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  • Writer's pictureRachel Terlop

Three Identities

We all have three identities:

Who you are.

Who you think you are.

Who others think you are.

How do we figure out our identity? What contributes to our identity? Do any of these three identities overlap in our classrooms? So many questions are spiraling through my head after a DC Project Zero Professional Development at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).

When I walked into the conference room at the back of the National Portrait Gallery this morning, there was a question posted for us.

When you know you are doing your very best thinking, what is it that you are doing?

What a great (and intimate) way to get to know strangers at 9:30 am!

Here is the list we came up with:















Not thinking intentionally






We were then asked to work with a partner and make a visual representation of the way we best think. Partnered with the glorious educational aide who supports in 2nd grade, as well as in my classroom - we were stuck between spatial thinking (her), and designing thinking (me).

Spatial Thinking, Meet Designing

We used two coding alphabets (beads and handwritten).

Our first attempt to use our system is with just beads. We were super inventive and spelled the word B-E-A-D, bead.

By combining both the bead code, with a handwritten code, we developed our super code. The super code, or combined coding systems, can be seen in the top left image, where both beads and handwritten code is used. The letters spell out C-R-E-E-R.

In French, créer means to create, and creer in Spanish means to believe.

After getting our minds settled into this creative thinking, we shared out what we had created to represent our favorite ways of thinking. But quickly came back to the idea of identity - and is how we think, part of our identity.

Because we were gifted the opportunity to be in the NPG two hours before opening, we wasted no time in making our way to our first self-portrait. Passing by dozens of hand painted, sketched, and delicately illustrated pictures, we found our way to this.

How is this a self-portrait?

We spent the first 15 minutes looking at Evan Roth's Internet Cache Self Portrait trying to make sense of it.

I happened to be sitting at the foot of it, and could see a half dozen images of Theresa May, dozens of images of Yin and Yang symbols, and a Netflix cache similar to my own. You can see in the image that this long picture is folded on the floor, probably extending half way across the gallery if pulled out straight.

99% of the images on this vinyl are computer images that fit nicely in their right angles. However, there are two that are not. One is an image of a girl with the caption, "The Story a Refugee," and the other is a childlike drawing of penguins on ice.

We had 15 minutes to discuss with a partner.

  1. Clare’s thought is that this represented her internet history, and the things at the bottom are her clicks, and Netflix, and then over time, she starts to look at more intimate things.

  2. We thought about the size of the pictures and does size represent time spent on this?

  3. Could it be that the bottom is the stuff she looks at passively and gathers, and the top is stuff she contributes?

  4. What is the theme: immigration? Lots of people responses were around the faces blocked out, and how when people arrive to the country they do not have a ‘secure identity' as far as American citizenship is concerned.

  5. The art at the top was the last thing we noticed — are the pictures at the bottom of the structure building up to that one piece of art? Look at all of the steps and information that went into the top piece of artwork. Everything else seems like computer searches and internet — but then the top is this abstract art,

  6. Then, we followed the shade of red in the middle. That red color moves throughout this piece. Does the color red have significance?

  7. These look like the albums on your iPhone; this is what we are comprised of when we have our internal iPhone. The top picture could be the single picture on the iPhone, and as you scroll out to the day/month/year you see all the overload of pictures and they’re small.

Then, we were finally relieved of our spiraling and assumptions.

This is everything the artist searched over an extended period of time. All of the images went into an algorithm that created this — printed vinyl. He didn’t determine placement at all.

The folding — however— is intentional. So although this is a "nude self-portrait," there are things hidden or purpose. How does this connect to our identity?

We all have three identities:

Who you are. What am I searching for?

Who you think you are. What am I putting out there?

Who others think you are. What are the things I am folding away so that others do not see?

After a brief lunch, we wandered across to the SAAM to look at another exhibit and discuss identity a bit further.

BIll Traylor's Untitled (Chase Scene)

The Bill Traylor exhibit seemed to have hundreds of images, similar to the one above. Large quantities- on scraps of paper - cardboard - Egyptian style or cave painting - with a sense of urgency.

(Clare): It looks like he was trying get all the ideas out now, as opposed to Renaissance paintings where everything has to be perfect.

How did I end up coming with someone so intelligent?

Based on the side markers, we learned the time period of these paintings. These are done during the depression era, so there’s limited resources so it appears the goal is - we’re getting the message out by whatever means necessary.

