- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) - It took Rebekah Bynum most of her life to find comfort in her quirks. Now, she hopes her work can help Southern girls learn that lesson much more quickly.

“Why did it take me until I was 40 to figure out that I just needed to be good at who I am and what I’m good at?” asks Bynum, a Huntsville mother of two who has spent her career as a portrait artist. “I don’t need to take over the whole world, I just need to find my place in it.”

Bynum retired from portrait painting this year, but she’ll bring that skill to the Southern Girls Project. It’s a collaboration between AL.com, NOLA.com and others across the South to listen to and tell the stories of Southern girls. Bynum will capture the spirit of some of these girls through a series of portraits.

“I don’t really like to portray perfection; I like to portray what would make you smile about somebody. I think there are so many girls right now who are probably trying to conform into whatever they perceive they need to be,” says Bynum, who has watched her 13-year-old niece grapple with that. “I’m like, no, just be your nutty old self. Let people like you or not like you. Just be you. So I think (these paintings are) one way to do that.”

Bynum also hopes the project will help her build on current professional goals.

“My husband was like, ‘Dude, do something. Measure your success by something other than money,’” she says. In 20 years of painting portraits, her income was steady. Now, Bynum spends her days trying to develop as an artist and take steps toward showing her work in art galleries. Her Southern Girls Project paintings may be shown in such a setting. But first, Bynum must get to work.

Once the participating girls are selected, Bynum will meet them and observe how they interact with their mothers, fathers or friends. That will inform her work.

Bynum, who specializes in painting children, works from a photograph. She examines the captured moment and identifies what appeals to her about it, and then translates that on the canvas.

When she worked on commissioned paintings, Bynum would develop a thumbnail sketch to show her clients the color and composition she planned for the final portrait. Once those were approved, she would begin work on the full-size painting. An in-person meeting with the subject would allow Bynum to touch up the work and ensure it was true to life. The Southern Girls Project paintings will convey each girl’s individuality.

“I love catching the quirky side of somebody - the silliness, what makes you unique but also makes you relatable to other people,” Bynum says.

In the end, Bynum hopes she’ll be able to use her artwork to help Southern girls accept themselves as they are - quirks and all.

Girls between the ages of 3 and 18 can take the first step toward getting involved by sending an email to [email protected]

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