Thursday, May 9, 2013

Make Art, Meet Strangers

Here’s a story that demonstrates the power of social media to create community: I met Jeff Greenspan via Twitter after I retweeted Michelle DelCarlo (@popupmuseum) when she wrote “Creating communal rather than 'in tandem' experiences - Selfless Portraits” I’d been keeping an eye on Selfless Portraits already, a non-profit undertaking which describes itself as “a collaborative art project aiming to bridge the gap between technology and humanity by encouraging small, creative gestures between strangers across the globe.” I think it holds many lessons for museums, as an intriguing example of a) fostering interactions between strangers (something museums often struggle to achieve) b) encouraging people to make art and c) harnessing the best aspects of the digital realm to the world of physical objects. Jeff, it turns out, is chief creative officer at Buzzfeed, and he has a long history of spawning cool projects. I invited Jeff to tell museumers more about Selfless Portraits, and how he envisions it might intersect with our work.

On February 12th, my creative partner Ivan Cash and I emailed about 150 friends asking them to participate in an online project we were launching. It was called Selfless Portraits, and the premise was simple: draw a randomly assigned stranger’s Facebook profile picture and submit your own to be drawn by another stranger somewhere in the world.

Two and a half months later, over 27,000 people have submitted a drawing of a complete stranger’s Facebook profile picture to These creative interpretations can all be seen alongside the original profile pics that inspired them by visiting the Gallery section of the site.

Submissions range from simple stick figures to highly thoughtful interpretations in a multitude of mediums. Visitors can also search the Gallery by country of drawer/drawee. For example, one could find drawings those from Brazil have done of people from France. People can also become Facebook friends with those they've drawn or have been drawn by, and we're excited people are actually forming connections this way.

Even though Facebook connects people all across the world, there's something a little impersonal about having to do so from behind a screen. This project encourages people to look closely at another human being, ponder their face, then go away from their computer and use analog tools and creativity to recreate their likeness. To us, this feels like a unique mix of high tech and human touch.

To build this project, we relied upon the guidance of our Producer, Luis Peña, and the talents of our development team at Rally Interactive. These collaborators haven’t just built Selfless Portraits, but in essence have adopted it, putting in many hours out of a sheer passion for the project. What makes it so worthwhile for our whole team is seeing participants tweet and make Facebook comments about how they felt making art. So many people shared how they didn’t think could draw, weren’t creative or weren’t artistic. However, once they drew someone they were able to appreciate their creations and be less self critical. Many claimed they’ve been inspired to keep on drawing. Others felt this was the perfect excuse to pick up a crayon or paint brush after resigning these tools to in the backs of closets and tail ends of childhoods. While we don’t feel people need an excuse to create, we’re happy to have provided one.

This project has helped us connect with members of the museum and arts communities. We’ve discussed how Selfless Portraits could be used to help museum attendees gain a better appreciation for not only portraiture, but also the creative process in general. One suggestion we’ve heard was to have some of the side­by­sides from the Gallery at be projected onto the walls of a museum. These projections would be accompanied by “stations” (laptops with SelflessPortraits loaded up) and art supplies. An expert on portraiture could then be guide the group through the process, helping participants focus their observations of their subjects and their process. Or, an event like a SelflessPortraits Draw­a­Thon could be a way to bring tech­centric teenagers into a deeper relationship with their local museum.

So far, people from over 115 countries have delved into SelflessPortraits and emerged with a creation shared in the site's Gallery. We hope it inspires many more people to discover their own talents as they bridge the gap between the virtual and the real. Should any museum or space devoted to the arts want to explore a collaboration with SelflessPortraits, please email the project at

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