A Mother’s Day Portrait

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 Birthday Portrait

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!)

Work in progress at Window Studio in June 2014

Work in progress at Window Studio in June 2014


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!

Victor's brother and his wife

Victor’s brother and his wife

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.

Mr. James with his portrait

Mr. James with portrait

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!”


Rebbe of Bubov commissioned by Saul

Rebbe of Bubov commissioned by Saul

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.)

Resolution for 2014

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.

Oil sketches

In order to paint portraits of those visitors to Window Studio who want to be part of the project, but might not be able to afford a painting, or have the time to come back to pose, I have started just taking photographs while we are talking, which I then develop in oil sketches, completed in one or two sessions, max. The first of these was of Julien, a young man who had washed the windows for me once, and who told me that he was also an artist and a musician.

Julien drawing at Window StudioAnother day he came back and spent some time drawing. He said he mostly drew cartooning, not much from observation, though his high school art teacher had encouraged him, and clearly he was capable. We looked at some of Leonardo DaVinci’s drawings and talked about how drawing could be a way of analyzing the world, that Leonardo was interested in figuring out human proportions, the structure of the human body, and so forth. Julien said that he was thinking of studying to be a medical technician, that his father in particular thought this would be a good idea, “Because people are always going to get sick, and need to be taken care of.”

I told him that my son was studying to be an EMT for the same reason, that he wanted to be able help people in an emergency, and that there would be jobs.

“So that would be a good thing,” Julien agreed brightly at first. Then he appeared to think about it more. “But you know, it could smell bad, all that blood and stuff, people be nasty…”

“If you weren’t a medical technician, what would you like to do?”

“Be a singer! I’m already a singer, R&B…” He sang a bit, but his voice was hoarse. He cleared his throat and apologized, “I’ve been sick.”


Halloween at Window Studio

Lots of trick-or-treaters stopped by at Window Studio on Halloween. We had to go out and get more candy at the Family Dollar, and even then ran out, much to the disappointment of late-comers. Since most of the kids who have been coming to the Thursday workshop wanted to be out in their costumes, the classes were quieter than usual. But Jerome spent some time helping carve a pumpkin.

Jerome draws a face to carve on the pumpkin.

Jerome draws a face to carve on the pumpkin.

Ever since he first stopped in on his way home to his grandmother’s on his scooter, Jerome has been one of Window Studio’s most faithful visitors. Sometime he stays to do artwork, sometimes not, though he is always interested in what I am working on. He was especially pleased that I had finally painted the portrait of him that I’d promised, based on a photo I’d taken one day when he and his friend Taneri came over. He had wanted to look scary, like one of the super hero/super villains that all the boys love to draw.

Now Taneri and his older brother Javon often come with Jerome to the workshop. They are always ready to do “splatter” paintings with bright acrylic paints on canvases that I then use for oil sketch portraits. (Jerome’s portrait is painted on the canvas that he had prepared in this way.) Splatter paintings have been a way to discover shapes that then suggest forms in far more interesting ways than one could have arrived at intentionally. Sort of like watching clouds to see all sorts of forms that come to mind, it has also been fun to compare the different things that each of us sees. One of the boys saw a woman’s torso, while another saw the same shapes as suggesting an old man’s face, and a third saw mountains and trees. We all argued and laughed over which it really was!



Something different

Recently in between painting portraits of other people at Window Studio, I painted this “Self portrait with Lion.” In it, the glass security barrier at the Portland Zoo reflects zoo visitors as we contemplate a lion, or lioness actually, in the brilliant sunshine. At the time, I felt a yearning for, yet separation from the lion’s beauty and latent power. The puzzle-like quality of the image communicates something of the ambiguity of my own—and modern, technological, camera-bearing humanity’s—relationship to the natural world, which is of course not entirely natural, since this is still the zoo after all! Nevertheless, though it is captive, the lion is still a magnificent, regal beast and awakened a sense of latent aspiration for freedom that is pent up in me as well. It also reminded me of William Blake’s famous poem:

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And What shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

—The Tyger (1794) From Songs of Experience by William Blake, (1757–1827)

Fellow Artists

(In memory of Bill Traylor, and all the other self-taught artists who might only consider themselves “painters.”)

