Mother’s Day Special

James came in to Window Studio a couple of weeks ago. After first wanting maybe a portrait of himself and his wife of 20 years for their soon-to-be new home, or then maybe one of the grandkids (though he was only my age and looked younger), he then said what he’d really like was one of his mother. Even though by now I have come to expect that most men who come in – and it is mostly men that come in – want a portrait of their mothers, the way James spoke about his mother particularly moved me. He said he didn’t think that she could come in to sit because she had been quite sick lately. He said she had the virus, then something with her liver, or her kidneys – James has a way of speaking that spins off on all kinds of tangents, which he even apologized for “Sometime I lose my words,” he said.

So he described how they had given his mother a big surprise 70th Birthday Party (even though it was only actually her 69th). Family came from all around, a real family reunion, the kind you only get at a funeral, he said, but since they hadn’t wanted the reunion to be at her funeral, they decided to hold it now. They even had two cakes, one that said “69” and the other “70”

“Because my mother is special…”

His eyes teared up in a way that belied the simplicity of his words. Right there and then I decided if she would let me, that this would be my Mother’s Day Special.

And so, I found myself last week sitting at the bedside of Claudette, a woman I had never met before and yet felt like I’d known, if not all my life, then in some essential way that didn’t require details of experience. She emanated a comfort  – about herself, despite being ill (“Just draw me as I am, I don’t mind”) and about me, despite being a complete stranger, and about her kids who would come in and out as I sketched.

First her son James lay on the bed beside her for awhile. When he answered the phone, he told the caller, “Mom’s having her portrait done,” just as if he were saying “Mom’s having her hair done.” And then her daughter Tabitha introduced herself saying “I might not look like a daughter, but I am Claudette’s daughter” and indeed at first glance she appeared to be a handsome, dapper young man (“I wear boxers, and I wear them tight!”)

I asked Claudette how many children she had. She said five, but then explained there were four – James was the oldest, then I am not sure of the rest of the order. But her youngest son she said, had been killed three years ago. I said I was very sorry, that it must be the worst kind of pain, and as a parent myself I couldn’t imagine anything worse. I didn’t want to ask how he’d been killed, so sat and sketched, the silence eddying between us till it found words.

“I had wanted to make the trip down there,” at last she continued. “But I was in the hospital at that time and the doctor said, ‘Ms. Jackson, you aren’t well enough to make this trip.’ Still, I just wish I could have asked them, ‘How can you take something that can never be given back?’ I just wish I could know that, so that I could have some – what’s it called, I can’t remember, what’s the word?”

Her thoughts flowed again into realms that had no words, the way her son’s sometimes did, and mine followed.

“Peace? Peace of mind?” she ventured, but then said, “No, not peace. Closure. That’s the word I wanted to say. But I don’t have it.” She paused. “Life goes on. But I don’t have closure.”

There was much more in the two hours I spent with her and her family, bits of interactions, details of information, each in themselves slight or fleeting, but woven together in a rich complexity of wordless lines.

A stop on the trip

Last week, a young woman knocked at Window Studio’s door. As I went to answer it, she straightened up, grasped the folder she was holding a bit tighter, and took a deep breath as though gathering up her courage. I opened the door and she asked breathlessly what I was doing. I said I was painting people’s portraits.

“Oh, it’s so beautiful! May I come in?” She came in and quickly took a seat on the bench along the window. She looked all around the room, without taking off her red mirrored dayglo sunglasses.

“Wow, is this all your art?” she asked. She seemed to be looking at the party decorations that DL has left set up in the space as advertising – lavender chiffon curtains draped along the walls, pompoms of tissue hanging from the ceiling and vases of artificial flowers – as much as my paintings.

I explained that the paintings were my art, but that the space was also used for parties.

“Oh, that’s so wonderful. I’m an artist too you know!”

I sat down next to her. “That’s cool. What kind of art do you do?”

“All kinds. Drawing mostly. Painting…no, not really painting. I don’t have the music to do that kind of art, you know what I mean?”

I said I did, but wasn’t so sure. She pushed the sunglasses up on her head and kept looking wide-eyed around the room.

“It’s so beautiful! So beautiful in here!” She leaned forward eagerly. “And it’s so beautiful that you see them too!”

“I do?”

“Of course you do, you can see my honeys too!”

“Really? What do they look like?”

“Nilly and Silly, that’s the name of my honeys, I mean my nieces, aren’t they adorable?”

She put the glasses back on. Her hair was tied up in a knot, its caramel-colored waves rippling over the top of her head, glowing like haze in the sunlight. She straightened her cotton dress over her knees, brought her feet together and adjusted the folder in her lap, as though prepared to stay for awhile.

“I love color,” she said.

“I can see that, you have beautiful colors on.”

She straightened the rows of beaded bracelets and plastic charms on her wrists. “I do, don’t I…”

“Maybe you can come and pose for a portrait sometime. I need a new model soon, I’m almost finished this one.” I pointed to the picture of E. in her fur coat that I was working on.

