Self Portraiture as Power: How I fell in Love with the Woman in the Photos.
We live in a selfie nation. Did you know that there’s a tactic of taking a photo called a fake selfie? In which someone else holds the camera for you but you extend your arm out as if it is, in fact, a momentary shot that you conjured yourself (with a go-go gadget arm length no less). Our fascination with this self-curated phenomenon seems endless. Yet self-portraiture gets a bad rep. It is easily seen as vapid to spend hours on the floor of your apartment, self-timer mode in full effect, being creative director to your own limbs. However, in a journey with the self as subject, I have found it to be one of the most liberating forms of creativity and expression I have yet to face as an artist. I would go as far to say that it has connected me deeper with who I am as a woman, and allowed me to fall in love the woman in the photos.
I have long been mystified by why we seek muses outside of ourselves. We’re told to look at yourself too long, or to focus on your own-ness is an illness of narcissism, yet narcissism is actually a mental state derived from fear of lacking. Think of the most impactful female artists who have used themselves as the canvas for their work: Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, Lois Mailou Jones, and my personal favorite Ana Mandieta. All of these women saw the most important study was themselves. If more people looked inward for inspiration rather than outward to those #LifeGoals, #BodyGoals, #CoupleGoals we swipe through daily, we would have more women living and breathing their truths.
I hold the belief that when someone photographs you, they take a little part of you with each image captured. Their eye is requesting you to fit inside their vision, whether they mean to impose or not and once the still is shot you have very little control where that image will go, how the conversation around it will be formatted. When those photos go “live”, thousands, maybe millions of eyes take what they want from the photo. Whether the female gaze, male gaze or other gaze sees it, they are free to digest and judge it as they wish. If the thousands of years of art history prior to the life of Instagram tells us anything, the female has always been a part of art’s context, however, she has had very little say on how she is portrayed and then viewed. We can never stop creepers from creeping, or subjects being objectified but we can structure the way She as Subject is being used.
Fast forward a year into my journey, almost all the content I create is self-portraiture, and this project of documenting myself has been liberating, to say the least. With uninhibited freedom of working in solitude I am unaffected by the time it takes me to “get the shot” and the fearless to express my truest self. When I click through the photos I have taken, I see a woman comfortable in her body, in her space, in her sexuality — she is not trying to fit into someone else’s vision, or appease someone else’s gaze but she commands her own. I found myself falling in love with this woman’s vulnerability, she’s unrestrained, enjoying the flaws that make her real. I love the way the light catches the tiny sprinkling of hairs on her upper thighs, the way the soles of her feet are always dusty from running around her L.A. studio. I love the way that on any given day she could embody a million different women while still staying true to her self. I love that I am in control of how I am being portrayed, and it isn’t at the expense or direction of anyone else. I am so much more than my physical self, and through the photos, I create I can tell that story in a two-dimensional format.
As anything else, the more familiar we become with a subject, the more normalized it becomes to us. Through the act of photographing myself, I was liberated to get to know who I am and see myself objectively. It made me more comfortable in my skin. It made me more comfortable to see that from an outside perspective those little things that bug you about your surface “self” were really not apparent at all. In the art of self-portraiture, we don’t all need to be Cindy Sherman’s. Part of the craft is self-discovery, and in a world where publishing just means sharing I realized these photos don’t have to go anywhere if I don’t want them to — they are first and foremost for me and no one else.
A rolling wave of blonde hair, a vast landscape ahead that looks as if it could engulf her at any moment — suck her back into its center. It doesn’t though, there’s always a strength to her, rooting her feet on the rock she stands atop. Woodworker Aleksandra Zee may be known to you from her dreamy, golden hued virtual postcards, and entrancing works of art that will make you stop in your tracks mid-Instagram scroll. She’s not just her online representation though, as any woman she is thick with dynamics, journeys, insights. Fearlessly, she shares snippets of these with us through her captions — using the social media platform to as a way of saying “Hey! I’m in this with you.” — however today we get very real with the talented woman on her art, heartbreak, & how to deeply love yourself!
V: What was your first experience with woodworking? Was it love at first bandsaw?
AZ: My frist experience with woodworking was just a bit in college, making frames and things but nothing much. My first job out of college was at Anthropologie as a Display Artist and so much of it was learn as you go. When I fully started building things I fell in love! Working with wood, being in a shop, I knew it was what I wanted to do and instantly started planning how to make it on my own.
V: What were you doing before you were able to go full time with your creative passions?
