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Meaninglessness: a Conversation Through Art

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Storytelling is a timeless craft in communication and has been pivotal throughout history and in the lives of many. Stories have the power to connect people with people and people with ideas; the power to inform, influence, inspire, invigorate; the power to share. And some of the best stories have been told not through the written or spoken word but instead through visual art.

Last year at ERHS, I took AP Art and Design, and for the first time, I engaged in deep visual storytelling. I was able to do this through the ‘sustained investigation,’ a component of the portfolio a student submits for an AP exam grade.

Mr. Oliveros, the AP Art and Design teacher on campus explains the sustained investigation as a series of works that aim to explore some sort of topic, whether it be a single word, an idea, or a question. Over the course of the year, “as pieces are created in response to that [topic], there’s supposed to be a development of not only [the artist’s] mastery of the technique or the materials that they’re using, but a development of the idea as well.” In this way, the AP art portfolio’s sustained investigation is a chance to tell a developing story.

My story started off by portraying the conflict between the human desire for meaning and the apparent meaningless that plagues the world. Haha, yeah. And as it developed, it quickly became about the search for personal meaning and finding it, in some form.

Many stories start with a problem, a threat, a disturbance; my investigation began by depicting human engagement with the meaningless.

All photos by Sebastian Ashcraft

Inspired by the melting clocks and watches of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, I made the head of the character a distorted, wobbly clock. The redness of the clock and its contrast with the cooler atmosphere tries to convey the stress that the character is feeling as they become overworked. This piece intends to ponder the extent to which we can put our work over our health and if the resulting dip in the quality of our lives is a good use of our limited time on Earth.

It is events or lifestyles like these that prompt us to reflect on our lives. Sometimes it’s a clear issue that gives you a headache every other day. Other times, it’s a silent issue that we don’t recognize immediately.

In this piece, I tried to depict a negative hedonism with a girl happily drowning in media and comfort paired with the noise texture to make it known that something isn’t right. The concept of toxic consumerism can infiltrate one’s lifestyle, causing one to live more materialistically, taking attention from the more meaningful aspects of life.

Identifying problems in our own lives does not always seem so intuitive, and it can require some honest introspection. But when we realize that some sort of issue is consuming our lives, we can start to respond. However, responses take some thought and so the story shifts to the human contemplation of the meaningless.

Out of the three or so pieces that are about contemplation, this one best resonated with me. The sort of dramatic silhouette shot intends to not tell too much of a specific situation. It is just a person, whose features and feelings we can't exactly make out, simply standing and thinking. Questioning the value of life can be somewhat of a darker, hopeless subject, so I thought the heaviness of the deep black portrait and the cardinal red background could convey the weight that comes with grappling with this problem.

Ideally, contemplation will lead to resolution. And what better way to solve a grim problem than with a vibrant solution?

One of the most fulfilling aspects of life is creating. To be able to pour your abilities, thoughts, and emotions into a medium and produce something that can be shared and admired—for some, the chance to create keeps them alive. My favorite work from my portfolio paints a girl making music, with flowers of chance blossoming in the guitar and in print on her clothes. The sunlight coming through a window with open blinds casts shadows that resemble prison bars; a subtle reminder of the meaninglessness that once entrapped the character before creating freed them.

There isn’t too, too much to say about this piece. I took a photograph of a photograph of people holding hands to portray the value of the relationships we have with one another. I made it black and white to give it a romantic, nostalgic, and even timeless feel as a way to show the endurance of genuine love. As for the textures I added, well, I just wanted to have fun. That mattered to me then.

While the sustained investigation is a total of 15 works, I feel these 5 best encapsulate the topic of my inquiry and the story I was hoping to tell. I think a beautiful thing about shaping my art around this theme of the human conflict with meaninglessness was that I was able to grow with my work as the story progressed.

Mr. Oliveros has expressed that what makes AP Art and Design unique is that while you are creating a portfolio for examination for an AP grade, there is much more liberty in what you create. This allows for organic growth as a creative thinker as you experiment with communicative art techniques and expand on your investigation.

He encourages students who feel that they have enough foundation and experience to submit a portfolio of their work to him in February or March if they wish to take the course the following year. While this portfolio could include artwork that was created as an assignment for a different art class, doodles, sketches, and photographs that students make for fun are of greater interest. And beyond just showcasing your skills, making this portfolio is yet another, as Mr. Oliveros puts it, “opportunity for [students] to explore themselves as an artist” and become greater visual storytellers.

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1 Comment

Reda Rountree
Reda Rountree
Sep 27, 2022

Whoooaaaa! I *loved* this piece! It was unexpected and such a great read with its depth and thoughtfulness, and I loved your comments on your art and how you addressed your topic of the meaningless through your photos. I’m excited for our twins to take AP Art and Design now that I’ve seen your work. You definitely need to enter the PTSA Reflections contest this year!

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