411 Portraits

Phillip Sossou won his way into an AP art class at his high school by his reputation. He didn’t have a portfolio and hadn’t completed any of the other prerequisites, but his references were glowing. So Stephen Harris, the instructor, let him enroll, with a few caveats. He had extra work to make up for his missing prereqs.

His very first project in Harris’s class was a charcoal self-portrait. It was a new medium to him, but he took to it like a duck to water. That first portrait led to more, and then straight to his idea for a grand project – he would sketch every one of his classmates in the senior year at Boston Latin School.

All 411 of them.

He got a list of students from the office (public information), and got started. But after months of steady progress, he arrived at February and realized two things.

First, he’d not been making enough progress. To finish by graduation, he’d have to do several portraits a day.

Second, he really didn’t want to leave a single student out.

Sketching became his full time job. He would stay hours late at school and then keep working into the evening at home, fingertips and the sides of his hands always black with charcoal. He worked from memory, from Facebook pictures, and from his own photos taken discretely in the school hallways. Discretely, because he had a plan for this massive and growing body of work.

On June 3rd, the last Friday before graduation, a day when parents would be on campus, Sussou got permission to be in the school very early. With just a few of his closest friends, he hung the corridors with his collection. The walls were covered.

“Parents were crying. Students were crying,” he recalled. “Since I was working on it for so long, I became desensitized. But yeah, I guess it was pretty cool.”

“Cool” is an understatement. Sussou’s gift made certain that every single one of his fellows felt seen, felt that they had been known to be a part of the Boston Latin Community. It will be talked about in those halls for decades.

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