The walls of the National Gallery of Art are decorated with works by some of the greatest artists of all time: Michelangelo, Matisse, Monet. On March 2, the museum’s collection will also include photographs by a more up-and-coming artist: junior Rachel Bird.
Bird is part of the National Gallery of Art’s High School Seminar, a year-long program for advanced high school artists from D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Participants spend four hours one Saturday each month learning about art history and the museum business. Seminar students are assigned to research and speak about various artists and to assemble a final project.
“The program is almost like taking an eighth class,” said photography teacher Mike Seymour, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Bird’s application to the program. “It’s very intense and very high level.”
Bird’s discovered her love of photography freshman year, when she took the Photography 1 class to fulfill her art credit. When Bird broke her arm last year and couldn’t play sports, a family friend suggested she apply for the program. Bird had to assemble a portfolio, write two essays and get a teacher recommendation to apply for the seminar.
“We want a really strong group dynamic in the seminar and Rachel seemed like she has a lot to bring to the table,” said Elisa Patterson, who manages the high school programs at the museum.
At the March 2 seminar reception, each student will present research on recurring themes in art that they studied, as well as two artists who emulate that theme. The final projects are based on the themes that they researched all year, Patterson said.
“The theme I chose was identity,” Bird said. “I wanted to express how my identity has been shaped by art.”
Bird’s final project for the seminar is a series of 16 self-portraits that emulate the styles of various famous artists, from Jackson Pollack to Frida Kahlo. The photos feature elaborate backgrounds and makeup.
The makeup Bird self-applied for the project was extremely detailed and took from 15 minutes to two hours to apply. It required constant reapplication and painstaking detail to accurately capture the style of the artist. For her photograph imitating Jackson Pollack, Bird redid her makeup when she realized that the paint on her tongue was the wrong shade, she said.
For her photo emulating Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Bird used a stand-in model to make sure that the light mirrored the original painting perfectly, she said.
Bird’s strong artistic vision and her painstaking attention to detail make her work unique. Her ability to work hard sets her apart from other students in the advanced photo class, Seymour said.
“Rachel dares to be different in the way that she shoots and she’s willing to take risks,” he said. “She is an extremely creative thinker and that’s what it’s all about.”