“Family Portraits”

Rebekah Nickel ’21

For this series, I decided to paint portraits of my family and myself in a way that not only depicts our physical appearances, but also uses symbolism to show the viewer more about each subject. This project is a love letter to my family, depicting my mom, dad, brother, sister, and pets, in addition to myself. I love my family immensely and wanted to create this project to represent some of the things I admire about them in detail using oil paint on canvas.

Rebekah Nickel ’21, Hey Jude, 2021, oil on canvas.

Hey Jude is the first painting I completed in this series and is of my sister Abigail, who is known to most people as Jude. My sister is three years older than me, and throughout my life I’ve witnessed her do her best to overcome her struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome, motor dysfunction, and sensory issues—just a few of the difficulties she encountered early in life. Nothing has ever seemed to come easily to Abigail, but through it all she has never stopped trying, which is something that I admire about her. Growing up with a sister with Asperger’s Syndrome, I learned that those on the autism spectrum commonly have things that they get incredibly attached to and excited about. Ever since my sister was a child, she has always loved cats with a passion. Everything was cats with her, and it still is, though she does love all animals. Abigail has volunteered countless hours at a no kill animal shelter in Gettysburg and is currently pursuing her dream of helping animals for a living. Because of this love for cats, in this portrait I have included four of our five cats. The tortoise shell cat in the back is our cat Whitney, who we call Twitter. The orange and white cat is Sox, who just passed away a few months ago. We miss him greatly and so it was only right that I include him. The black cat painted in the style of the Cheshire cat is Ringo. Finally, the orange cat on my sister’s shoulder is Oliver, named after Oliver from Oliver and Company, one of my sister’s all-time favorite movies. Oliver has a special bond with my sister which I’ve never seen between a cat and a person before. These four cats are keeping my sister company in this Alice in Wonderland-esque world. Alice in Wonderland is another thing that my sister really loves. My sister loves to read, and Alice in Wonderland has always been one of her favorite stories, so when I talked to her about my idea for this project, she was adamant that I needed to include this story in her portrait. There are many other things about my sister that weren’t included in her portrait, but I believe this shows off the fun and lighter side of my sister that not everyone gets to see.

Hey Jude preliminary drawing
Rebekah Nickel ’21, You may be Right (We Might be Laughing a bit too Loud), 2021, oil on canvas.

You may be right (We Might be Laughing a bit too Loud) is a portrait of my mom, Stacie. My mom’s portrait is set on the beach of Ocean City, New Jersey, where we take our family vacation every year. Although we have issues like most mothers and daughters do, I have a very close relationship with my mom, and some of my favorite memories with her are from our family vacations. My mom works as a social worker for a private foundation that assists the elderly, the Todd Baird Lindsey Devlin Foundation. She has been doing this job for most of her adult life and goes above and beyond her job description to make sure that her clients get the help that they need. So, on the right-hand side I have some scattered papers to represent the work that is constantly there in her life. Even when we’re on vacation, sometimes there are things that come up that she needs to do for work. However, my mom always makes time for her family, not just while we’re at the beach, but that is the one time that she really gets to relax and be with us. I decided to represent that in this portrait by writing the names of myself, my father, and my siblings in the sand behind my mom. I also decided to give my mom a cross necklace due to the importance of Faith in our family, which is reflected more so in my father’s portrait—though that doesn’t mean it isn’t just as important to my mom. The final detail that I put into the painting is the design on the left-hand side referencing a tea rose pfaltzgraff, which she collects and is one of the few things that my mom allows herself to collect. My mom has also mentioned to me a few times that she would like for me to paint the design for her on something so that she can have it on more things to match the pfaltzgraff, so I knew that was a detail that I wanted to include in her portrait.

You may be Right (We Might be Laughing a bit too Loud) preliminary drawing
Rebekah Nickel ’21, I may be Crazy, 2021, oil on canvas.

I may be Crazy depicts my father, Wayne, in front of a background based on stained glass. Like myself, my dad is quite creative, and may have gone to college for art as well if he had had the chance. While that never ended up happening, he still shows an interest in the arts. He and I both have an appreciation for the beauty of stained glass and have both expressed an interest in one day learning how to make it ourselves. Depicted in the stained glass are two crosses, which, like the cross in my mom’s portrait, is symbolic of the importance of Faith in the family. Another of my dad’s interests happens to be clocks of all different kinds, which he works to restore in his free time. Sometimes there will be details in design or some other interesting aspect to these clocks and I enjoy it when he will show these things to me and talk about his interest. So, in the portrait I also include the image of a drop hang clock which I believe I’ve seen at least one of in our house. I also happened to include a wristwatch by having my dad wear it, and on both clocks, I have used the hands to reference another detail about my dad. I have both of the clocks set to 12:24, which if these numbers are considered as a date rather than a time it would be 12/24, Christmas Eve, which happens to be my dad’s birthday. I always thought it was a special thing about my dad that he was born on Christmas Eve, so I wanted to include this detail. The final detail in the portrait of my dad that I want to mention would be the Bible that I put in his hand. Once again this is a not-so-subtle nod to our faith and religion. However, this is also a reference to another collection that my dad has, seeing as he is interested in the different versions of the Bible. I love my father and I love when he will talk to me about the things he’s passionate about, so it was some of these things that I wanted to use to represent him.

