Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fifty-one Portraits

“Larry,” I ventured, “what would you think about, if someone was going to paint your portrait?”

I’d been squirreling around in my head for days trying to decide whether or not to participate in the Private Portraits/Public Conversations project commissioned by the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. Spanish painter Felix de la Concha was painting fifty-one portraits of community members who had experienced significant conflict in their lives. I worried self-consciously over such questions as: “Do I want this particular haircut immortalized?” and “What would I wear?” But Larry answered without hesitation. What would he think about if someone was going to paint his portrait? “Running a-way.”

I satisfied myself on the questions of hair and garb by finding online samples of Felix’s portraits from similar projects and conveniently misinterpreting them. They were, I thought, small horizontal canvases, giving an intimate view of the face, but not even the whole head, and certainly nothing of the clothes. Whew.

Other questions remained. Could I sit for two hours in one position? How much pain and fatigue would result? Could I lie down on breaks? Could I lie down for the portrait? How far would I have to walk to the studio? How many stairs would I have to climb? How long would it take me to recover?

Two hours attendance at a recent Hood Museum event had required approximately one week recovery time. I met Brian Kennedy, director of the Hood, there. He noticed my walking sticks; I explained my illness. He asked if I’d be willing to speak about it; I said I had a ready tongue. Hence, the invitation to have my portrait painted. Hence also my pain the following week. While we talked he stood, and I sat. The pattern repeated with other people there. Looking up is hard on my body and almost unavoidable for me at such events. The portrait project would certainly be hard too: talking for two hours, maintaining one position, sitting for long stretches—even with breaks, that’s rough for me, and last Fall I was quite low. I took the risk and said yes without answers to all my questions, consenting to tell my story on video while the artist recorded my image in paint on linen.

Larry scouted my approach, getaway, and possible rest space a week before my scheduled sitting. In those respects it looked do-able, and, except for a brief scare about the nearby door being locked at that hour, was. On the appointed day at the appointed hour we slipped into the special parking spot, hung my handicapped placard from the rearview mirror, and disembarked with much pillow-age and a massage table. As per plan, Felix was waiting at the locked door to open it from the inside.

Larry set up my massage table for my breaks in the nearby letterpress studio while Felix explained procedures. I noted on the easel a small vertical canvas, clearly sized to show full head and neck, at least. Oh well. I added cushions to the chair, climbed aloft, and took my place. Felix pressed Record on the video camera, which rested on a low tripod near the floor and, pointed up, appeared to be directed dead-on at my crotch. There was no way I could hold myself up for that long with legs together or crossed. Too bad. In the white room, under hot lights, I talked and Felix painted.

I expected to talk about my illness, but Felix started with everything else: my family, my life in Texas as a kid, high school, my year in Indonesia, what I did in college, and, finally, how my body came undone and what I’ve made of my life as a result. I felt a little odd and a little uncomfortable speaking intimately about my life to a distracted audience. He said later that this is a bit of a trick, that people know he needs the time to paint and so they talk more than they might otherwise. Probably true. Almost certainly not necessary with me.

A little disturbed, I think, at the revelation that my effort might cause me significant discomfort, Felix emphasized I could take as many breaks as I wanted, that there was no need for it to be hard on me. I would take the frequent breaks, I said, but there was no way to make it not hard on me. That’s my situation, I explained. Not hard on me would have meant posing for 15 minutes once a week until completion, at my home, preferably lying down. Even that would have had its challenges.

Larry read his book surrounded by the many alphabets in the letterpress studio and waited to chat with me on breaks. After a while he left the key with me and migrated down the hall and around the corner to Baker Library’s reading room, a long, wide space with walls painted over
75 years ago by José Clemente Orozco with a Technicolor indictment of capitalism and liberal education. When Felix saw me by myself on my last break, he talked with me for a few minutes then asked if I wanted him to fetch Larry. “No, no,” I said, “It’s alright.” He paused and looked at the air in my vicinity. “I’m going to go get Larry,” he said, and scurried off. Pretty much as lovely a man, as lovely an artist, as one could hope to sit for.

