Week 7: Portraits

My time interning with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies based in Amman has been an enriching, thought-provoking experience for me. Even though I take notes regularly at work and reflect internally often, I have always struggled to journal consistently. Inspiration, for me, is always fleeting and unpredictable, so you can imagine my horror knowing I would have to write a blog post at a pre-determined date as a contribution to our cohort’s blog. But luckily, now, at 5am on a day before work, I have managed to (hopefully coherently) put together some thoughts with a loose thematic focus on medicine, love, people, and art.

I think often that medicine can teach you to either love or hate people, and that I am lucky to have approached the discipline with the disposition of an artist. Being an artist teaches you to, easily and without resistance, fall in love with things – this has always been somewhat of a vice to me, but I hope (and think) that on my deathbed I will have been happy that I effortlessly discovered and found things to be beautiful, something probably amplified by the fact that I am passionate by nature.

At Duke, my formal program of study is Empirical, Social & Cognitive Aesthetics; because the title is so dense, what I started telling people is that I study why things are beautiful – how, from the levels of sensation, perception, and interpretation, we transform and organize our world into something that does not just make sense, but is rich in music, art, language, and culture, through the lenses of neuroscience, biology, and evolution. To me, beauty, pain, and change – among other things – are some of the experiences most universal to being human, to communicating, and to understanding each other.

Though I haven’t done it in awhile, I find portraiture to be the surest way that you will become someone that falls in love with everything and everyone. It is easy. The more you tire of drawing pretty faces, the more those faces that create interesting lines and shapes become valuable, and the more you learn to appreciate the mundane details of a face as features that are special. Portraiture can, and should, be intimate. As you discover the unique ways in which someone’s eyes crinkle and nose bends, I think you begin to practice literally taking people at face value – being able to appreciate whatever value is there, even if it’s not a kind of value that even they themselves would regard to be beautiful.

My Arabic teacher here in Jordan told our class that in order to speak, you must listen, that in order to write, you must read. I think this is analogous to portraiture too – that if you want to create, you must observe; to do, you must watch. This practice has made me infinitely more observant. It has widened the scope of my appreciation for living things, and it, often to my detriment, makes me prone to become hopelessly passionate about things which I do truly, authentically, find beautiful.

So, in the spirit of loving, I set out to draw my host family. My relationship with the family as a whole and as individuals has not been without trials. I come back from work exhausted – “Katir tabanah, bidi anam” (“Very tired, I want to sleep”) is an integral part of my Arabic inventory; I’ve also seen our family’s dynamic change with the introduction of Ramadan and daily fasts, which I have tried my best to participate in. And although they live comfortably, the tension caused by the extra stress my roommate and I put on resources, like water and internet, punctuate our interactions. That said, despite the inevitable challenges associated with integrating into an unfamiliar household, I have enjoyed our late nights drinking coffee with our parents, playing soccer, shopping, and sharing meals and photos with our siblings – our attempts to communicate across broken English and Arabic have also been endearingly embarrassing, and I have learned a great deal through this.

In this post, you’ll find my pencil rendered portraits of my host mother, nephew, and youngest brother. We have a large family – there are nine people living in the house right now if you include my roommate and me – so I’ll update future blog posts with portraits of the rest of the family as I finish them. I think my family may have originally expected the portraits would be closer to stick figures, but now that I’ve shown them the first two, I am being bombarded with requests, so hopefully over the remainder of my stay I will have a complete series.

kelsey blog pic

Drawing these portraits has been a good daily meditation of sorts for me. I also did a sketch series last summer when I was interning in Prague. After long days at the hospital, I’d sit down with my work notebook and sketch impressions of the cityscape – passersby would watch me a lot, so it ended up being a nice way to meet people (I even met a Duke alumus doing this!). This time around, my sketching has been more of an exercise in close observation and patience, which is reflective of how I am trying to approach my internship in Amman. I like to think that as I’ve practiced this, I’m also becoming more conscientious about being patient, being an observer when appropriate, and approaching every refugee I interact with during fieldwork or every employee I work with in the office with the same love and patience I need to create a portrait.




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