As a group of 20, we gathered around this painting, no bigger than a piece of paper and we settled in for 30 minutes. We participated in the Thinking Routine of See, Think, Wonder to organize our thoughts as a group and try to make sense of the meaning of this image.

Then, the curator shared some information of Bill Traylor's life.

  1. Born enslaved in Alabama

  2. 12 when the emancipation was signed

  3. Lived on a plantation where the Traylor family lived

  4. Continued to work the Traylor land after freed

  5. Had thirteen children

  6. This exhibit is called “Between Worlds” because he saw the beginning of the civil rights movement - and the end of slavery

  7. At the end of his life he was living in a funeral home, and was elderly, and could not use his body for the agricultural work he had done all his life. So, he took to painting in the streets of Alabama.

Thinking about the change in his life, our group came to the realization that as an African American man, documenting his perspective of the events of 1940s Alabama unfolding around him — he is putting himself in a bold position. He is making artwork in the open that challenges the white narrative.

Then, the group starts seeing the paining as a form of symbolism. Maybe the dog is in one spatial plane, the rabbit is in another spatial plane, and the birds are a third plane and together flying in unity.

“If you think of the animals as a fable… the birds represent unity. If you take away the birds — you lose all hope for the outcome."

After coming to this train of thought, the curator informed us that Bill Traylor's voice is not the one we know this symbolism through. Charles Shannon was the one who brought Traylor's work onto the art scene and collected Traylor's work during his lifetime, got to know him, and shared the meaning of the work with the world.

There’s a lot of Charles Shannon’s voice, but not a lot of Bill Traylor's.

As our work is centered around identity, our curator poses the question: How is identity of survivalist relevant in the world?

Journey to freedom connects to migration

We have global migration happening right now.

Ideas are dangerous

This picture is done in code.

Think about how much information is shared in pictures with deeper meaning.

With Social Media you put stuff out there that you would never say in your real life.

What do we get to say, to whom, how often, and with what intention?

The artist is choosing how their projecting themselves to the outside world, and we do the same.

Clare contributes: It is the 21st century— the (dog) cat is a symbol of privilege; the dominant group is trying to take down others.

We come to the conclusion of this:

Certain information is being fed to us and more loudly - but we cannot only take things at face value. We are not face value, we are so much deeper. The first picture (Evan Roth's Internet Cache Self-Portrait) was someone’s search history at face value - a nude portrait. When we got to Bill Traylor's picture, it was described when it came out as “primitive” and “quaint." However, when you think about the connotation and intention behind it - it is a deep social commentary.

Clare poses: Does Traylor's actually say more - Or do we have more space to project our thoughts into it?

As we are leaving the exhibit, Clare and I think about Bill Traylor's three identities.

Who you are. What was Bill Traylor thinking as he painted on an Alabama street?

Who you think you are. What did he think of his work?

Who others think you are. Who was Bill Traylor? Not Charles Shannon's perception of him

Our last assignment is to go into the museum following our through-line of the day: How do I see myself?

Because I was in the NPG/SAAM, I went straight to my favorite.

If you look at Electronic Super Highway by Nam June Paik, you see the generalization of simplistic view of each of the 50 states. In Washington, D.C. you literally see yourself as there is a camera, and a small TV showcasing you at the Nation's Capital.

Clare and I quickly realized that if we we brought our current class here, they would be able to have a discussion about the oversimplification of generalization of each of the states.

Ex: Idaho. If you were from there, how would you feel about being generalized down to the video of a potato.

Ex: Ohio. I am from there and I have no idea what that video even was.

My students now would be able to discuss this, and how this is actually a hindrance in getting to know people. If you take this at face value, you might miss out on someone's identity. When I brought my students from my previous school here, a child said, “I am art.”

She saw herself in the art, and did not pick up on the other states.

Clare and I sat and discussed how this piece of art’s message could be perpetuated by the community you bring, and how there is privilege in knowing. Knowing the world, knowing different cultures, knowing differently.

If we see ourselves in something -- we are more likely to connect to it.

Does that mean we should seeking out things we do not feel comfortable with?

Clare brought up the Ted Talk: The Danger of a Single Story, and how if we only take a single perspective, and go with that, we fail to see the whole picture. A single perspective does not do a situation, or person, any justice. I would hate for someone to take the single story they have heard about me, and form an entire opinion.

We all have three identities:

Who you are.

Who you think you are.

Who others think you are.

Do my identities overlap?

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