At the end of my sitting, I tried to explain my life in terms of painting. My own training as an artist—at Dartmouth in fact—was a lot about finding ways around pre-formed notions of how things look, to a fresh encounter in the moment with whatever was before you. You can see a white wall as a “white wall,” or you can study the subtle gradations of color over the surface of that wall, as light and shadow fall upon it and as it reflects nearby objects. You can see an abandoned building as something ugly, something that’s coming apart, or you can give your careful attention to the light, the texture, the space, and in the process, I think, perceive beauty that really is there. The same is true of caring for a broken body and living with illness.

Finally, Felix allowed me and Larry to look at the wet image. “It’s okay if you don’t like it,” he said, “Some people have even really bad reactions.” I knew this would be an awkward moment, and I had predetermined not to respond—to just look and feel. I expected no spontaneous love for the painting. If I was an urban street-corner, I’m sure I would have gushed for my representation; Felix is known particularly for his paintings of buildings. Or if I had posed for a longer study. In my online artistic background check I had seen a painting by Felix of a woman lying on a bed in sunlight and thought, “I want something like that.” But I didn’t so much like the quick portrait specimens I’d seen online. I’m familiar enough with looking at art, though, to be at least a bit wary of liking and not liking as my only guide. So I expected to let a full response develop over time.

What I didn’t expect was not to recognize my face in the image. It didn’t look like me. I told my mother later, “I don’t think you would recognize me.” “Of course I would,” she said, adding with emphasis, “I’m your mother.” But when she saw the painting she agreed.

Something else surprised me. The face looked so tired. You would think I, of all people, would not be surprised by this. I can look very tired, I can look wicked wiped. But more commonly these days there’s disjoint between my outside and my inside. Perhaps it was the harsh lights or the influence of my words on the artist. The painting didn’t look like I look—but it did look like I feel. “That’s amazing,” my friend Alan said. “But I still think it should look like you too,” said friend Kathleen after seeing it herself.

I’m not saying I see my whole internal experience living with chronic illness made visible in this painting—not at all. But is there something? Yes. Enough to startle me. And that, I think, is as much as one could hope for from a two-hour sitting.

Félix de la Concha, Priscilla Gilman, 2008, oil on linen. Collection of artist. On view through September 27, 2009, at the Hood Museum of Art.

De la Concha's effort to capture a truthful portrait results in a multidimensional representation of his encounter with his sitters--each one is intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally charged. Each portrait session lasted two hours, during which time the artist interviewed the sitter, and video- and audio-taped the entire experience. The artist added the aspect of video recording for the Hood project as a means of reconstructing, in real time, what transpired in each two-hour session. Thus, “portrait” here comprises painted representation, spoken narrative, and the visual recording of the interaction between artist and subject.

—Hood Museum website

In April, 2009, the evening before the exhibition opens to the public, the museum hosts a viewing of the show for sitters and their guests as well as a conversation between Brian Kennedy, director of the museum, and Felix de la Concha. My guests are Larry, my mom, and Kathleen. As Brian and Felix converse, we watch a projection on the large screen above their heads of Felix studying himself in a mirror and making his own image in paint on canvas. It is shocking. We laugh and gasp. He paints over what looks quite good. He lays bright red on the lips like a clown. The image morphs and moves, colors startle and recede as the video shifts to fast-forward and then faster-forward, until he finally settles on a portrait which looks like him and not like him.

Felix says it is a risk of videotaping the painting process that it might look like a circus trick, like he’s showing off: look what I can do in two hours! But, he said, he hoped it would reveal more the vulnerability of the process, the fragility of it, the search for the image.

The sitters assemble two floors up for a group photo while their guests pop hors d’oeuvres. Then we reconvene to finally see the show. The paintings. The text. The video.

