Jessica Shen


I first heard about the Senior Reflection in sophomore year from an upperclassman friend who worked in the same research lab. She was in the midst of writing her honors thesis in Biology, and back then I had thought that when I was a senior I, too, would be writing an honors thesis simply because it seemed like something pre-medical seniors ought to do. Thus, when she brought up the possibility of alternative capstone projects, I was intrigued. Later, when I realized that the Senior Reflection was actually a self-designed creative project at the intersection of biology and the arts, I knew that this was what I wanted to do.

Growing up, spent my free time doodling on loose papers and later in the margins of school notebooks. All the while, music began making increasing demands on my time, as I started playing piano when I was five and the violin at seven (later switching to viola at ten). Drawing had always been a natural friend, the one more easily neglected, while my relationship with music was hard-won, and even as my free time dwindled over the years I was reluctant to let either of them go.

By the time I started college, it felt as if I was always on the brink of running out of time. As much as I had wanted to keep both art and music in my life, they were quickly fading in face of a heavy course load and other extracurricular commitments. I had played a few gigs with my viola in my freshman year and in the Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra in my junior year, but it wasn’t until I was studying abroad in Kyoto, Japan, during the spring quarter of my junior year that I realized that I had not drawn as much as a single doodle for almost three years. Fortunately, at the time I was also taking a course on the concept of Ma in the Japanese arts, a word that translates into “space” or “time,” and I decided to draw a short manga for the course’s final project.

I spent a number of weeks wondering and daydreaming about what kind of manga I would draw and what kind of story I wanted to tell. I toyed with potential fantastical and outlandish storylines, but in the end I decided to draw a simple story of myself and my mishaps and adventures while in Kyoto. Keeping in mind the idea of Ma and the subsequent importance of the use of space and conveyance of time, I dedicated many hours to the reflection upon my previous weeks in Japan. As I drew each page of my comic, my mind gradually began to turn to the time beyond my arrival in Japan, to the previous quarters of my junior year, to my sophomore year, to my first freshman days, and to all the other years that had come and gone before. I wanted to draw about those times as well, I realized. I wanted to tell more of my story than the ten utopian weeks spent on the classrooms, temples, riverbanks, and mountains of Kyoto.

When I returned to campus to begin my first quarter of senior year, I was determined to follow through with the Senior Reflection, but I didn’t yet have a solid idea of what I wanted my project to be about. I thought back to those days in Kyoto when I was brainstorming for the topic of my comic, and I decided to likewise take the time to ponder what it was that mattered most to me and what it was that I wanted to say. Although the Senior Reflection is indeed meant to serve as a means to reflect upon one’s college years, I was drawn to even earlier back in time. Ever since Kyoto, I have been even more aware of the passage of time and of how so much of my experiences have been shaped by the people around me, and with this acknowledgement I decided to treat my Senior Reflection as the opportunity to examine how time has influenced the relationship between my family and myself.

Technically, my project has undergone many drastic changes, from scale to style, but one thing I knew from the beginning was that I wanted to have one piece illustrating my family portrait and other depicting my own self portrait. Originally, I had planned to have a greater number of pieces, with additional portraiture of other family members, but over the months my project simplified into two large-scale portraits of my family and of myself. Perhaps if the Senior Reflection spanned two years or if I otherwise had more time, I would have continued to include additional portraits to my project, but I am very much satisfied at the two pieces that I did end up creating.

Family was the very first piece that I drafted and the last one to be finished. Even at the start, I knew which family photo to base the piece on, and I had a decent understanding of what it was I wished to convey with the piece. However, the technical aspects did not come together easily at all, and I struggled to decide upon composition, materials, and execution. Although I wished to have a layering aspect, the multi-layered tracing paper from my initial approach proved less effective than I had hoped, and the bare bones of the piece laid out in my room for weeks on end, untouched but never leaving my thoughts for long. It was difficult, seeing the piece curled on the floor every day without any idea of how I might fix or build it up, but even on the most frustrating days I could not regret embarking on this journey.

As winter quarter whittled by, I was struck by a sudden image of what would become Self, and I dedicated the week of spring break to its creation. Before I began, however, on the day after I took my last final of winter quarter, I went back to my high school to visit my art teacher. I had attended the same school from elementary to high school, and Ms. A had been my art teacher when I was in 2nd grade. I do not remember much from my art classes back then, but when I first stepped into her classroom during my freshman year of high school, she somehow remembered me. Ms. A had been teaching a variety of art classes for various grade levels, and with all her students over the many years she still somehow remembered me even when I could not return the favor. This, at least, I will always remember.

In addition to 2nd grade art and the introductory course in visual arts in freshman year, she would later be my teacher in both a summer painting course and in AP Studio Art during my senior year. I had never been a very prolific artist, and my experiences in the Senior Reflection reminded me greatly of my time in AP Studio Art. And so, about two weeks prior to spring break, I had, on a strange, surprising whim, decided to email Ms. A and tell her of my recent experiences in Kyoto and with the Senior Reflection, including attachments of my manga. She was happy to hear from me, and I from her, and we decided to meet after I’d finished my finals. I went, bringing along my rough sketches for Self and Family, we talked, and I left with an invitation to display my works next January in our school’s alum art exhibition. Sometimes, it seems that time does not affect much change at all, at least not on the most important of things.

