First year Ainsley Bruton should have won the #haverhome room decoration contest. Almost every inch her wall space is embellished with quirky objects that are either floral or Harry Potter related. Her bed is neatly made with a pastel quilted comforter and a stuffed snake strung around her pillows for a touch of the spooky-sweet. Standing in her room, I was transported to a more whimsical world that made me forget I was actually in a shoebox on Gum 3/3. But her room is not only her home—it doubles as her artist studio.
This year Bruton began a project funded by the Student Arts Fund to paint portraits of first years. “My original concept was to specifically work with freshman about identity and their relationship to their physical self in the context of space. How do you relate to being somewhere new? How does that change the way you see yourself and how you interact with people?” When she began the project, Bruton found that her subjects did not have as much to say about these questions as she had thought they would. She quipped that working with other people to make her art was more difficult than she had anticipated, since her art is usually focused around herself. However, she accepted the challenge and as a result has made new friends and helped strengthen and grow our Haverford community.
For each portrait, Bruton sat down with her subject for a brief interview, which allowed her to get to know her subject as well as gather key inspiration and information to incorporate into the painting. For example, in a pumpkin shaded painting with the subject, her best friend and hallmate Grace, positioned in the left corner, the phrase “take up space” is repeated in yellow—as if it were a montra—across the canvas and surrounding the figure. Bruton says that phrase, “take up space,” came from her interview with Grace: “She was saying ‘I feel like at college more and more I want to take up space. I’ve been wearing this jacket that has these big sleeves, and normally I wouldn’t like that because I don’t want to be seen, but at college I feel like I can.’ My painting of her is smooth and tight. It’s almost a little more anxious, and her not being centered contrasts with the idea of taking up space—you’d almost expect her to be big and in the middle, but I feel like she doesn’t know, or I don’t know, if she is there yet. It’s like a trying—wanting to take up space and wanting to be bigger but being unsure of how.”
Bruton’s approach, after interviewing and photographing her subject for reference, is to compose a portrait that uniquely conveys her interpretation of the subject’s experiences and stories. She even thinks through specific stylistic influences for each work by flipping through artbooks she’s collected in her room. Her favorites are Lucian Freud, for his treatment of skin, and Wayne Thibault, for his use of color.
For her next project, Bruton plans on circling back to her comfort zone and working with her own emotions as material. Specifically, she plans on painting a series about her fears, from the dark to rotting fish. Of course, on the surface, painting the scenes will require her to confront her fears head on, but she’s more interested in unpacking how exactly these fears come to shape her identity and how she interacts in the world.
This summer Bruton will return to Mississippi and, in addition to taking pottery classes at the nearby university, plans to coop herself up in the studio she’s made out of the shed in her backyard—finding ways to make it work as an artist seems to be her speciality.
You can expect to see Bruton’s collection of paintings taking up space in an exhibition sometime and somewhere next year, and you can find out more about the Student Arts Fund here.
Written by Eli Baden-Lasar ’21, Oakland, California
Edited by Anna Mehta, English major, Auburn, Alabama