If you had been in the classroom with me last week, where I sat spotlighted by a harsh, bright bulb, you might have heard some version of the following sentences uttered by my friend Adam, who was leading the small workshop of six artists involved in the project of painting my portrait:
"I brought in Dave because he is so angular."
"You can use the point where his jawline meets his earlobe to find the plane where his nostril should go."
"Don't think of 'glasses' or 'hat' or 'nose.' Just think of his face as a giant jig-saw puzzle of shape and color."
"It may help to think of his eyeglass lenses as mini abstract-expressionist paintings."
The students, most of whom were high-school art instructors, stared at my brightly-lit visage and nodded at Adam's words or dabbed brushes onto their palettes and sighed heavily because maybe they weren't getting it, or maybe they were, but they couldn't turn it out on the canvas.
"I'm not sure what I'm doing here," said one of the students, which made me a little self-conscious, like I was culpable in some way. Something about my face, perhaps. (The guilt complex in me is strong.) I wanted to say, "I'm sorry! Look, don't worry: it's not you, it's me. I've got uneven ears. They've been that way ever since I fell against a fireplace when I was two. Listen to me: it's not your fault."
I'm used to being the one capturing my image. I'm used to finessing it and loading it onto a screen and tweaking it and making it become the image I want it to be. I'm used to my own objectification of myself through various digital-imaging means. But this business of being painted by others is entirely different. The level of objectification, much more strange and intense.
And look, the truth is: I kind of liked it. I liked being closely observed. I liked being intensely examined. I liked people talking about my nostrils and Adam's apple. In some ways, I think I always want to be the object in somebody else's painting. I find it self-affirming. Either this, or I am an attention whore. Take your pick. I mean, I've always known I have an exhibitionist bent, but it's only matched by my annoyance at being sized up by strangers in public. So it's weird to me that I feel this way about the thing.
We took breaks every 20 minutes during the two-hour session so I could move around and stretch. During these periods, I could have gone and looked at the paintings, but I was afraid my reaction would psyche out the artists. I don't like it when people look over my shoulder while I'm writing, so I figured they might feel the same way about painting. So for the entire two hours, I remained on my side of the room, looking only at the back of the six individual canvases and wondering who the guy was on the other side.
When I finally walked around and viewed the end products, I was surprised not only by how good they were, but also how remarkably different and unique each one was. That's one thing you get in painting that you don't get in photography. With photographs, you might capture different "moods." You might show personality through placement of lens and lighting and motion, but if six different photographers took six photographs of the same thing at the same time from six slightly different stations, they would essentially be the same object. Not so with the painted portraits. Each one was an entirely different person with his own personality and backstory.
And I'm going to introduce you to those people now:
The Disciplined Dog Walker
In high school, girls used to call this guy up all the time to talk about their goddamned boyfriends, which caused him to turn completely grey by the age of eighteen. They all signed his yearbook and said he was "Sweet." He was supremely disciplined. His brown Delta 88 Oldsmobile got him to 5 am (and 5 pm) swim practice on time. He ate dinner promptly at 7:45 so he could start his homework no later than 9 PM and be in bed by eleven. Today, he owns his own dog-walking and dog-boarding business and he makes sure all the dogs that stay with him maintain a proper schedule: Breakfast is at 7 am. Dinner at 7 pm. Walks at 11 am and 3pm. Ball game at noon. Even though he is now 39, he still looks eighteen and he gets carded whenever he "lets loose" and orders his weekly Amaretto Sour at his "local" on Friday nights. Being carded doesn't really make him mad or annoyed so much as confused because, what the fuck, people? Do you not see the grey in my goatee?
The Sketchy American (Wannabe French) Photographer
This dude hangs out in the Jardin du Luxembourg and asks women in a heavy American accent je prends tu photo?? He rolls his own cigarettes and he always exhales smoke through his nostrils. Either that, or he talks through an exhale so that you never actually see the smoke come out. He has an earthy smell to him that might be musky and alluring (and maybe even a little sexy) if it weren't completely disgusting. He's got a collection of fountain pens and old film cameras back in his flat that he would like to show you.
The Coffee-Shop Coder and Cookie Taster
This guy hangs out in a coffee shop all day and pretends to build Web sites, but really he just talks to the baristas and gets them to give him free scones and muffins. He also has a crush on a bored, rich housewife named Carmella who comes in every morning at 9:30 after her yoga session. The most he has ever said to her is, "I like your iPhone case." By the time 3:30 rolls around he is so jacked-up on sugar and caffeine, he starts working on his erotic Sci-Fi novel that takes place in a coffee shop in 2105. The main character is a misunderstood programmer and his business partner, Carmellina, who has a proclivity for lesbian porn, six-inch heels, and low, v-cut sweaters.
The Angry Alcoholic
This dude got roughly "escorted" out of an Irish bar two weeks ago when he told a bouncer to "fuck off." Instead of being ashamed for losing his temper, he's proud that it took a total of three of those bastards to get him to the parking lot. He still wishes he had busted the one guy's nose with the back of his head. He is a security contractor for a Federal government agency who can't fire him because they are afraid of what he knows and that they will be sued. Once, on a dreary Sunday afternoon, he passed out into a glass of Jameson and broke a tooth. He spit the tooth fragment into the sink and chopped it up in the disposal. Then he read Bukowski poems to his dog in his underwear.
The Protective Family Man
This guy saw Rocky eight times in the theater and now owns the box set on VHS, DVD, and he hopes he has managed to get a copy in the iCloud. He is married with three daughters. His two eldest will kill him with the boys they bring home. The punks. He always puts a bat by the door when they come in the house. About ten years ago, on Fourth of July, the neighbor's kid kept racing his vintage Trans Am up and down the street and so he got his shotgun and stood in the road and, as that car barreled down on him he lifted the gun's barrel at the windshield and the car screeched to a stop and the kid inside yelled out the window, "Dude, what the fuck man? Are you crazy?" And the guy said, "My kids play on this street, motherfucker. Slow the fuck down."
The Crunchy Pot Smoker
This guy hasn't worn a pair of underwear since 2005. He usually listens to Lawn Boy in the early morning and Billy Breathes in the afternoon. He washes his wool socks in the sink each evening and dries them on the radiator overnight. He works in an REI and on his days off he and his buddy Scott get high and repel off the roof of Scott's parent's three-story house. He once spilled bong water on his couch, which was the same night he found a kitten in his backyard and named it Stoney, so he thinks it might have been a good omen.
Originally published on David's blog October 30th, 2013.
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