AZ: I decided to leave Anthropologie after about three years and knew that for me, having a boss and working/making for someone else was not for me. I needed to make art for myself and put it out there. So I stated small, working as a waitress for just about three years as I built my business. Working days in my humble little shops and nights at a restaurant. I remember the day I quit waiting tables like it was yesterday. I was serving a few girlfriends some margaritas and they asked me why I was still working there, that I was so busy in the shop and didn’t need to keep the side hustle. So I set down their drinks and went up to my manager and told her I would rather be in my studio, and she said yes please go and come back if you ever need to. It felt amazing and scary and crazy and so freeing. It has been a little over three years since that moment and each day has gotten better and more amazing working for myself. It’s hard ass work, and it never stops, but there is nothing else I would rather do.
V: You are so wonderfully transparent about the journey a woman takes to come into her own via your social media. Did it ever scare you to be so open?
AZ: At first it was scary, the opinions of others would deeply effect me. When the negative came it would hurt and hold me back. It took a while to grow my thick skin and learn to meditated on the fact that others options of me don’t matter, and they never will. I am responsible for my own energy and my own confidence and happiness. None of that belongs to anyone else. Being committed to openness and vulnerability is something that is so important to me and loving myself though it is so important.
V: Let’s talk about self-love — what life experiences have forced you to come face-to-face with who you are as a woman, and who you want to be?
AZ: This is for sure a loaded question. There are so many experiences that have made me face myself with exactly who I am and who I want to continue to grow into. I grew up with a troubled mother, substance abuse consumed her life and outside of the care my father gave I helped raise my younger sister. That forced me to tap into my nurturing and fierce side at a super young age. Later in life I chose a career that is predominantly male and finding my strong and also feminine (which is powerful and not weak) voice. I felt like I was re-writing what it meant to be feminine for myself. That being a woman didn’t make me weaker but stronger, and promoting that strength in a non competitive and graceful way. About two years ago I lost my mother, and that was a huge face-to-face moment with myself. I needed to strip myself of everything I held onto, the thick skin that I let grow a little too thick and re-open myself to a life of pure vulnerability, not holding myself back because of fears, accepting every bit of who I am and the strength there is in being open.
V: What is the most painful part of your journey in self-study?
AZ: Growing pains happen because you are making new room for the growth that is happening within. A big part of dealing whit what hurts is self acceptance. That you control your happiness, your confidence, your state of mind. Rising above what breaks your heart and accepting that it takes time. Life is full of heartbreak and how you move though the muck is what gives you the information and wisdom to hurdle the next. It hurts to lose a love, lose a family member, have your business take an unexpected turn, but all of those things happen to show the path before you and the choice you have to hit the ground running. So for me, my heartbreaks and pain that I have lived though are maps and footprints in the path I have chosen, I wouldn’t change it, I love where I have been and where it is shaping me to move forward into.
V: I think every woman learns to be gentle with themselves in different ways — I do this thing where I literally talk to my body in times of stress or trauma. Is there a way you’ve learned to be gentle with yourself that helps you deal with trials of the everyday?
AZ: I do he same, I speak positivity to my body, acknowledge the air filling my lungs in each deep breath, wiggle my toes and feel my feet planted on the earth holding up my body. Finding completely presence within my mind and physical body, reminds me that I am alive, I need to check in, and care for myself. It is the easiest way to get my mind bad n track, those sick couple minutes of acknowledging yourself.
V: I’m so glad I’m not the only one that does that! How do you see yourself through your own eyes?
AZ: When I look in the mirror I see strength, I see grace and I see growth. I am always changing, and allowing for that growth is acceptance. I meet myself with an open heart.
V: If you could send one message to young women everywhere what would it be?
AZ: Be fearlessly yourself. No one is you, YOU are you. There is strength in being a woman that should never hold you back from doing exactly what you want to.
In a world where Instagram can change your life overnight, Carly Kuhn (virtually known as @TheCartorialist) is a living example of someone who has leveraged her creative endeavors and set out on a new path to embody and empower the lifestyle of The Creative. Through her charmed illustrations she recounts pop-culture as it unfolds. We sit poolside with her at her LA home and art studio to get the details on her latest projects, Cartorialist.com, and how she’s moving beyond just her illustrations, and employing technology to spread the word. VÉRITÉ: Let’s start at the beginning. Carly, you came from a background in comedy, you’re a pretty funny girl. How did you get into doing your illustrations?
