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Santa Rosa High fine art students recreate famous portraits with household pets, toilet paper

Using their pets and parents as models and everyday objects as props - ramen noodles become Regency-era curls and pie plates are Renaissance halos - the visual fine arts students of Santa Rosa High School stepped back in time this spring to recreate portraits by great masters such as Michelangelo, da Vinci and van Gogh.

Their artistic photographs - at turns serious, hilarious and ingenious - are now part of a living history project that has gone viral during the pandemic in the overlapping worlds of social media, fine arts and education.

The New York Times picked up on the trend in mid-April with an article carrying the tongue-in-cheek subhead: “Around the world, people are posing as famous portraits with toilet paper, bedsheets, drawn-in unibrows and did we mention toilet paper?”

Santa Rosa High visual fine art teachers Brooke Delello and Janet Fisher threw down the “Quarantine Recreation” gauntlet out of desperation as they tried to figure out how to engage their students in the focused Artquest program, plus elective and AP fine arts students, during the quarantine.

“I was trying to think of anything I can get them to do, while we’re all stuck in our homes, that didn’t require a lot of materials,” Delello said. “The other thing I really wanted was something that would make them laugh, to lighten the mood a little bit.”

Fisher said the international trend started with a Dutch Instagram account with a name that means “between art and quarantine.” Eventually, the challenge spread like wildfire, taken up by the staff and patrons of museums such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Met in New York and the Getty in Los Angeles, where it has become so popular it’s now called the “Getty Museum Challenge.”

“I started following a lot of museums, and the first museum I saw who put the call out was the Getty,” Delello said. “They initially asked for creations from their museum, because they were doing virtual tours.”

Delello loosened the restrictions for her students, broadening the challenge to include any work of fine art that spoke to them. The option was part of a “choose your own adventure” assignment, but the response to this particular challenge was enthusiastic, with about 45 of her students responding after it piqued their interest.

While some of her students started by connecting with an artwork, then figuring out how to recreate it, others began with a piece of clothing or a hairstyle they knew they could pull off, then researched art to find something that fit.

“One of my girls wanted to wear her prom dress,” Delello said. “She purposely searched for a piece of work with a woman in a black, spaghetti-strap dress.”

While browsing famous paintings online, junior Isabella Damberger-Sheldon found a portrait by the painter Wayne Thiebaud of his wife, Betty Jean Thiebaud, that looked very much like Damberger-Sheldon herself. To recreate it, there was one catch: she’d have to make “fake bangs” like Betty Jean wore in the 1960s-era painting.

“A lot of people have been using quarantine as the perfect time to try out new hairstyles,” she said. “So I used the assignment as an excuse to prank my friends into believing that I had actually gotten bangs. Let’s just say some of them were really shocked.”

After the older students took the challenge, Fisher wanted her group of mostly 14-year-old students to have the opportunity to meet the challenge as well.

“There are some very funny pet photos,” she said. “One girl did ‘American Gothic’ with her guinea pigs, and she made tiny, little wire glasses.”

Santa Rosa High sophomore Darius Prince was drawn to a portrait of “Frederic Bazille at his Easel,” painted by Renoir in 1867, because of its simplicity. But Prince said the goal of using only objects at hand was still daunting.

“ It was easy to feel held back by not being able to go out and find exact props or items to use,” Prince said. “On the other hand, I will say the creative challenge was refreshing.”

Although artistic schools from Impressionists to Surrealists are represented in the series of works, certain artists and works appear to resonate more than others with the students.

“‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ (by Vermeer) was repeated a couple of times, and I also noticed that Frida Kahlo was a big trend,” Delello said. “We do a history unit on her in Level 1, so there’s always been a draw to her and her life.”

A few of the recreations, such as one student’s version of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” featuring Jesus as a mask-wearing doctor surrounded by mask-wearing disciples, reference the historic moment the students are living through.

Although students’ moods have seesawed this spring, many are trying hard to stay positive about the quarantine, Delello said. Some reported being less stressed, but almost all of them miss being with their peers.

The teachers posted images of the students’ recreated masterpieces together so all the students could see what their classmates had done and feel more connected.

In its April story, the New York Times noted that the “Quarantine Recreations” are reminiscent of an ongoing series of photographs by artist Nina Katchadourian, “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” which she took in airplane bathrooms with her cell phone starting in 2010.

But the idea of staging static reenactments can be traced back to the 1700s, when artists began creating tableau vivant - French for “living picture” - with models, costumes and props depicting an artistic work or historical event.

If you look at what the students at the school have experienced over the past few years, it’s surprising no student decided to recreate Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s iconic “The Scream.”

“In 2017, we had the fires, and we ended 2018-2019 with that awful lockdown, with the guy with the BB gun,” Fisher said. “This school year, we had the scare with the Ridgway (high school) shooting and another lockdown. Then we had the fires in Healdsburg.

“The resilience of these kids is so amazing, when you think of what they’ve been through.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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