The week of spring break flew by under a blitz of drawing, cutting, gluing, and redrawing, and though the long and often tedious hours began to chafe at my patience, I hunkered down and managed to finish the piece the morning before the new quarter started.

The whirlwind week had left me in a daze. I had completed almost half of my project in the space of a mere week, and I could not help but wonder why the other half remained so much more difficult in coming. The beginnings of Family looked much the same even after several months of quiet deliberation. Fortunately, my experience in drawing Self had sparked an idea regarding how I could rethink the piece and proceed.

The papercutting involved in Self inspired me to think about layering in a different way. Instead of literally stacking sheets of tracing paper to create a sense of fading, which in practice proved too subtle to my liking, I decided to layer paper cutouts of each individual in the portrait. The fading would now come from using black charcoal pencil on increasingly darker paper. Additionally, removing the background completely would force the viewer’s attention on the people in the portrait, and I liked the irregularity of the shape that resulted. Once the idea was established, the actual drawing process went relatively quickly and smoothly.

Finishing my two drawings was a relief. I had Self pressed against a wall and Family resting on a long table I had brought from home, and I felt a sense of accomplishment similar to what I had felt when I had drawing my manga in Kyoto, similar to what I had felt when I finished drawing my last piece for AP Studio Art. In a way, I felt like I had come full circle. The last time I had dedicated so much time to art was four years ago, when I was a senior in high school. It was my personal capstone project back then, much like how the Senior Reflection serves as a capstone for my four years in college.

Even though the creation part of the project had been completed, there still remained the matter of installation and of the exhibition itself. Although I was not particularly worried about the installation process, I began to think a little more about the exhibition and about what I might expect. Throughout the brainstorming and drawing process, I had talked often with my parents and sometimes with my other relatives about my project and about the fact that I wanted to draw our family. I did not, however, tell most of them what I wished to convey with my drawings, and although I knew they would be nothing less than understanding and supporting of my work there was a small part of me that stirred a little restlessly with the thought that I had drawn their faces to convey a message they did not yet know.

Perhaps this unveiling would be a key part of the experience, I thought, and my parents, both of whom knew exactly what I mean to say with my drawings, agreed.

They arrived early, my parents, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins. I skittered behind them while they looked, then slipped off to see all the other works displayed in the hall. A while later, my mom found me and said, “Your aunt Sally cried.”

“Oh.” If I had been told that one of my assembled family had cried, Sally would not have been my first guess.

A few more minutes, then Sally herself caught my arm. “I cried,” she said, sounding almost proud. “At first I saw the little drawings of you and thought, ‘Okay.’ But then I read the thing on the wall and saw the hands.”

“Oh yes, the hands.” It was true for me, too.

I was making my way back to my wall when I saw Ms. A. She had told me she would come, but I was still a bit surprised and ever so glad to see her.

We stood with our backs against the wall opposite to mine, observing my works from as far as we could stand, and she was quiet for several moments. “It’s really good,” she said. “You’ve come a long way. I can’t quite believe you haven’t drawn for a few years but then are able to pull something like this so suddenly. I’d be surprised if it were anyone else but you.”

I still don’t quite know where she gets this steadfast confidence in me and my art, but her faith is not something I take lightly.

“Thank you,” I said.

I should say it more often, I thought.

That night, I went out with my family for dinner. I carried three yellow flowers in my backpack. We tried out a new restaurant, bickered over menus, and teased each other about their orders as they came. We are lucky to be able to do this fairly often, I knew, but for too long I hadn’t felt such gratefulness.

I had initially decided to do the Senior Reflection because I wanted to carve out the time and space for me to think about my past years in college and the years before those as well. In a way, I simply wanted to draw more. In the end, my focus had shifted, almost unbeknownst to me, from myself to my family at large. I could not have known to ask for this, but I am more than satisfied with what I have learned and accomplished over this past year. Now, I am in the midst of applying for medical school, and I will be spending the next year at home with my parents and my grandmother. Between volunteering at a local hospital and helping out with Ms. A’s art classes, I will be doodling in my sketchbook, revisiting my viola and piano, and learning new cake recipes by my aunt Sally’s elbow.

To Sue McConnell, Andrew Todhunter, and Sally Kim, thank you for your continued support over this past year and your seemingly endless wisdom and patience. Thank you for creating this incredible program through which I am sure many others have also found unexpected and valuable lessons. Thank you for introducing me to the wonders of onesies and of conversations held huddled beneath tables.

To my family and friends, to Ms. A, thank you for coming to my exhibition. Thank you for listening to me ramble about my hodgepodge thoughts and looking over my rough sketches. Thank you for the mugs of tea on my table.

I would have been less without you all.