I may be Crazy preliminary drawing
Rebekah Nickel ’21, Me and My Shadow Demon, 2021, oil on canvas.

Me and my Shadow Demon is a portrait of my little brother, Tyler, who I depicted in front of a lake. I may only be a few years older than my brother, but I’ve always been referred to as his second mother due to my frequent tendencies to mother him. He and I have always had a close relationship, and so when I was deciding on a background for his portrait, I wanted to find something that would be representative of this. A few years ago, I had started talking to my family about my interest getting baptized, and we also knew that this was something my brother wanted to do, but he has severe anxiety that was keeping him from actually doing it. We knew that if we were to get baptized together, that would lessen his anxiety, but if I would do it without him, he would never be able to do it. So, after a few years of waiting, the perfect opportunity presented itself when we had the chance to be baptized by our uncle at one of the lakes down the road from our house. That day was special not only because the baptism was being performed by our uncle, but because my brother was able to overcome his anxiety and we were able to go through this experience together. The next thing that I put in this painting for my brother is his cat, Jack, who is a bit of a demon of a cat—he’s sweet, but at the same time a psycho—and the perfect pet for my brother. Jack is Tyler’s little buddy and I think he’s been good for my brother’s mental health. The last little detail I put in for my brother is the little lanyard that he has sticking out of his shorts pocket. This is a Pokémon lanyard of his that not only is a reference to his interest in Pokémon but is also a nod to the little nice things that he will do for me every so often. A few months ago, my keychain that I had been using for years broke and my keys kept falling off, so when I expressed my frustration over this Tyler just gave me this keychain to use and I have been using it ever since. My brother is sweet and caring, which I love about him, but unfortunately his battle with anxiety and depression keeps that side of him hidden from most people. However, when he’s truly happy he has the biggest smile, and it’s this side of my brother that I wanted to show in his portrait.

Me and My Shadow Demon preliminary drawing
Rebekah Nickel ’21, La Vie en Rouge, 2021, oil on canvas.

La Vie en Rouge is the last painting I completed in this series, being my own self-portrait. This portrait is the most detailed out of all of them, seeing as nobody knows me better than myself and I could make this as personal as I wanted to. The first detail that I want to start with is in regard to the color. To most people I am the girl who always wears red (just about everything is red), and so many would assume that red is my favorite color. In reality, green happens to be my favorite color even though I almost never wear it. When I was younger, I was always taller than all of the other kids, already being 5’5” in the fifth grade, and when I would wear my favorite color, some had taken to calling me the jolly green giant. Now I will choose to wear green sometimes, but it happens more rarely than I would like. To me, green is a calming color that makes me happy and feels more down to earth. However, as I said I now mainly wear red, surround myself by the color, hence La Vie en Rouge, "Life in Red." Red is my second favorite color that I started to wear almost every day as a reminder to be bold and not be ashamed to stand out, both as an artist and as a person. In this portrait I decided to represent this by painting myself in my favorite green dress and then surrounding myself with the color red.

The background of this painting is also meant to pay homage to my love of musicals. On the left there is the barricade from Les Misérables, which happens to be my favorite musical. The first time that I saw Les Mis was my senior year of high school when I had gone to a school production of it to support my friends who were involved in the show. That year I had been struggling with many things, the deaths of both of my grandfathers, different medical examinations for myself, and many other things. Everything just seemed to be getting worse and worse and by the end of the show when the lines of “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” were uttered, I felt a determination that I hadn’t felt in a long time. While there are now many things that I love about that show, at that time the first thing that made me fall in love with it was the idea of continuing to fight for the hope of a better tomorrow. Below the barricade I have cobblestones, “here upon these stones we will build our barricade”, and along these stones runs the blood of angry men. Out from these stones and the blood I have a few tiny orange flowers growing out, which is in reference to two lines, “and rain will make the flowers grow” and “the blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France”, both insinuating that good things can come from the bad, which is something that I always try to remember in my own life. Other than Les Mis, the orange flowers are also meant to be a slight nod to my love of Scooby Doo. The final Les Mis reference in the painting is the red flag that is being held in my right hand, painted similarly to how I had painted it in the portrait I had done of the character Enjolras last year.

