This is me in the room where we read, where the kids do their homework, and where we put up the Christmas tree. This is the room where I phoned my dad a year or so before he died: we were both catheterized, me following an operation for postpartum incontinence and him because the cancer that eventually killed him had taken over his lower body. We had a laugh about the improbability of us both having tubes coming out of our bladder at the same time, me at forty-two, him at seventy-three. This is the room where we entertain guests, where we watch birds in the tree right outside the window, and where we listen to the radio. It’s the most lived-in room in the house; facing south, it is the only room that floods with light during the day. This is the room where only last week a man climbed through an unlocked window while we were sleeping and helped himself to my computer, an Xbox, games, and two ipods, which makes me wonder if there are any creative thieves out there, ones who might have preferred my husband’s old cameras, my cookbooks, or our truncated, travel-weary garden gnome. No. Technology. Always technology. How predictably boring.
This is me: pint-sized, a pointy chin, thin lips, blue eyes, and a hair-mop made up of three different colors. I’m wearing a sweater I knitted, my sloppy slippers lined with sheep’s wool, and black toenail polish (which makes me look a bit more hard ass than I am). The artist (more about her later) painted two portraits of me. In one I am featured more prominently, the room figures less. I prefer the composition of this one: I am in the center, I anchor the painting, but at the same time I’m a bit dwarfed by it all, the room isn’t mine as much as I am a part of it, which is the way a home, a real home, fits around its dwellers; it not only encases them but slowly penetrates them, imposing itself in between their fingers and toes, fusing the space between them and their things (I’m recalling how my daughter cried when she saw a decrepit, old bathroom cabinet we had replaced out in the alley; it was as if we had pulled out some of her teeth to give away to the shamanic junk collectors who make their rounds in the alleys of our neighborhood). I also love the scale of the painting: the leaves of the plant are bigger than my head, the dictionary takes up a big space on the rug – just the kind of metaphorical space it embodies in our house where we play Scrabble, Boggle, and are challenged by new words. What is pralltriller? Look it up! Finally, the wall is a tricolor reverie in the hands of the painter: reflections of the chair, my sweater, and my eyes cast vibrant shadows onto the wall that is, in reality, a monotonous grey.
I picked this painting up today from Emily Rapport’s house. Emily Rapport is a Chicago-based artist with hot pink hair and a shy, friendly smile. Emily has a distinctive style, rooted in the gritty working class Chicago of Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren. Her colors and composition style remind me of Edward Hopper, though the series she did in the Chicago Northside bar Delilah’s harkens back to the sordid tenderness Lautrec painted with in the bars and cabarats of Montmartre. I called Emily in February to commission this portrait. I wanted to enter the painting process from the back screen door (certainly not through an unlocked window!), experience what others had felt under the gaze of an artist, and engage in a dialogue with a painter about their side of the experience; the working side of painting.
So, what was it like? First of all, there is the strangeness, the awkwardness, of looking at the painter. Unlike normal social exchanges where looking at someone means recognition and communication (of a sort), the painter looks at you but does not return your gaze. The gaze is the detached gaze of the scientist, analyzing the face like a staph culture, deciding which details to focus on and which to pass over. For the painter, the mouth is no more sacred than a slipper or the leg of a chair. Indeed, spending too much time on a face out of a desire for photographic precision can lead the artist to over-paint, a problematic temptation Emily Rapport describes on her blog: “Faces can always be difficult. We tend to pay too much attention to the details in an effort to get the recognizable person ‘right’ and lose the impression of the whole face.”
Secondly, there is the unexpected physicality of painting. I had envisioned the sitting as a hushed ceremony with the sable brushes gliding silently on the canvas. Wrong. Tools scrape, instruments rasp, and tubes squelch. To paint is to work; the technical side is as much about a gardener raking soil and gravel as it is about the fine artist (an image inherited from the Romantics) dabbing the canvas with color in a transe-like state of genuis. One wonders if Courbet, while painting The Stonebreakers (destroyed during the bombing of Dresden), didn’t see himself in the men breaking stones into so many different sizes, combing the ground with dusty fingernails, and dropping their work into an iron pail, marked by countless mishaps and travails.
Indeed, the tactility of paint, the imprint of the artist, and the gesture of work involved in the process are all key elements that distinguish the photo of a person from the painted portrait. Unlike a mechanical reproduction where the image is captured by light hitting a chemically treated surface or by a sensor that digitalizes light waves, the painted image is set down on the surface through the painting act of a person, an act that includes her movements, concentration, hope, frustration, and will. That each brushstroke is a deliberate choice of the painter as opposed to a reflection of light or the arrangement of pixels; that these brushstrokes coalesce to give an image, is nothing short of a miracle; the everyday miracle of creation.*
Now, there is the problem of where to hang my portrait. Certainly not in the reading room where it was painted: settling into the very chair where I was painted with the portrait looming above would be a bit like the nightmarish funhouse scene in The Lady from Shanghai. I suggested putting it in the room where we watch t.v., but my son was creeped out by the image of my unblinking stare forever looking out onto the spectacle (as if I don’t already give him enough shit for watching t.v.). It might just end up in the narrow, dark red corridor leading into my bedroom, in between the framed posters of other women: Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat and Young Girl with a Flute, as well as the painting Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters (which aforementioned son, then only four, made me buy in the Louvre, so delighted was he by a painting in a museum where one woman tweeks another one’s nipple). It might not end up in a veritable room for the time being, but at least I’ll be in good company.
*The word “miracle” has the caché of a Hallmark card today. Writers concerned with aesthetics (among them Elaine Scarry in her book On Beauty and Being Just) have pointed to our post-modern discomfort with talking about or even using the word “beauty”; the word “miracle” has, in my mind, succumbed to the same problematic. A writer can’t use the word “miracle” without conjuring up images of puppies (“the miracle of birth”).
And yet. If one hasn’t stood in front of a painting long enough to be baffled (and entranced) by a brush stroke that can yield a likeness and at the same time something fuller than a likeness (because not mechanical), then one hasn’t spent enough time in front of a single painting. The last time this happened to me was in front of Fantin Latour’s painting Still Life: Corner of a Table while looking at the sugar bowl.
So, I do mean “miracle” when I say it; that is how I regard the fuller-than-a-likeness phenomenon that painting yields for those with the time and intention to look.