January 28, 2006

Dressing for Success

I try to keep my sitters moving and talking, to make them forget they are being painted. This has nothing to do with extracting intimate secrets or confessions, but rather with establishing, in motion, an essential image of the kind that remains in memory or recurs in dreams. I could not do this if my sitter had to keep still… A person is not a still-life – not even a dead person.

Oskar Kokoschka

What to wear. In the pitch black of the early morning I lay here thinking, “What should I wear today?”

On weekdays my first conscious thoughts are usually about my dress. I sit up in bed, push my feet over the edge and sit there contemplating my wardrobe. It’s not that I am a fashionista. My office uniform is, well, fairly uniform: shirt, optional sweater or sweater vest, and jeans. I just like to get this part of my decision-making day over with quickly.

But today’s Saturday. I should be I lounging in that dawn between dreamful triumphs and early morning routines, not ruminating about my outfit. Slowly I focus. That’s it. I’m having my portrait painted today.

My co-worker Julie Heath is painter. Like many artists who work at our museum, she has found a way to earn a living in close proximity to the world she loves. But Julie has also discovered how to connect her art practice directly to her work. In addition to her normal duties as an education specialist, she’s been painting portraits of our staff (on her own time of course). And today it’s my turn.

Julie paints my portrait

These portraits reveal much more than I see when casually passing my co-workers in the hall.

As a group these portraits are striking. Organizational bureaucracy mandates a certain thick exterior. Too much information revealed during any committee meeting may adversely affect the project. Better leave those inner feelings submerged. Better not reveal too much. So it was a bit of a shock to see this other side.

We made a date for my sitting. Three to three and a half hours. She sent me directions to her studio with only one stipulation: don’t wear black. “I hate to paint black.”

Everyone in my family has had their portrait painted. My wife’s and her two sisters’ paintings hang over our fireplace, studies done in the early 60s by Aunt Martha. When our children were young Martha requested photographs of each and shortly thereafter we received two more paintings to add to our collection. But, alas, my representation was missing. We thought of sending her one of my childhood photographs to complete the series but, somehow, that never happened. Today my time had finally come.

I considered my clothing choices carefully, not only for their color and pattern but for how they made me feel. I wanted to put myself in the right frame of mind. My cashmere sweater vest, definitely. Every time I wear it my posture self-corrects, I smile at strangers, and complete timely projects right on time. It’s not only how soft it feels, but its pistachio hue (that’s what it says on the label) is somehow comforting. An excellent choice I thought as I got out of bed and made my way to the bathroom.

I arrived on time for my sitting, not really knowing what to expect. Would I have to hold a pose? Not at all. Every so often she asked me to look up, but I just sat there, moving at will. It was as casual and comfortable as I felt in my special portrait clothes. We chatted about art, work, and the other sitters who had graced her portrait chair. Julie, I bet you’ve heard a lot from co-worker bees. But cubicle gossip wasn’t necessary. There was more than enough to talk about. She painted while I told a few stories (and she thought she had a captive audience).

Julie paints my portrait

I could only see the portrait take shape from behind.

The time went quickly. And all of a sudden she declared my image finished. She asked her husband to come in and take a final look. I didn’t want to see it while she was working (even though she encouraged me to do so). No temptations to be art critic as well as art sitter, I only allowed myself a peek at the canvas from the back as I sat there. I knew the extent of my influence.

When I looked at “myself” for the first time, I was immediately struck by my eyes. They looked so sad. Was this me? Did she see something I had tried to hide? Julie admitted it might be her. All her portraits contained that patina of angst. I wasn’t quite the person I had been earlier that morning, when I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror.

But I couldn’t deny it was definitely me in that picture. She had caught an essence that was inarguable. My family would recognize it no doubt. I hoped. But what would they say about those eyes? With the painting in my trunk, I drove it home. Like Extreme Makeover I was about to “reveal” the new me. Would my family be pleased with my makeover?

When I walked in the door the house was empty. I placed the portrait face down on the bed and waited for everyone to return.

It’s more than just a portrait of me. Ego aside, it’s an interesting image (I will gladly sacrifice my vanity for the primacy of the artwork). Like my fellow sitters something different was disclosed. It didn’t matter whether it’s genesis was mine, Julie’s, or a combination.

Years from now someone will discover this picture hidden behind a pile of flea market junk. He’ll bargain with its owner and be thrilled to get it for a good price (ok, he will pay a bit more than he had wanted to but it was worth it). He knows exactly where he’ll hang it.

Before walking away he will ask whether the seller knows this man. But she won’t have a clue. In fact, she won’t even remember where she got the painting. She knows nothing of its past.

He wakes up on a cold and dark morning. My portrait stares at him from its new home above his bureau. He lays there in bed, somewhere between the past and the present. And as he struggles to jumpstart his daily routine he wonders: who was this guy? And what about those eyes.

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What a great painting! It’s the spitting image of your likeness, and yes it captures you perfectly.

Posted by: Randall Packer on January 28, 2006 8:43 AM

I love the painting. It definitely captures you. Somehow you look ageless. You could be in your 30’s, 40’s 50’s or 60’s.

Posted by: Judy Gelles on January 28, 2006 10:59 AM

I can hear your voice! It is you!

Posted by: me on January 28, 2006 12:15 PM

She saw the eyes of an old soul — wisdom revealed!

Posted by: Nina on January 28, 2006 12:50 PM

Jeff, I’m glad you wore your pistachio sweater; its color was delightful to mix.

Posted by: Julie on January 30, 2006 2:01 PM

Comments are now closed for this post. But there are a few other entries which might provoke an opinion or two.

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