The next musical detail would be the woods from Into the Woods, a musical that I had first seen years ago but have just recently fallen in love with. Just like all of these musicals, there are many things that I appreciate about them, but I picked out a few details to include in my portrait that particularly resonate with me. Right away in the portrait I am standing on the path that leads into the woods. In the musical all of the characters journey into the woods for different things, and even though the woods are a dangerous place for them to go they still choose to make the trip to get their wishes. This part is symbolic of life in general, facing your fears and going through life to get what you want, though the lesson learned is that while you still have to make the journey you also must be careful along the way for there are dangers out there waiting for you. On the steps of the barricade, I have painted a golden slipper which is in reference to the character of Cinderella from Into the Woods, specifically from her song “On the Steps of the Palace,” where Cinderella struggles to choose what she should do. This song deals a bit with the idea of imposter syndrome and feeling like you don’t belong. This is especially prominent in the lines “But then what if he knew who I am when I know that I’m not what he thinks that he wants?”, “Where you’re safe, out of sight and yourself, but where everything’s wrong? Or where everything’s right but you know that you’ll never belong?” and “And it’s fun to deceive when you know you can leave but you have to be wary.” This song is a bit of a confusing mess as she debates back and forth with herself, but that’s also why I feel like it’s a perfect example of this particular feeling. I often find myself feeling this way, out of place and feeling like I don’t belong, and this is also a very difficult feeling when it comes to seeing myself as an artist. There are some days that I am proud of my artwork and recognize my talent, but there are also times where I frequently question my abilities, wondering if I’m good enough or if I’m just fooling myself believing that I can be successful in this field. Some days it feels as if I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, for people to realize I’m not really as good as they believe I am. Though it’s a small detail to include it plays a large part in how I feel about myself.

The final nod to Into the Woods comes from the prescription note towards the front of the painting, where written on it are the lines, “The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold”. This is the list of things that the baker and his wife have to go into the woods to find, to break the curse, so that they will be able to have a child. A few years ago, on 2/19/2019, my twentieth birthday, I was diagnosed with endometriosis and one of the things that I was told about this was that it could be difficult or impossible for me to have children. As a person who has always wanted to be a mother one day, this was difficult news to receive, but along with that diagnosis came all the medications I was prescribed and the things ahead of me that I may have to go through so that it could still be possible.

The next musical set I included was Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop from Sweeney Todd, with Sweeney’s barber chair sitting on top, like how the set is in live productions of the show. Sweeney Todd was the first musical I had ever seen a live performance of, and yet again it was at a school performance I went to in support of my friends. This show was a bloody mess that both hits on my love for musicals, my love for comedy, and my interest in serial killers. This show was the start of my love for live theatre and interest in the sets of the shows. Behind the barricade I have painted a red windmill which is in reference to the musical Moulin Rouge which I love for many reasons, but especially for the chaos and passion when showing the bohemian lifestyle lived by the artists in the show. “We are young, we are brave, we are bohemians!” Below Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop I have a small wind-up movie camera which is a nod to the character Mark from the musical RENT. When watching this show with my friends there were a few jokes about myself resembling this character, but the line about him that hit me hardest was from a song which wasn’t even included in the movie. “Mark has got his work, they say Mark lives for his work, and Mark’s in love with his work. Mark hides in his work.” “From what?” “From facing your failure, facing your loneliness, facing the fact you live a lie. Yes, you live a lie! Tell you why! You’re always preaching not to be numb when that’s how you thrive. You pretend to create and observe when you really detach from feeling alive.” I don’t think I quite have to explain this quote other than I think this is how many artists feel at some point during their lives.

La Vie en Rouge preliminary drawing

The final detail that’s in reference to a musical is the masquerade mask that is being held in my left hand. This mask is in reference to the song "Masquerade" from Phantom of the Opera, specifically the line of “hide your face so the world will never find you.” I had spent most of my childhood and teenage years attempting to hide my problems from my friends. I tried to fit in but in doing so I felt invisible and out of place. Eventually I stopped trying to be like everyone else and instead I began to do everything that I could to stand out. Now I have a persona that I’ve created for myself and even though this is a far more honest version of who I am, everything I do is still a bit of a performance. In some ways I’m still hiding behind a mask, just a far more extravagant one than before.

There are a few more details that I have added to the painting that are not related specifically to musicals. First of all is the inclusion of my guillotine earrings. Many people believe that these earrings relate to my love of Les Mis, but they are actually an inside joke I have with myself. As the accident-prone person that I am, when I was around ten years old, I had accidentally chopped off a piece of my heel when I bumped into a stand-up mirror in my parent’s closet. When describing what had happened to the doctor at the hospital, the doctor understood and said that the mirror had acted like a guillotine and cut the piece off in one clean cut. This injury was one of my first major injuries and throughout the years of telling this story to people I now always describe the mirror as acting like a guillotine, so of course I thought it would be funny to commemorate this by wearing guillotine earrings and including said earrings in my self-portrait.

Lastly there is the inclusion of my dog Buddy. Both of my siblings are more inclined towards cats while I have always loved dogs. For years I had begged my parents to let me get a dog and when they finally caved, I was incredibly excited. I got to pick which dog that I wanted, and I chose Buddy. Now he’s getting quite old, but he’s still my puppy, and even though I’m pretty sure I love him far more than he cares for me, I wouldn’t trade him for any other dog in the world and I’m glad that he’s been with me on most of my journey through life.

Rebekah Nickel ’21 (right) with her mother and her work at the exhibit opening