Students’ Self-Portraits Reveal Their Distance-Learning Experiences

Emiko Essmiller.

It wasn’t her idea, but visual arts teacher Denise Tanaka was happy to dictate to her South Pasadena Middle School students a different kind of self-portrait to round out what has been a different kind of school year.
Students in the five classes Tanaka teaches — about 120 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders — created photo portraits in which they’re shown lying on the ground, surrounded by the belongings and devices that were essential to their experiences with distance learning at home after the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures. Self-portraits are meant to be personally informative about their artists, and these students’ isolation resulting from the society effectively hitting the pause button adds a twist to that.
“I threw it out there to my students as one of their last projects for distance learning, and they knocked it out of the park,” Tanaka said. “They did some really cool stuff.”
Recurring pieces of the portraits included, for obvious reasons, computers, iPads and cellphones. Some kids included headsets or earbuds. In tribute to more outdoor recreation time, there were baseballs and skateboards. Dogs and sometimes cats would make appearances.
“A lot of Harry Potter books came up,” Tanaka added with a laugh.
Since the South Pasadena Unified School District shuttered school sites at the onset of the pandemic and later implemented its distance-learning program, Tanaka said she had to get creative — well, more creative than usual — for virtual art lessons. In the ensuing “media exploration,” this sometimes meant using food dyes or condiments as materials for paintings.
“I try to keep the same format every week,” she explained. “I send a lesson each week, and I’ll give them some visuals. Sometimes it’s me explaining something, or a technique video. I like to give them some sort of choice in that.”
Tanaka said she saw on Facebook the idea of these “quaranthings” portraits, which are inspired by the “Daily Bread” photo series by artist Gregg Segal that had children from all over the world chronicle a week’s worth of meals and then arranged similar portraits based on the resultant menus.

Vincent Hildebrandt-Rojo.

“Trying to connect with them in their environment and what they’re interested in, I found I got some better outcomes,” Tanaka said.
Tanaka, who has been at SPMS since 2012 and has spent a dozen years with the district, said she envisions assigning self-portraits in the future, with or without distance learning. She added that she might be interested in making a show or exhibition out of this set of portraits later in the calendar year.

Sophia Mertzel.

“I could almost see starting off a semester doing these,” she said. “I kind of got to know my students a lot more by doing these at the end. I think starting a semester like that would actually be kind of cool. When they talk about their home lives, you hear about it at school, but you don’t get a visual of it unless you see a photo.”