My first reaction to being invited was, of course, that it is a great honor, especially when I look at my fellow exhibitors, and also a great responsibility. And then very quickly, not panic, that’s too strong a word, but the weight of having to come up with a way to present myself that felt true to who I feel that I am, not gimmicky (I hate what I think of as “gimmick art”), and allowed me to use pastel in the way that I love, with intense color, and so that, up close, the pastel application is beautiful on its own, as if each inch of the picture is a tiny abstract painting. All-in-all, a formidable task.
The first thing to come to mind was, “Who am I?” I know, such a cliché! But what was I going to try to portray? I have changed who I am, I hope, through the decades, so I’m pretty sure there isn’t just one me to portray, that who I am changes over time. What is the core me, or is there one? Even if I figure that out, how do I portray that in an expression, a pose, a setting, and/or a prop or props?
I looked at hundreds of self-portraits, books on self-portraiture, perused a couple of books on women’s self-portraits. I even bought a little book of dogs in art ( The Book of the Dog: Dogs in Art, a lovely little book) at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Even that gave me some ideas on composition and texture.
I took notes on ideas for poses, settings, objects to include. I read and thought and pondered and read and thought and pondered some more. The only two decisions I was able to make and stick with was that I didn’t want to include other people (or my dog) in the portrait and that I was not going to be naked. (I have extreme admiration for Alice Neel and Jane Lund for painting themselves in the nude at ages at which our culture has decided that our bodies are ugly, but I just don’t have the chutzpah, plus being naked is not part of what I want to say at the moment.)
But for months (I was invited in March) no idea that I had, even those for which I took pictures in preparation for using, would stick.
I toyed with the idea of using old pictures of me, a favorite taken by my dad, of me leaping joyfully into the surf, at around four years old. Or one taken by my friend Damon when I was 16 or 17. But both photos are black and white, and, in any case, that idea wouldn’t stick either.
I’m running out of time. I don’t draw quickly. So I asked Jim to take my photograph, and he gave me the great gift of doing that for me. I realized that I just needed to put myself in front of a background I was comfortable with and just do it. I chose clothes that are what I normally wear, which, if you know me at all, had to include a scarf. I chose a scarf that I thought would be particularly fun to draw. And I chose my “studio”, a narrow sunroom whose windows are covered with vines, as the setting. I feel that there is too little that’s imaginative in the set-up, but I can’t keep dithering. And Jim’s photographic knowledge and equipment means that I got a quality image.
(I know some people think it’s cheating to use a photograph, but it gives far more flexibility in choosing a setting and establishes the light, which, of course, changes constantly over the course of a day. And it allows working at night. I think the key to not letting a photograph allow a picture to become lifeless is to not rely on the photo entirely, to use the mirror and the actual room and objects for reference while still getting the benefits that a photograph affords.)
The day after Jim took my picture, I was busy choosing one of the many photos he took and mounting the paper on a board. Then, that night, my knitting group was meeting. One benefit of the knitting session was that I was able to vent a bit about this portrait thing (sorry, fellow knitters), as well as hearing everyone’s news and recent adventures. One of the knitters brought dahlias that she’d bought at the Tuesday Market that day. She saw the flowers and her thought was to bring them to her fellow knitters. I gratefully brought the gorgeous things home and put them on the dining room table next to some old purple bottles I bought recently at Brimfield.
The following day, when I came downstairs and saw the flowers in the morning light next to the purple bottles, my immediate thought was, ‘What a gorgeous still-life.’ Then it occurred to me that I could insert part of that still-life in my portrait. And further, that I should think of the portrait as a still life. I am just another object in it. When I thought about it that way, I realized that when I look in the mirror I am often surprised by what I see, more often than not taken with the thought that I don’t look like who I feel that I am. So why am I trying so hard to portray who I am with my own image?
Now it’s time to focus on the lines and the color, the texture and the volume, to merge for hours at a time with the picture, to shed the panic and the doubt, and to forge ahead with great gratitude to Jane for inviting me and to Missy for her gift of flowers and the serendipitous realization about the self-portrait that they brought.