At Window Studio, I am often asked to paint portraits of family members. Sons, in particular, want portraits of their mothers. But one day last winter, a woman came in and asked if I would paint a portrait of her son. She showed me the photo in her phone that she wanted me to use – a teenager in a Polo vest and watch cap striking a street-wise pose. I explained that I would be happy to paint the portrait from the photo, but that it usually came out better if I met the person, even if briefly, to see him/her in life. But as I was speaking, I got the feeling that would not be possible. She told me he a had died two years ago at the age of 18 while playing basketball. He apparently had an undiagnosed heart condition. By eerie coincidence, her son, who I will call Daquan, was born on November 26, the same date as my oldest son's birthday, though Daquan was 6 years younger.
I set to work on the portrait, which was the first full length portrait I have done. Perhaps because of the importance of getting it right, I spent a lot of my time working on everything else but Daquan's face. The sneakers, the vest, the the pattern in the rug... And whenever I worked on the face, I felt it wasn't right, and went back to painting the sneakers, the vest, the rug!
Daquan's mother had asked for the portrait to be done in time for her birthday in mid April, and I began to feel that I would never get it right. I would text her pictures of the portrait in progress, and she was always very patient. "It is coming along, but I don't see Daquan yet."
Finally she suggested that she come in to the studio to work with me on the face. She and her daughter came one evening, and together we adjusted it: the eyes slightly rounder, the brow not so heavy, he was dark but not that dark, he had a slight dimple in his chin...until she suddenly said, "Stop, that's it, now I see Daquan!"
The funny thing is that when she came back to pick it up a week later with her friend, the friend said, "It looks like Daquan, but you know, it really looks more like you!" Which is true.
June was a busy month at Window Studio! I took a break from the commissions to get started on another larger collaborative portrait, using window reflections from a local cafe with Grayson James, a gentlemen who is living in the shelter across the street, as the main figure. But as the painting was getting underway, I received a commission from Tayshon, who wanted a portrait for his birthday. He paid his deposit right on the spot and emailed me the selfie he wanted me to use. It was such a colorful and dynamic shot that it was a pleasure to work from, and since he wanted the rougher, sketchy style, I was able to get it done in time to show off at the Fulton Art-on-the-Fence Fair before he picked it up. (Stay tuned for more on Mr. James’ collaborative portrait in a separate post!)
The work of Carrie Mae Weems (born 1953), a highly honored contemporary African American artist, is widely praised for its examination of “race, gender and class.” This latter formulation, associated with the rise of identity politics, is virtually embedded in the DNA of so much contemporary art, especially that which is considered, or considers itself, “political” or “radical.” But the focus is really on race and gender, while class is relegated to a negligible position in the triad.
After the belated arrival of spring, Window Studio has seen an influx of new students. Mia and her son Mo, who live two doors down on the block, started coming last week. For their first project, we did self-portraits with a focus on the difference between a naturalistic vs. stylized approach. We opted for stylized!
It was most interesting the way that Mo, like many kids at the age of 6-8 years old, are absolutely confident and fearless in their drawing. They seem to have full command of their own personal visual vocabulary. While they might look at something that they are drawing briefly to note key features, they rarely get bogged down in the complexities of what they are looking at. I love for instance the lines Mo used under the eyes to show eye sockets, and his missing tooth. He also repeatedly drew lines in sets of 3 (the ears, the eyelashes) and the spikes of his hair are marvelous!
But then something seems to happen around age 10-12 (early puberty?) and that assurance disappears, for most people never to return. So when Mo’s mom Mia drew her stylized self-portrait, it seemed much less spontaneous, though I think she enjoyed making her eyes look like hypnotic spirals and her mouth like a red Cupid’s bow.
The same difference emerged again last week when Hanora brought her cousin TieTie, also age 8, to class. She (and Jeremy) have crossed over into that miserable stage of intense dissatisfaction where everything is “no good, sucks, don’t look right!” and ends up with a lot of crumpled up paper in the recycling bin! All they want to draw is anime or super heroes, and while copying these can be a way to learn how to draw figures, and some kids like Sam are genuinely gifted at this style of drawing, the rest of us find it frustrating and unsatisfactory. And while I let them do it, I don’t know if tracing really counts as a way to learn drawing!
All of this was emphasized by TieTie’s joining us last week. He plunged in, painting his self portrait (at top) and then drawing vases of all kinds of flowers with such ease you felt like he could draw the whole world!
For the past several months I have been working on commissions at Window Studio. My first was of the Michael family back in the fall. Then for Christmas, Carla commissioned a portrait of herself with her three sons – who happen to be the same ages as my sons – from a graduation photograph. Carla has a daycare center in her home around the corner, and I’d gotten to know her from last summer when she would bring the kids by on their way to and from the park. Many people in the neighborhood know Carla, including the kids who come to Window Studio for workshops, so they were excited to watch the progression of the portrait. I finished it just in time on Christmas Eve!
Next, Victor asked me to do a portrait of his brother and his (i.e. his brother’s) wife. I was struck by the chemistry between this couple in the small photograph that Victor left with me. I tried to paint them as a single whole, rather than two individual faces. While I was working on it Hassan, a tall gentleman from the shelter across the street came in on several occasions to watch me at work. He particularly liked the interconnectedness of the faces. Hassan was raised Muslim in one of the Bed-Stuy congregations though he says that he is not always as devout as he should be, his relationship with his wife is sometimes difficult, and he has no use for the pompousness and self-righteousness of some of the preachers. He was interested that I had lived in Jerusalem, the “Holy Land” to Christians, Jews and Muslims. We agreed that religion was more often used to divide the working class, just as race was, which is why I said I was now an atheist. He said he could understand that.