CARLY KUHN: I was with a bunch of friends in Malibu and I started doodling, and they were well received so I decided to start just as a fun side creative outlet. I was working at CAA at the time and I would start drawing people on their birthday’s or just fun little sketches. I just started drawing without any thought in mind other than drawing for fun. From there I had moved over and worked for Chelsea Lately, and while I was there I continued to draw on the side. At a certain point someone said you should start an Instagram account, just as a way to get out my work. So I created an Instagram account, and started drawing once every day. At the time I really didn’t use Instagram beyond friends, weddings, whatever it was. I started kind of going down a rabbit hole of finding different accounts and following them, and getting inspired by different types of things whether it was bloggers or fashion photographers — I think fashion was what I first started to be inspired by to draw because that’s what Instagram sort of became popular for. Then I realized you could tag, and hashtag, and people began to comment and repost but again I just didn’t really know what it would be. Just how Instagram has launched bloggers, photographers, and other types of creatives that have burst from the internet — I didn’t really have any end goal in mind. Slowly, just on the side by doing this everyday, I was getting recognition. The turning point was when I had drawn Sarah Jessica Parker and she reposted and then started following me. That was a point when I started getting emails for things people wanted to commission, or random companies were reaching out and I realized it could be a thing. I had always wanted to work in TV comedy, and I was really happy with what I was doing but I was sort of searching for a more creative outlet.
V: When you were growing up did you ever think of being an artist as an option?
CK: I don’t think I ever thought that, no. For me, I grew up either wanting to work in comedy — I mean the ultimate dream growing up in New York is that I wanted to be on Broadway or SNL. But I don’t think I ever felt like I wanted to be an artist growing up. V: And are your parents creative?
CK: Yeah, they are both creative and my dad is very into music — he’s in a band on the side. And my mom she had such amazing calligraphy. My whole family is very creative.
V: How long have you been full time pursuing your illustrations?
CK: For a year!
V: You were definitely well received by the fashion industry but I know you don’t want to be fashion specific. So what do you want to explore more now that you do have the eyes of your following on you?
CK: I think I realized — I’m very in love with Pinterest — and kind of being more drawn to interior design. And just design in general. And I’m at that point in transitioning to actually selling my work and what I’m most excited about is having it be part of people’s homes and work space. I think being in my late 20s’ you’re at this point where people start to really care about their home, your home is your sanctuary and you get to this part of your life where you’re starting to get excited about making your home another kind of creative expression. For me I found I’m excited about my work being a part of people’s homes and that being a part they get excited about and it’s going to add to the space. So I think design, interior design, and home is where I’m going to explore.
V: What does that mean for your illustrations?
CK: I think the thing is the illustration itself, I think I’m growing that it’s not just illustration. I think because I kind of fell into this world of art, and fashion illustration I still have so much to grow and learn. I want to learn more and see what I’m capable of and I really fell in love with working with water color, and I’ve recently done acrylics. I think the content for what my art pieces actually are will continue to be inspired by fashion but not just fashion. And the thing is it never was only fashion, it’s more people in general that inspire me. But at the same time I’ve drawn cacti, or a guitar — so not having any rules and just going with the flow of what I’m feeling and not feeling like.
But what I will say is fashion does continue to inspire me. I think I look at fashion through the lens of art. There’s always been art inspired by fashion, and fashion inspired by art. There are numerous designers that have been inspired by a Klimt painting. I feel like in a way, for me I love to see certain editorial spreads that I find interesting for one reason or another, and then want to interpret it in another form of art.
V: Do you think that because they are line drawings, you are more influenced by form or proportion rather than actual content?
CK: Yea, for me, I’m not seeking out wanting to draw this fashion person. I have a combination though, I think half of what I do is whatever I’m drawn to (no pun intended), so I think my Instagram account does hold on to that insta-aspect, and by that I mean fashion week is happening, I’ll draw things that are inspired by the front row of shows, but also if Beyoncé comes out with a new huge visual album like Lemonade, I end up being inspired by that. So in a lot of ways I’m very inspired by, and like to keep up with what’s going on.
V: Well, you’re kind of documenting pop culture in a very simple way.
CK: Yes, I think sometimes it’s another way for people to connect to something. Once I got past my insecurity that came with drawing — when I realized not everything was perfect, that’s what drew people to my work that it has this kind of perfectly imperfect aspect. I also think because everything is digital now, and with everything you see on a screen, sometimes things feel forced.
V: I love when you do your illustrations via Snapchat — tech has brought your work to another level. There’s a lot of artists that can’t really get that message across as concise as you can. Your viewers get to almost be apart of it, which is really cool. Can we talk about the website? You’ve launched Cartorialist.com!
CK: It hasn’t been active for years, we tried to get it. V: But, it’s more based on interviews, featuring other creatives, and building a community so where did that stem from? Where did that idea come from?