It was always part of the plan to have other artists involved in Window Studio, but this has worked out in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I had thought it would be a matter of putting out an open call on artist networks both in the neighborhood and more broadly, and I may still do this. But actually the involvement of other artists has come about much more organically. As with everything so far at Window Studio, it has involved other artists stopping by.

At least ten other artists have come in, if not more. In some cases they have shared their artwork in sketchbooks or on their mobiles, and I am hoping to be able to post it at some point. But in the meantime, this is the story of one fellow artist, Jimmy, though he would say he was only a painter.

Jimmy was going by a few weeks ago, rolling an industrial sanding machine along the sidewalk when he noticed me working, parked his machine, and came in. He had a craggy face with a lively, slightly wall-eyed glance. He told me that he was 72 years old and loved to paint.”But you’re a real artist,” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “I just paint landscapes, not people the way you do.”

“Some painters only paint landscapes,” I said. “Or that is what they really do best.  Do you go outside to paint?”

“Oh no, I just paint what’s in my head,” he laughed. “People seem to like my paintings though. One woman even bought a bunch of them, for $40 each! Can you believe that!”

He told me he’d been painting ever since he had retired, though he still worked picking up and delivering industrial machines all over the neighborhood.

“I’d like to see your paintings sometime. No one sees the world inside your head unless you paint it. I couldn’t paint those pictures, only you can.”

“But I just paint. You’re a real artist!” He insisted on this so firmly it was as though he wouldn’t let it be denied, even by me. “The pictures look so real, like the people are going to come right out of them.” He pointed at the portrait of Will. “It’s just like life. Exactly like life,” he exclaimed, but then kept looking at the picture.

“…But it is more than life…It’s not just the person in the painting, it is also you – the artist – because you made it.”

“And it is also you, because you are looking at it,” I added.

“That’s why it’s art,” he said.


Family Portrait

Last week I started my first official (paid!) commission at Window Studio. It is for Mr. Michael who works at the shelter across the street. A few weeks ago, he brought in a small family photograph taken at a Christmas celebration and asked if I could do a painting of it. I said I would give it a try.

It has been a new experience working from this kind of photograph. I have never met the people in it, except for Mr. Michael himself, so I found myself trying to feel out what these people are like, their characters and their family dynamic just based on their expressions and subtle body clues in what is a formal posed photo.

I felt that the little girl in the center – with her shimmering yellow dress and bold, petulant gaze – was the darling of the family, while the tallest boy, in his too-large suit hoped to grow into the family protector. And the young woman looks at once proud of being a mother to these fine children, but is still a beauty and a bit of a coquette herself. Maybe I am making all this up as I go along, but it has been fun to partly discover, partly create a visual narrative of pose and gesture for this picture.

And then on Thursday, Mr. Michael and the oldest son stopped in to see how the picture was coming along. They seemed pleased, and even a bit amazed to see themselves in the painting. Even though it is still not finished, I could tell from their reaction that I had captured something right, if not everything. They confirmed that as the only girl with three brothers, the girl in the center was indeed the darling of the family. I had worried that I had made the oldest son look older than he was in the photo, where part of the poignancy is that he still has the half look of a boy while wearing this grown-up suit. But it turns out that the photo is a few years old, so in fact he does look older now, closer to the painting.

“But still, even though I think you are a serious person,  I made you look too serious in the painting,” I told him. His serious face dissolved in a wonderful smile. It’s that smile that I want to capture somehow!

Portrait of Mother and Son

How to know if a painting is finished, that is the question! I think I’m ready to let go of this one, though there are always a few more little tweaks and adjustments that are possible. And when one is working from a photograph as a source, there is always the temptation to make it exactly like the original photographic image. But somehow in doing that, the picture ceases to breathe for me as a painting. There is a fine line in realistic painting between exact verisimilitude and the suggestion of it, even the illusion of it. I love the tension between seeing an image that looks like it could be real but when you look closer you see it is really paint. Still I have this urge to make it perfectly match the photo.

Instead, I remind myself of the advice that I received once from the artist Susanna Coffey in a critique – that a paintings doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be “good enough”. While this might seem like a recipe for mediocrity, I think what she meant by “good enough” was that when a painting achieves its essential aesthetic goal and communicates it to the viewer, then it is “good enough”. The rest of the details don’t need to be perfect.

So I am calling this one finished, which means that I will be calling James and taking the portrait over to give to his mom, a little late for Mother’s Day, but good enough!