Jennifer Ann Soriano’s ‘Cast the First Stone’

Cast the First Stone by Jennifer Ann Soriano, Charcoal drawing with gold leaf accent, 30 x 24

This year I had the honor of serving as a juror for the drawing and pastels class at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Each year, the Exhibition proves an amazing showcase of amateur and professional artists representing the diversity and talent of Minnesota artists. This post is to highlight the artist who I awarded a first place ribbon: Jennifer Ann Soriano and her charcoal drawing Cast the First Stone.

It was the guarded courage on the face of the woman in the water that first struck me. The stones and dove suggested conflict and choice, the river reflected rebirth or a second chance, and the timeless gold border that suggests iconography. My curiosity regarding the events led this young woman to being hip deep in the water were piqued by Jennifer’s skill at portraiture and composition. I asked Jennifer about the work:

I started Cast the First Stone a while back but felt it was missing something. The young lady who modeled for the drawing was a friend of my daughter’s. I had always been impressed by her courage and willingness to stand up for other people. I had the privilege to teach both her and my daughter art. When all the rioting occurred in the wake of George Floyd, it brought up issues of racism that occur on a daily basis in the lives of many of my students. My students were very open in discussing their own experiences. One of the things they often asked was how people treat other people with such anger and hate, such disregard for their humanity. I think at times what was hardest for them was to hear the denial of racism and its impact on their lives from their fellow students. It caused me to take a 2nd look at this drawing.

Many of my students come from a traditional Christian background and one of the insights brought by those who had experienced the sting of racism and prejudice in their lives was the contradiction it presented in the lives of those around them that professed to love and value their fellow man. The quickness to judge others without examining their own lives and the fear and prejudice lurking below the surface. So I began to use symbols to represent the contradictions the young woman and others had perceived. In the drawing, she breaks the frame, crossing the border, I wanted her to directly engage the viewer and present them with a choice.

Breaking frame was important, she was inviting the viewer into making a deliberate choice to cross a barrier and grasp for something that unites people instead of dividing them, our common shared humanity. The feathers and the dove present the opportunity for peace and healing while in her other hand the stones retreat from the viewer but remain present in the scene, as a lingering choice many have taken. The use of water as a symbol often signifies cleansing and renewal but water can also drown us.  When we are separate, we are drowning in our own fears and misconceptions. There is pull and tension throughout the piece, where you are not sure if the viewer has taken what is offered or not and I wanted that strain to be there in the sense that this is an ongoing choice to be made and we have make it deliberately.

I was so proud of my students, their bravery, their sense of justice for people and the need for people to extend kindness to one another and take a risk on each other. Their desire for a different life was powerful. 

Since the murder of George Floyd, I have begun to dip my toes into some uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege. Jennifer’s mention of our own fears and misconceptions resonates as I look at the young woman’s fierce bravery to reach across a divide in the hope of peace and healing. For me, this portrait celebrates those that make the uneasy choice to speak even when it may feel unsafe to do so, to those who choose kindness in the face of uncertainty, and move the conversation closer to a world of social justice.

If you attend the Fair this year, stop by the Fine Arts building at the corner of Randall and Cosgrove, otherwise take a look at the online catalog. Learn more about Jennifer Ann Soriano at sorianofinearts on Instagram.

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