My Most Important Self Portrait

July 27th, 2009 | Produced by James Barany

Transom and the FLIK International Film festival put out a call for multi-media self portraits. We have our two winners: “I Hate Drake” by the comedy collective “Mortified” and James Barany’s poignant and powerful piece about his own obesity called, “My Most Important Self Portrait.” The animated images of James’s body and the sounds of his voice work together in a dark and elegant duet. We urge you to come take a look and listen. James is available to talk about his process. Jay A

About My Most Important Self Portrait

For the first time in my career, I am using my art not as a mere reflection of an idea or event, but rather, as a catalyst for change itself. During the past several years I have slowly been transitioning my studio efforts toward experimental animation and media arts. The engagement with time, motion and illusory elements were very appealing and appeared to offer more opportunities than the static large-scale paintings on which I was previously working.

Experimental time based media has stimulated my investigation into memory, metaphor and intrapersonal motifs adding a sense of life and empowerment to them. Serendipitously, my personal, physical and creative lives have recently collided in such a way that all of my focus was redirected without warning. During the past two decades I have observed my health spiraling out of control. I have battled dieting and over-eating disorders throughout my entire life, and whether due to depression, emotional stress or a general unhealthy lifestyle – my body has ballooned out of control. I have become Morbidly Obese, a term which implies I am at least one hundred pounds overweight. My greater dilemma is that I am twice the figure for what is listed as ‘healthy’ for a person my sex, age and height.

James Barany

James Barany

This sedentary problem isn’t just a personal one, it’s become an epidemic in the United States and I see my struggle as a universal reflection of the individuals who have and who still experience the same daily struggle with their health. After a series of epiphanies in August 2004, I finally re-evaluated my health. Was there any way I could stop this suicidal pattern of unhealthy behaviors? Could I employ what I do in the studio to adjust this element of my life? Animation, with all of its complex properties and grueling demands appeared to be the ‘structure’ that could potentially assist me in regaining my health. Something about the methodical process of animation prompted a personal re-examination of why I was animating. The process of animation itself appeared to be the perfect vehicle to combat my failing health with its rigid, methodical structure and the endless requirement of time, two elements with which each animator struggles.

In August of 2004 I began My Most Important Self-Portrait, while following a strict pattern of diet, exercise and hypnosis; I began what I hope translates into a life-altering affair. Each day I measure my body mass and record my progress into an animated form. Several times throughout the week I document these slight changes by shooting time-lapse photography of my body. To express my emotional status I have constructed a small set that allows me the ability to rapidly manipulate text and image as I interact with them. Hundreds upon hundreds of images are manipulated to produce a sense of motion and believability as time-lapse and animated elements mix together.

By doing this, every minute of every day become connected at some level to my intent in the studio. My art no longer serves as mere reflection, but prompts the change itself. My body and health will become the ultimate reflection of my success or failure; however, the animation will allow my audience to experience my metamorphosis both physically and emotionally. My specific intent is to hopefully continue this work, and further develop a series of short media-based works that further examine the inherent relationships found between our collective intelligence of both intrapersonal and interpersonal experiences.

Tech Notes

My Most Important Self-Portrait is a combination of both high & low technology using my favorite istopmotion software from Boinx, a low-grade mini-dv camera with a very long firewire, and lots of screevers chalk. Just take William Kentridge add some Red Grooms and sprinkle it with some Cindy Sherman- presto! A minor amount of post-production was done in After Effects to better combine and accelerate elements of time, but largely, what you see – is what you get. I’m also trained as a Baritone and perform with the Florentine Opera Company in Milwaukee, WI. So to answer any additional questions, yes, that’s me singing in the underlying score.

About James Barany

James Barany

James Barany

A devoted Father and lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Barany resides in Waukesha with his wife and three children. Barany’s creative passions balance uniquely between two distinct art forms. By day he is an Associate Professor and Chair of 2D & 4D studies at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, by night he performs with the Florentine Opera Company in Milwaukee, WI. These distinctly separate fields of the arts often stumble into one another and become unified through Barany’s studio work. James is a recipient of the Mary Nohl Fellowship and has screened and exhibited his work nationally and internationally since 1992. Most recently, Barany has won numerous awards for his experimental animations and videos. He is an active member of the American Guild of Musical Artists and Foundations Art Theory and Education.

Additional support for this work provided by
Open Studio Project

with funding from
Corporation for Public Prodcasting

12 Comments on “My Most Important Self Portrait”

  • Susan Price says:

    This is an amazing tour-de-force. A common struggle comes to life. I am, of course, mesmerized by the animation and have to look up your software, etc. But I must also say that the soundtrack – to my ears – achieves the level of sound art, itself layered and mesmerizing. So, craft + heart = wow!

    Bravo! I am your fan.

  • James Barany says:
    Grazie per il vostro complimento!!

