Mind-blowing portraits made of test tubes and pushpins

Story highlights

  • Michael Mapes reconstructed some of the most famous Dutch Masters' portraits from 17th century.
  • The New York-based artist used test tubes, pushpins strewn, or locks of hair to create the highly elaborate sculptural portraits.
  • Mapes countered the Dutch Masters' puritanical rigidity by including photographs of bare legs and bits of cleavage filling out skin tones.
It's fun to imagine what Michael Mapes' studio must look like: You would assume that the New York-based artist's workspace has to resemble the lab of a harebrained entomologist, with test tubes, specimen bags and pushpins strewn about.
In reality, of course, to create the startlingly elaborate sculptural portraits Mapes is known for, he has to be much more organized than that. "It does take a fairly high degree of organization," assures me. "But that's not the hardest part."
Take a glance through Mapes' work, and you'll understand what he means. Technically, Mapes is a portraitist, though he rarely uses paint. Instead, the artist recreates the human visage by arranging fragments of a person's life—photographs, locks of hair, handwriting samples, jewelry—into highly detailed works of art.
Mapes has been making these pieces for years, generally working with subjects intimately close to him. But in his newest project, he's decided to deconstruct (then reconstruct) some of the Dutch Masters' most famous 17th century portraits, rendering classics like Bartholomeus van der Helst's painting of Geertruida den Dubbelde into startling franken-portraits.
Each of Mapes' pieces are constructed from what he describes as "biographical DNA," the little pieces of physical information he pieces together to create a finished portrait. Typically, this is a fairly simple process with Mapes gathering his photos, bits of hair, and handwriting samples from his living subject's home and then organizing them into a portrait using test tubes, little baggies or pushpins. With the Dutch Masters series, he had to be a bit more resourceful.
Mapes begins each portrait by downloading copyright-free images from various museums' websites. From there, he crops each image, zeroing in on certain features like an eyeball, fingertip or face before printing out dozens of each. "I'm occasionally remind