Message and Meaning

Student artists combine image and text to explore identity.

Last fall, students in Professor Elise Richman’s Intermediate Drawing course presented compelling self-portraits that provided a window into their hearts and minds. Displayed for three weeks in Kittredge Gallery, the charcoal, graphite, ink, and Conte crayon sketches brimmed with meaning.

When she set the assignment, Richman’s goal was to challenge students to combine two distinct elements, image and text, to create a self-portrait that expressed an important aspect of their personalities, identities, or belief systems.

Students went deep and explored significant memories and personal struggles, as well as sources of strength, identity, and emotion with courage and honesty."

– Prof. Elise Richman

“Students had to combine a single word and an image of themselves to create a rich and layered self-portrait. Visual and text-based forms of communication operate on different expressive levels,” explained Richman, “so the purpose of this assignment was to create a reverberating interplay between the image and text in expressing a sense of self.”

Richman intended the word and image to expand upon each other’s message and meaning. Students were instructed to select abstract words that allude to, rather than describe, aspects of themselves. Instead of using a word such as “student,” she wanted them “to pick a word that expresses the state of being a student, such as ‘discovery’ or ‘explore.’ Ultimately, the whole composition should express more than the sum of its parts.”

According to Richman, it’s also important to balance the weight of each element to create a harmonious design. She asked students to pay special attention to visual balance, and had them create three thumbnail sketches to determine the placement, scale, and values of both text and image before executing the final sketch.

Scroll to view student self-portraits

To the delight of Puget Sound students, faculty, and staff, the finished self-portraits were displayed in the hallway outside of the art and art history office in Kittredge Gallery for nearly three weeks. Consensus was that the portraits were powerful and well executed.

But the assignment didn’t only impact its audience. It was a meaningful task for the artists. “Students went deep with it and explored significant memories and personal struggles, as well as sources of strength, identity, and emotion with courage and honesty. I am so proud of the vulnerability and bravery that went into this project!”

Each year, art students submit their best classwork for a chance to be chosen by a juror for the Art Students Annual exhibition. This year, several self-portraits from the Intermedia Drawing class were selected and are now on display as part of the show. Art Students Annual is on view in Kittredge Gallery through Feb. 29.


By Briana Blythe
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Jan. 30, 2020