BIDDEFORD, Maine — This was bound to happen. An art show inspired by Instagram. The call for entrees came with a hashtag: #SELFtheshow.

This spring, downtown art space Engine in Biddeford invited the public to participate in their latest exhibition by sending or tagging cell phone snapshots known as selfies. Is this a gratuitous attempt to stoke our narcissistic flames even higher?

“This is a psychic investigation of self,” said curator Donna McNeil, who knew she needed to include the modern means of portraiture to capture the spirit of the age for the show SELF/selfie.

Opening Friday, May 30, and running through July 19, the exhibit features self portraits of artists from Maine and New England in the gallery, and a grid of 200 smartphone selfies in the front window. An interactive Tumblr page at acts as a virtual portal to the show.

How do classic artists express themselves? A videographer, lumberjack, soccer mom, or tattooed teenager handy with an iPhone? What do they have in common?

“It’s about intent,” said McNeil, former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, “the need to be seen and understood more fully.”

Every day, 350 million selfies are posted in cyberspace, McNeil discovered. Whether a selfie lends insight into a person’s soul or is a well-crafted digital mask is up for debate.

But instead of treating the pop phenom as ephemera, “we looked at a selfie as a serious endeavor, not ‘yeah look at me at a party,’” said McNeil, who believes the reflection of self, whether a constellation of pixels or paint, is worthy of investigation.

“Artists willingness to look at themselves in this way, letting an audience see how they see themselves is really, really potent,” said McNeil.

In her research, she discovered, “there are artists all over the country and the world that are using selfies as a jumping off point.” She views these occurrences as “taking a modern concept and turning it into an ancient form of expression.”

“There are folks out there taking selfies the same way an artist would attempt a self portraiture.”

The featured artists’ work encompass needlepoint self portraits by Julie K. Gray, a recent Maine College of Art graduate from Saco, to a 15 minute day-in-the-life video from midcoast multimedia artist Jonathan Laurence to a classic oil painting by esteemed Maine painter and Bates College lecturer Joseph Nicoletti peering at himself through a looking glass.

Amid photographers, printmakers and sculptors in the show, nationally recognized public artist Aaron Stephan of Portland turned a classical art history book of Rodin and “cut it into one by one inch squares” to create a collage/montage of his face, said McNeil.

Inviting the cellphone adept into the fold made sense for the arts organization known for pushing boundaries.

“Part of our mission here at Engine is to engage the public,” said Edwige Charlot, Engine program director. “We wanted to open a dialogue about self portraiture and selfies.”

That dialogue includes selfies by a local architect, farmers, a chef and even a closeup of a cat.

“We are looking across the spectrum, is the selfie a self portrait, or is it is it not?”

The opening reception for SELF/selfie will be held 5-8 p.m. Friday, May 30. There will be a discussion July 10 called “From self portrait to selfie. Need to be seen.” Engine is located at 265 Main St., Biddeford. For information, visit

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.