    Thank you for your compliments and observations. It’s still a bit odd to share this as it truly was made for my own personal benefit, but I have had an overwhelming response from people who share my condition. It’s good to know that when they view this, they again have hope. I’m still somewhat new to this art form, but you might also enjoy William Kentridge or Caroline Leaf’s works as well. I have been tremendously influenced by their language within the craft of all things 4D! Thanks again for your insightful observations.

  • Zak Rosen says:

    Wow James,

    Congrats are in order. What a beautiful, whimsical journey. Thanks for making it happen.

    I love the idea of the "continuum animation" or continuum art in general. It would be nice if more works could conclude with a question (like yours), instead of an answer.

  • James Barany says:

    Zak, your comment really hit home with me. When I teach Drawing, one of the timeless questions in the studio is "When are you finished?". Resolving or completing anything that requires a certain aesthetic – requires judgement. Time again I have seen students drawings taken far beyond the moment when they should have left the hand of the artist. The need to ‘finish’ their work, often produces a handful of over-worked drawings that were once beautiful but have been forced to age too quickly. My Most Important Self Portrait differs from this thinking in a few ways. 1) Weight-loss isn’t just reaching your goal; the real work is maintaining it. I will never be finished, I will only be at a certain weight that can always be measured. Losing is easy compared to maintaining. 2) What you see in a static drawing, that is, what sits on the surface is the last decision made by the artist. In this type of animation, it is the process that is exposed, drawn-over, erased then all over again. There is no final product because it is always changing and evolving in the dimension of time. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. This is more of a Journal entry than something that should be hung in a golden frame as an object of beauty or status. But in continuum it will always be. Thanks for your insight.

  • Elizabeth Meister says:
    Beautiful and haunting

    I won’t forget this, James. Thanks for your honesty, and for this beautiful work.

  • Viki Merrick says:

    James, I was mesmerized by how you decided to use chalk as a vehicle – constantly…eraseable, do-overable and interestingly, I find there’s much hope in that, for ALL of our personal struggles. Was that a pondered choice or was it too something that surfaced in the process?

    Another question, in the beginning of this piece, I saw one or two other self-portraits that seem phantom-like but also perhaps an image of how you see your inner-self, is it memory or objective?

    An arresting piece of work – in all of it’s emotional frankness and very compelling forward motion – may you continue to succeed.

  • Sydney Lewis says:


    I’ve watched this a few times and am each time struck by how flowing its motion. It is, as previous voices have noted, mesmerizing and haunting. Did your idea of how to make this piece spring forth mostly whole, or did it change in significant ways as you made it? Thank you for your generosity of spirit.

  • James Barany says:
    The memory of chalk

    Thank you Viki. Being a Professor, the continual writing and notation on chalkboards and dry erase surfaces had been ‘eating’ at me for a while (sorry for the pun). There is something fascinating about not being able to fully erase the board, that leaves moments of the past blurred with the present. The animation allowed me to really expose that, and even the drying of the wet board became a natural part of the work. The memory of the chalk and the memory of self pops up throughout the animation, and yes, most of the additional imagery is completely based from memory – with all of it’s visceral qualities. Thank you for your insight.

  • James Barany says:
    Proactive vs. Reactive

    Sydney, the only thing I knew in advance was that I was going to use this method of stop-motion animation to document myself attempting to lose weight. All of the writing came along with the work in the similar manner that a journal entry flows from the hand into the notebook. When a ‘thought’ was completed, I would upload it to my hard drive and when I had enough of them I would begin editing them together. Singing was an after thought, and done live as I watched the silent animation move in front of me. The sound of chalk rubbing on the surface was recorded live and the other ambient moments are taken from things that I had previously worked through. This process allows me to have more of a ‘conversation’ with the work, rather than attempting to complete an already planned-out idea. It is backwards to most techniques with Time Based Media. I hope this helps.

  • James Barany says:

    Thank you Elizabeth. I find it interesting that you called it beautiful. Aesthetics and beauty are something that (being rather beastly) I am fascinated with. When I have students come into my classes with pre-determined value judgments of what beauty is. We often attempt to re-define what ‘ugly’ might mean to them before we approach beauty. What is aesthetic pleasure? Is it based on societies vision, or is it personal? My work often get’s them grossly involved in debate and arguement regarding all of these things.

  • jennifer blumsky says:

    WOW! James, thankyou for an incredible gift. I am sitting here in New zealand with a huge smile, and feelings of joy, sadnesss and gratefulness after viewing your multisensorily (my word) woven story telling. So beautifully honesty profoundly created. Yes i experienced it as gently powerful. I am a fiirst year arts degree student and am finding drawing and painting is helping me reconnect with my soul again and heal and your work gives me more insight into how to use or experience art with focus and good or healing intent, well done and thankyou

  • ZombieMolly says:

    This made me cry. So much genuine pain. It is a beautiful production. Much to be proud of. Thank you for sharing.

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