(Click on images to view enlarged)

The video of Felix painting his self-portrait gives a sense of fragile exploration. His process with the other sitters, however, appears less exploratory, perhaps because we see only small fragments of time. And as we watch the shorter clips in the exhibition, I find we are preoccupied with judging the paintings against the originals. What is he getting wrong? Many of the faces look elongated. Not surprising, really. We were talking the whole time. By encouraging comparison, the video may function, for some viewers, more like an ill-informed tour guide than like a ringmaster presenting marvelous feats. Paintings, like children, usually need to grow up and have their own, mysterious lives, separate not only from their makers, but even more from their subjects.

Even so, I like seeing the videos, hearing the voices. One of my fellow sitters scratches the nearly bald top of his head, another tugs on his ear, some look around quite a bit or punctuate their sentences with arms and hands. One looks down more than up. My features appear to have been screwed on a tad crooked that morning, and my speaking is unnatural. I am an animated talker if I’m not immobilized by pain or fatigue, but I was working hard to put my story in words without gesture.

The video image is an artifact of the situation at least as much as it is a medium of revelation. Those two fretting lines between my eyebrows, though, they are 100% authentic. And thankfully, my crotch is nowhere to be seen.

I had hoped the show would give me a kind of contact with the other sitters that I crave, a slipping past the boundaries and separations to the stories inside. As we leave the gallery that opening evening, I think perhaps my own preoccupation with the images of me and with my circle of companions has prevented me from feeling more of the other sitters' lives. Or maybe it is the sensory overload of the whole scene for this little recluse. I come back twice over several months, however, and the feeling persists.

Most of the transcribed quotes from the sitters which appear next to their portraits are only a few sentences, and some give little sense of what conflict the person has faced. Short video clips loop on one screen; on another, whole two-hour sessions play (following a posted schedule) and visitors can take up earphones and sample at random. For Felix and the museum staff members who experienced all or many of the interviews, it must have been an intense, sometimes tedious, sometimes remarkable experience to hear the sitters tell of their lives. What viewers of the exhibit get is something much smaller.

But small can be beautiful. This show becomes much lovelier, I think, if you approach it not as a collection of complete portraits—as the museum's website might lead you to expect—but as impressions from brief encounters.

Jeff Hinman, whose image is next to mine on the wall, was quoted as saying:

There’s something that alcoholics do when they’re active and drinking. We break things. We break cars, we break blood vessels. We break relationships. We break hearts.

I said,

Living with illness is . . . this sort of violent encounter with all one’s deepest ideas about what life is . . . what your value is as a person. . . . [The idea of ] a life worth living has to expand to include what’s really painful and difficult.

Autumn Evans said,

A lot of people say that life is what you make it, but it’s not. Life is what is thrown at you and how you deal with it.

Amen, sister.

So the show didn’t do for me what I had hoped it would. Maybe it should have. But I keep finding in my life that the intimacy I seek is something that can’t be done for me. It’s something I have to choose in endless small ways.

Small ways. That’s the other thing I keep learning. I mentioned small already, didn’t I? Small is big with me. Life, I think, is a lot more like a steady stream of haiku poems and Saturday Night Live skits than it is like an epic tale that wraps it all in one package.

From this show I will remember particularly the paintings which seemed to catch the sitter in a moment of intimate expression. Even if I can’t hear what they’re saying, can’t know their stories as I would like to, Felix did illumine their faces with a soft and disarmingly beautiful light. I sat in that room, and I know that light didn’t come from the electric lamps.

After looking, listening, reading, discussing—and, in my case, posing for the group picture—we are all hungry and tired and I am getting desperate to lie down. We chat in the elevator, waiting for arrival and opening doors, till we realize we aren’t going anywhere. “Why do we always have to be going somewhere?” Larry protests with mock agitation. “Can’t we just be here—in the elevator?” We laugh, and I push “G” again—I am sure I pushed it before. The elevator slips us down two floors—not to true ground level, but to where the exit door waits at the top of a climb. There is a stairless route, but it is, I think, too long for me to walk and too complicated to coordinate with a borrowed museum wheelchair.