CK: I think because I have worked in entertainment for the past five years, and I was a communications major, and just constantly being around people, I love to connect with new individuals, and I’m someone that loves to constantly be learning. I always felt like a lot of people say you find your true self in college, and I feel that I’m just now fully finding myself for who I truly am. I think part of that is meeting new people, learning new things, and I also have always kind of been interested in a lot of different areas. When I was working in comedy I was also doing Groundlings, I also did a food blog at one point. With this unexpected path that I ended up on I’ve really taken my time, I haven’t sold my prints, I haven’t sold originals because I really wanted to make sure when I did it it was going to be the right space. I kind of knew I wanted to do something more. Over the past few months I’ve realized I love design, I love home decor, I love just kind of meeting interesting people doing interesting things. Originally I was going to launch the site to sell my prints but then I realized I don’t want to just launch the site and sit back and wait! As I got excited about my work being in people’s homes and so two worlds colliding made me there’s kind of three aspects to the site. We are photographing people in their home or work space. Then we photograph a piece of my art on one of their walls so you get to see my work in other people’s spaces, and then I also have The Cartorialist Questionnaire which will be a bunch of questions the same for each person that are things I would want to know about other creative people. I also have a really awesome photographer, her name is Monroe, she has an Instagram @DontBeAFool. So that’s obviously a big part of the site. Weekly, it’s going to kind of be a design site for creatives. So it’s sharing my drawings mixed in with images that inspire me whether it is design, editorial, or fashion. Also kind of having it be a focus on the West Coast, because I feel like there’s been a lot of stuff with New york city but I feel especially as a New Yorker that moved here that I’ve fallen in love with the West Coast and this kind of natural, earthy vibe. I want to celebrate that.
V: You live and work in your creative space, do you find that makes it easier for you to be creative or harder for you to turn off your work brain?
CK: I think because I live in the space that I work, and it is a really inspiring place sometimes it can get hard because I am my own boss, I need to motivate myself. Or there’s the flip side of not separating your work from your home so at any point in time you could be working but at the same time as an artist you can’t predict when you’re going to feel inspired to draw or paint. I feel that it’s actually more beneficial because if I had to drive a few miles to then set up and do the work it might feel forced. And if I don’t want to work for a few hours but by 9 PM at night want to do something or want to draw or paint it’s there. But when I have to do a little more busy work I’m a member of NeueHouse so I go there.
V: For me I’ve always written — it’s always been my thing, and it wasn’t until about a year ago that I actually started saying that I was a writer. I would say ‘oh, I’m in media’ because I didn’t feel like I had made it to that point. Now it’s freeing. Did you have that with the word artist? Do you feel like you have a little bit of impostor syndrome?
CK: I still have that. One hundred percent. I think I still struggle with saying ‘I’m an artist’, and some people say illustrator, fashion illustrator, but I do want to own the word artist because I don’t think those other titles really embody everything I’m doing. But I think because I’m not going about it in the traditional sense, and I’ve used Instagram which kind of launched my career, it is a hard thing to say artist. I think as any creative, as you said, impostor syndrome. I do think it’s a mark of any true creative.
V: What are three books that have changed your life?
CK: I don’t know if I’ve had a book change my life. I think that because I’m in my stage of self discovery more than ever, I haven’t yet read a book that’s really affected my life yet. I feel like my experiences in life have been the most altering, not necessarily a book.
Need a book recommendation? Why not take one from your biggest girl crush. Over the last year we’ve racked the beautiful minds of many compelling, brilliant women who inspire us daily. We never forget to ask them which reads have changed their lives, and here are a few we thought we would share with you in yet another installation of Vérité Book Club. Have some life changing books of your own? Tweet @veritepublished and let us know what we should be reading!
A mythical journey of a small town and its residences brings to life 100 years of Macondo. A story of love, loss, and humanity. Garance told us this novel changed her life in her thirties. Crack it open to see why.
A read that will surely keep your mental ease in check, Emily shared how Willie Nelson’s book is a daily reminder of how to take things with a grain of salt. Could come in handy when you’re editing fashion’s bible.
An American classic that we’ve most likely all endured in our early years could be worth a re-read. Why not walk down memory lane, hand in hand with Holden Caulfied. See what it does to your adult psyche.
L’Assommoir is a beautiful novel about finding happiness within one woman’s mundane middle-class life. It will transport you to the streets of Paris so authentically you feel the woman Zola builds, and learn from her trials.
Another splendid classic not to miss, and a personal favorite of our own. The detail of Nabokov’s scenes are moving, disturbing, and divine. It will surely alter the way you think of love, if not inner-motives. This ones our pick for an astute pool-side page-turner.
Dores tells us this book by Dossie Easton changed the way she thought about love, romance and relationships. We’re instantly intrigued. This book deals with the dimensional views one can possibly have when it comes to partnerships, and love. Finding what is right, or true for you.
The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free from Complacency and Fear, is the perfect paperback to pick up if you are a creative, or seeking your own passions. A wonderful look into how to overcome the road blocks that may be holding you back from realizing your full potential.