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Self Portraits: Contributor Series

Recently contributor Leslie Belloso was invited to give the commencement speech at Crisfield High School in Maryland. Her speech below contains more than just advice for high school seniors, it is a moving description of her life so far and the lessons she has learned living it. We create our destinies through the choices we make or as Leslie would say, “you are the painter of your self portrait.”

“You are the painter of your self portrait.”


Self Portrait by author Leslie Bellos0

Commencement Speech 2016:

How did I get here, with all of you, tonight? I was born on the other side of the planet, in the Philippines, but my parents chose Crisfield.

Here’s my story: When we were ready to settle down in America, as you can imagine, after living in the tropics my mom’s hometown in northern Michigan was way too cold, so we couldn’t move there. But we couldn’t go too far south because she wanted all four seasons. My father who is a surgeon wanted someplace safe and small. Most importantly, Dad loves his seafood, so when he heard the crab cakes here are the best in the world and met the friendly people he said “That’s it! We’re moving to Crisfield!” That’s how we came to Crisfield in 1983. My brother and I who are half Asian comprised the 3% Asian population of Woodson Middle school. Do the math—it’s kind of funny. This town has been very good to my family and I had a really nice childhood here. Crisfield is a big part of who I am.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what would be most useful to hear as a graduating senior. I think it is this: to remind you that you have the power of choice. With this choice you are the creator of your story; or in painting terms, you are the painter of your self-portrait

Let me explain: after high school I went to college, then medical school for 4 years, then medical residency for 3 years. For several months I spent every three or four nights in the hospital, training for the profession of medicine. In my 20’s, I created this self portrait—me as a doctor. However, underneath I knew there was a different painting, and eventually I made a choice to change my self portrait—I decided to back to art school

As you can imagine people offer me their opinions on this choice all the time! I hear:

“You mean you’ve spent all those years and money to become a doctor and you’re not going to practice medicine? I wouldn’t quit that day job!”

But I didn’t let that stop me from pursuing my deep and consuming interest in art. I keep painting my new portrait and the advice keeps coming. Now I hear comments about my paintings, many from friends and family:


Here are some examples:

  • “That’s great!”
  • “You’re so talented”
  • “That looks just like a photograph!”
  • “You are amazing for someone who hasn’t had any training!”
  • “Wow! I really love that frame!”
  • “I really like it better when you paint flowers.”
  • “I was wondering if you’d fix that area of the painting.”

Here’s some other things addressed to me:

  • “We regret to inform you that you have not been chosen for our masters of fine arts program…”  and…
  • “Among the many paintings submitted for our competition yours was not selected…”

You can see, it’s up to me how to react to these comments. This is where the power of choice comes in: I can give these comments power over me and go back to my day job
or I can say “Thank you for the advice, noted” and decide my next move. This is where I give you my second piece of advice: Do not take things personally (I will return to this point.)

People often talk about going out and finding yourself. Forget finding yourself—you’re right here! Who are you, now, today? What does your self portrait look like? Are you wild and colorful like a Van Gogh? Are you mixed up like a Picasso? Do you have a unibrow like Frida Kahlo? But seriously I guarantee that if I ask “Who are you?” Images start popping up in your head. Where do these come from? They’re just sketches! But we believe they’re the finished portrait. That’s kind of a big deal: we believe these are the final work, but your canvas is so much bigger. And is it possible to ever really know who you are? So, what do we do now? What if these sketches are wrong?

Here’s another example, think about Facebook photos, does any one photo encompass who you are? Your friends, family, Facebook friends, strangers, they all have ideas about who you are too. Some of the ideas might be right but some them are definitely wrong.

Ok, so the good news is: some of these sketches are accurate but some of them are way off. Believe me, I’ve painted many self portraits and none of them are set in stone.
When I’m in a painting class, I have to go to the critique. That’s when all of the fellow painters give me feedback on my paintings. Their questions and comments reveal how others perceive my work. Their observations and constructive criticism are incredibly valuable because they serve as a much needed reality check. We are of the world, we need to find our way within this world.

Here’s the secret, and if you can practice this, it will help you and if you believe it, it will save you a lot of pain. This is your choice: you can choose not to take any of it personally. This is not easy. Know that the criticisms you hear have just as much to do with the self portrait of the person who’s criticizing you. Because these people have their own self images in their heads, that cause them to see you a certain way. It’s just their version of you. So listen and decide what’s helpful. You don’t have to agree with them but you have to listen. Listening does not mean agreeing, but it does lead to understanding. Is this comment coming from someone with knowledge and wisdom? Are they trying to help?

Create yourself as you want to be. What’s your version of you? When you look in the mirror, what do you want in your portrait, in the frame? You are painting an original. It won’t look like anyone else. It will be imperfect, but that’s so much more real, more authentic and more interesting than perfect (by the way, perfect doesn’t exist.)

As you live your life, your self portrait will change. You will keep painting, deciding which colors and shapes to use; you may try several styles. You must choose what is worth keeping and what should be left behind. Remember it will be an original—it will be you.

FullSizeRender-2Because I lived in Crisfield, I had time to be a kid. I grew up among good and friendly people in a town with incredible natural beauty, quiet and solitude. The intimacy of a small town fosters a closeness and a mixing that is lost in bigger cities and schools. Here in Crisfield High School my science teacher Alma Hackett helped me get to the National Youth Science Camp, an incredible summer camp where there are two student representatives from every state. But also thanks to my art teacher Debbie Dietsch, I was introduced to the world of Van Gogh and John Singer Sargent. She gave me oil paints and encouraged me. I had time to really enjoy painting. I had the opportunity here in Crisfield to explore science and art; they are both part of my self portrait. I am an internal medicine physician and am pursuing my Master of Fine Arts. By the way, I met my husband at that science camp, and he and my family have believed in me as my self portrait has changed.

As you leave high school, my job tonight is to give you something to carry with you. Remember these two pieces of advice. These two ideas help me tremendously, and I use them all the time. I hope they will help you too.

#1 Don’t take things personally
#2 You are the creator of your image, the painter of your self portrait

We are born at a specific time and in a specific place, to specific parents and into a culture. We cannot choose where we start our lives, but we can choose how to create our lives, —how to paint our self portrait. Don’t go find yourselves—go create yourselves Class of 2016! Congratulations!

Read more about contributor Leslie Belloso on our contributors page


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