So . . . I . . . climb . . . slow . . . and . . . tired. Then I wait with Kathleen while Larry runs for an umbrella from the car and my mom dashes home ahead of us. My college roommate, whose imagination was well saturated by the monsoons of Mumbai, used to say in her soft Indian lilt, “It doesn’t rain here—it just pees.” Tonight, though, it rains. Water falls from the sky, hard and loud on the metal-roofed portico.

I am happy. I love the people here tonight and the rain, being out for an evening, and thinking about art again. I love my mom laughing at Larry’s jokes. That is grace in my ears. And Larry taking pictures and looking so proud of me because my words are enlarged on the gallery wall. I love Kathleen, reserved and thoughtful amidst the social buzz. In supporting my daily survival she has been second only to Larry, with me through the hardest times. All our hours on the phone—some years nearly every day, some days more than once. On her visits to Vermont we’ve never been out to an event like this, because I never could.

In the car Larry reports on the reception I missed: world-class munchies, served in the first-floor gallery before stone reliefs of Assyrian kings. The kings, like him, Larry proclaims, surely approved of the spread.

At my mom’s house I lay on her bed and listen to the rain and the noise of dinner preparation in the kitchen. I hear short, careful footsteps in the doorway.

“Are you in here?” my mother’s mother calls.

“Yes,” I reply, “I’m here, Nana.”

“I thought I’d come find you,” she says, as she crosses to the bed.

She is 92, only recently moved here with my mother. After many years of brief and very occasional visits, I see her almost every week. In any given moment she may or may not believe she can play tennis and ride a bike, that the eggs she eats come from my mom’s non-existent chickens, and that I might have gone to school with her brother who drowned as a child. She was never funny before, but she is now. Always gets jokes, always makes them. I try to sit close when I visit, partly to overcome any squeamishness I might feel about her age, her smells. Even more, when we are close we don’t need to talk about subjects—we can touch and play. If a bit of my bare midriff shows when I lean forward, she grabs it and says, “What’s that?”

I tell her about the portrait project and the event at the museum. “That’s very interesting,” she says, cocking her head, and pressing her eyebrows together. As I describe the film of Felix painting himself, I watch her face, framed by short, straight white hair, and wonder what her portrait might look like. I will miss her when she’s gone.

At dinner my mom compliments me on how nice the sweater she gave me looks. Kathleen eyes me up and down and “mm-hmms” affirmatively.

Larry appraises me across the circular table. “It’s amazing,” he says, smiling, “how you can always dress up a potato.”

And after a brief pause, Nana almost loses her dinner laughing.


  1. I think it's a wonderful portrait. You know, the photographs of you that I've seen are so lively and verging on girlish (not to mention gorgeous), that I'm almost -- what? -- relieved? -- to see this older, more thoughtful, more pained and grieved face -- this is the Priscilla I read and respond to. There's a pronounced assymetry in the portrait which is not true-to-life, trivially, but which shows your range of being in a really haunting, convincing way.

  2. Priscilla, when I read your writings I cry - and I am not sure why. The simple beauty in your words paint a picture that remains with me long after I shut down the computer for the night. I love your blog - but you should write a book! You are intelligent, beautiful and....peaceful. That's what it is - your words bring me peace. Keep writing and posting pictures of the buzz cut - YOU ROCK! Tiffany

  3. Thanks Tiffany. You've given me a much needed boost— I've been feeling creatively low the last few days. I'm not sure what has come over me, but I look at the writing I'm working on and feel hopeless and even kinda hate my own work. Oh dear. I think it will pass if I just get back to a little writing and a little drawing every day. I am working on writing for print...we'll see.


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