Then Mr. James, who back in the fall had commissioned a portrait of his wife on their wedding day, commissioned a second painting of his wife’s granddaughter on her graduation from college. It was almost done in time for New Years.
Next, I set to work on the more challenging portrait of Sonny and his three sons, ages 13, 12 and 6, when he stopped in with the boys after their visit to the barbershop. It has taken me a very long time, partly because the photos where taken on Sonny’s phone. (But I’ve enjoyed that in the picture the boys all have really short hair!) I have had to redo it several times though and the kids keep teasing me: “Aren’t you finished with that one yet!”
Eventually I had to put Sonny’s portrait aside for a bit to work on the portrait for Saul. He came in one of the many cold Sunday’s we had last winter to commission a portrait of the Rebbe of Bubov from a magazine of a large Hassidic wedding. I just completed it last week and Saul came to pick it up yesterday. Now back to Sonny and his sons! (You can see them in the background behind Saul.)
To start the new year right, I would like to share the drawings of Tremaine, who just turned 17 years old before Christmas. (The one above is called The Liberation of Dreaming.) His friend’s mother is friends with Will – there are lots of connections in the neighborhood, between aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. She had stopped in to see the portrait of Will called Plenty. (Apparently she had been the one to do his dreads.) She also told me about her son’s friend Tremaine who she said was particularly talented at both drawing and dance. She thought he would really want to do artwork at Window Studio. He came in later that same day on his way home from school. Soft-spoken yet intense, Tremaine took out his school binder which was bulging with loose-leaf sheets of drawings. He said he didn’t have much use for school, that they didn’t learn anything, but he did seem to have a teacher that had encouraged his drawing.
“There are a lot of messages in my drawings,” he said.
He explained the one he’d called “Woandering”, which is a combination of “wondering” and “wandering”.
“This is me on the road of my life since I was born in 1996. My eyes are blindfolded because I don’t know where I am going, and the hole is where my heart is dark and empty. The suitcase is the baggage that I carry around to all the different homes I’ve been in. The little faces are the people laughing at me, knives stab me in the back, and hands reach out to grab me. In my head is weed and money, but also friends and family and that I’m sorry. The tattoo on my arm says I’m only human.”
In 2014, Tremaine intends to learn how to paint a picture like Plenty. That is our shared New Year’s resolution.
The workshops at Window Studio have become an increasingly vibrant part of the project. Most of the kids who come are middle school age. While some, at least initially, are accompanied by a parent or another relative, several of them come completely on their own. A few, like Denari and his brother, live in one of the neighborhood shelters and haven’t come for awhile. Jerome who lives with his grandmother, frequently stops in on his way passed to check on my progress on various paintings. (“What, you’re still working on THAT one!”) It is quite amazing to me that a twelve year old should seize the opportunity to make art in this way. Full of curiosity about everything from the paint on my palette to who the people in the portraits are, they are particularly gratified when it proves to be someone they recognize from the neighborhood. (“Hey, that’s Ms. Carla with the little kids day care!”)
In addition to the discovery of seeing the people of the neighborhood transformed into paintings, the kids who come to the workshops find aspects of their own interests in a new context. For instance, they’ve been fascinated to discover that the action figures that the boys in particular love to draw from anime and graphic novels can be found in the drawings of the Renaissance masters like Raphael and daVinci. That the battles of superheroes and man have been the subject of art for hundreds, if not thousands of years is an exciting concept. Equally so is the realization that artists have figured out how to draw the human figure in these positions – flying, leaping, wrestling – partly from imagination, but also extrapolated from observation
So when Sam and Sirus, who continue to be regulars, recently brought a friend, Dejani, we decided to do a session of “action drawing”. It was a new take on one of the most traditional techniques of life-drawing class. They took turns with one of them posing while the others had 2 minutes to do quick sketches. Part of the fun was setting the stopwatches on their phones/watches, and then the “model” adopting as extreme a position as it was possible to hold for the 2 minutes without falling over. The model usually included instructions – “Make it look like flames are shooting from my fingers!” or “Make me lifting up a car!” — which the artists dutifully included!
We also looked for ways to capture the essence of the pose with a few directional lines rather than focusing immediately on details like the brand on a sweatshirt or style of sneakers. The pressure of the clock ticking added excitement. Sirus, who is six, is able to confidently draw his figure holding up a car, or emitting a force field with an economy of gesture. On the other hand, Dejani, who was new to art class, surprised himself by capturing the complex relationship of two overlapping figures by drawing exactly what he saw, and not so much what he thought he saw.
After the drawing sessions, we discuss what we like in each drawing. Surprising associations come up. In the case of Jeremy and Hanora’s portraits (top), we were all struck by the expressiveness of Hanora’s round mouth (“I look loud!”) or the way the soft smudgy middle portrait looked like a sleepy kid yawning in class. But we were all most interested by the intensity and texture of Jeremy’s first (lefthand) portrait. He said the person looked like a Muslim, or I said, someone wearing a hood, “like Trayvon Martin” he added. But it also looks like the way that sometimes the figure of death is represented in art, I explained. “Well that makes sense then,” Jeremy concluded.
The latest installment of Los Angeles-based artist Sandow Birk’s ongoing project American Qur’an at P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York City adds twelve suras (chapters) to what, when finished, will be a complete English transcription of the Muslim sacred text illustrated with scenes of contemporary American life.
American Qur’an by Sandow Birk at P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York City, September 7-October 12, 2013