to my life’s work. I heard my inner voice telling me that nurturing my artistic aspirations would not only be fulfilling but would eventually serve the world.

More specifically, this voice was whispering, okay shouting, for me to leave my established business career to master the art of portraiture. This might seem like a wild plan, however, I approached this new chapter with a massive amount of faith, ambition and the confidence that the pursuit alone would have its own rewards. Gifts that would simply outweigh the risk of it all.

Above you can see a self-portrait I created during the early part of my journey entitled, “Searching.” It was a reflection of my interior world at this time. Shortly into this new life, as I worked tirelessly trying to perfect this extremely demanding art form, I experienced what I can only describe as a shift in perception. A revelation. Maybe even a miracle.

In order to paint or draw a true portrait, you must be completely present with your subject. I noticed that, as I relaxed into this idea, something would start to happen to me. I would get completely lost in my subject’s face and become overwhelmed by feelings of empathy, understanding and even love.

Of course, 10 years ago when I started all of this, I was painting people I deeply cared about. My father. My husband. My brothers. These feelings were explainable. I could not help but wonder though, if this happens with close loved ones, would this also happen with people whom I do not know?

I put this question to test in the many environments I was painting in. I would test it in front of my students while painting a model whom I didn’t know. Sure enough, it would happen. I would test it in my studio while painting children whom I had worked with on a Rotary International service trip to the Dominican Republic.

Sure enough, it happened to me again. I even tested this on stage in front of several hundred people while painting a stranger who was randomly selected by the audience. Amazingly enough, I entered into the same experience. It did not seem to matter whom I was painting or what the environment was like. The moment I became present and started to run my pencil or paintbrush over a face, I softened into feelings of lucidity and deep reverence for the life within my subject.

This led me to think, “If I experience rapture with both those I know and don’t know, does anyone else?” I decided to test out my curiosity on my new class of unassuming art school students, some who were professional artists and many who were not.

After providing a live demonstration and then having them nestle into their own work of painting our model, I began to circulate the room to provide more personal instruction. As I did this, I would ask questions like, “What do you feel like after you relax into observation and allow your paintbrush to glide over your subject’s face? Does this stir up anything inside of you?” I was amazed to hear that, yes indeed, it did. My students admitted to experiencing things like compassion, understanding, care, and even wonder. As I interviewed my students, I realized they were experiencing the same phenomenon that I had.

This led me to think, “If both my students and I experience rapture with those we know and don’t know, can everyone?” What about disparate groups of people who are unfamiliar with one another? Would this work with populations who had been dehumanized? What about those who have been taught to be enemies? Does being present with a face in this way truly have peacemaking potential?

After a bit of synchronicity along with a brewing restlessness about dark events I was hearing on the news media, I thought there might be a possibility of transforming helplessness into hope. I decided to create a portrait workshop for a group of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers through a peace program called Hands of Peace. This is a group of people who rarely have the opportunity to meet or get to know one another. In fact, only a small percentage of Palestinians are ever able to meet an Israeli outside of a border checkpoint of the seemingly intractable wall that has separated these two groups for generations.

What would happen with these teens when they had been living in a cycle of violence and fear and have heard plentiful negative propaganda regarding the other? My Middle Eastern students sat and listened attentively as I explained that studying portraiture can be a creative way to learn about humanity.

They seemed intrigued as I described the six universal emotions that can be detected on the face of any human being. They showed interest as I described the skull and the fact that we all share standard proportions, within reason.
After this, I got them situated into their assignment, which was to sit across from one another, observe closely, and do the best they could do at sketching the portrait of the person in front of them. Mind you, many of them were sitting knee to knee with a supposed enemy whom they’ve never before encountered this closely.

I once again began to circulate the room. After a series of nervous teenage giggles, a fluttering of papers and some comments confirming they were noticing some of the similarities we had just discussed, I watched as they relaxed into a quiet and serene state.

Could it be happening to them to, I wonder? Are they experiencing the enigma with one another? Then I see a Palestinian boy in the corner of the room who is supposed to be drawing an Israeli girl. He is not doing the assignment. I am thinking, “Is this a failure? Is this not a universal experience after all, but something simply reserved for those who are already used to one another?”

As I snake over to him, noticing the paradoxically surprised and peaceful looks on the other’s faces, I wonder if he is the only one who is not in the experience. Have the messages of fear he has received been too strong? Is there something about his conditioning that has made it difficult for him to be present with the subject?

When I get to him, I ask, “Please tell me why you are not engaging in the assignment. Are you experiencing any difficult emotions or having difficulties being present with your subject?” He replies, “No. It’s not that. It’s just that, as I look at her, I realize how beautiful she is. And I do not want to disappoint her with a drawing that does not do justice to her beauty.”

That’s it? Generations of fear passed down between these two groups of people, and this is the worst he can come up with? After all of the buildup, the disapproving messages he has received about what it might be like to encounter “the other” and the worst he endures is the worry that he might disappoint her?

What is this magic that I witness in myself and in others again and again? Reflecting upon these encounters, it is clear that there’s something special in the experience of drawing the face of another. On a basic level is the human connection that can occur between an observer who is fully present and a subject fully vulnerable.

Also, facilitating this connection might be the silent purely visual nature of the experience. Perhaps this has the effect of subverting certain language-based thought patterns based on externally created narratives meant to divide us.

I wonder if there is something else though. Something deeper and more mysterious happening. Could it be that, when we are present with a face in this way when we run our pencil or paintbrush over it, we are experiencing a spark of the miracle that took place when this person was created? Is there something in this process that is so deeply humbling and inspiring that we are left stricken with awe?

Is it possible that there’s a universal exchange of life that occurs, which lapses time and overwhelms us with compassion? Perhaps what is so truly beautiful about this experience is that we cannot put it into words. Perhaps it is simply one of the marvels of life that unexplainably pulls us out of ourselves in order to remind us who we truly are.

I invite you to ask, what are the gifts in your life that you can awaken to, which hold the power to incite the human psyche and enlighten the world? Thank you.