“Really? I don’t know…”

“Sure, why not? I would love to paint you. What’s your name?”

“My name is Secret,” she said.

Suddenly she jumped up. “Oh and here I am keeping you, and you are with your tools and everything!”

She went to the door, opened it and hesitated.

“Come back sometime Secret, and I’ll paint your portrait.”

“I will!”

She skipped off in her flowered Converse sneakers, her thin cotton dress whipped against her legs in the sharp April breeze.





When I set the studio up in the window, I had hoped that people would look in and be interested, but I would never have believed how important a part of the project these interactions would become. I’m surprised at how many people stop in to talk to me, to ask how much it would cost to have a portrait painted, or to just tell me they like the picture I am working on. Whether or not people actually end up commissioning a painting, there is something intrinsically valuable in conceptualizing it. Just saying “I would like a portrait of myself (or my kids, my brother, my mother who has passed away)” seems to enhance one’s sense of self worth.  So many interactions have accumulated, these are just from one day:

  •  J. was walking by and stopped to look more closely at the Portrait of W which is finished now. J. said he felt like he knew the guy (maybe he actually knows W., but I think he meant just from the picture). He told me he really appreciated the picture, that it was beautiful, and that he would like to get a portrait of his three kids. He said he would bring them by after school.
  • Another man named K. came in saying, “You’re just the person I need to see! I have an urgent request!” I told him it was not often that someone urgently needed a painting, but I’d see what I could do. He said that he wanted one of himself, his son, his brother and his nephew, who was a Marine and stationed down South, and would have to be included from a photograph since he wasn’t able to get leave. He wanted to give the picture to his mother for Mother’s Day (more on men wanting pictures for or of their mothers in another post!). K. thought he could pay $500 for such a painting. He is also not the only person who has wanted a painting to include family members that are far away.
  • Then, a religious Jewish man with the long coat, yarmukle, and sidecurls – also chewing gum – wanted to know if I might have any paintings for the building he is renovating on the next block. I said I mostly did portraits but then showed him one of the Russian Reflections, which he really liked. I priced it high because I didn’t really want to sell it. And then he said his son, who was nine years old was very talented at art, and maybe I could show him a few things about painting? “Bring him in!” I said.
  • Two of the construction workers from next door, a short Hispanic man and a tall Sikh, peered in the window and gave a thumbs up to the portrait of E. in the fur coat that I was working on.
  • And finally D., who has become quite a regular, came in. He used to call me “white artist lady” though now that DL told him that wasn’t nice (“She has a name you know!”” Well what is her name then?”) now makes a point of calling me Anne. Anyway, D. veers from being decent to me and intrigued by the portraits to having to emphasize racial differences. (“So you like painting black people!” “I like painting all people.”) Today, D. said he liked the difference between the Portrait of W. with W. being a part of all the life of the street going on, while in the portrait of E. in the fur coat she looked calm and removed from the bustle of the world.
  • As I was closing the gate, a bit disappointed that J. hadn’t come back with his kids, who should I see out front but J. He apologized for having forgotten, and took me next door to the barber shop to meet the kids – now I don’t know if he has 3 or 4 – there were 4 in the barber shop. The oldest girl was maybe 14, and looked very dubious about her father’s idea to have this lady paint a portrait of them. The three boys who were 8, 9, and 10 or so, hopped up and down peering at me with the biggest eyes!
  • And the other guys in the barber shop were happy that K. had found me, and wanted me to know that  they had told K. to come see me, that I would be the one who could paint the portrait he needed urgently for his Mother!

The Barber Shop

One of these past cold days when it was spitting snow despite being springtime, there was a different lock on the storefront gate and I couldn’t get in. It was too cold to stand out on the street to wait for DL to get there, so I went into the barber shop next door.

Incredulous stares (Doesn’t this lady realize that this is the barber shop?!)

“I’m the artist who works in the space next door… (a couple guys nodded).

“I’m locked out.” (silence)

“Would you mind if I sat here and waited for DL to come open up? You know her…” (a few more nods)

“She’s not always, shall we say, on time.” (Lots of nods. laughs)

I was gestured to sit in the chair by the window, which I did, happy as could be! I’d been dying to visit the barber shop, but knew that it was sacred territory, off limits to strangers, particularly women strangers, and especially white women strangers.  But eventually people just ignored me, after perhaps an interrogating look when they first came in and before they proceeded to the back where the real action takes place.Though I was surprised that some people did actually come in to get haircuts.

So I did some sketching for the hour that it took DL to get there, though it was hard with no one sitting still. The two little kids that I’ve seen looking out the front door when I had passed before were curious about what I was doing, so I showed them the rudimentary sketch I’d done of them. Their eyes were huge, and they looked at what I was doing so closely that their heads were right over my little sketchbook. The little boy looked like he was four, though when I asked how old he was, he said in a whisper that he was two. I gave him my pen and said he could draw. He very seriously added the line for the arm in the sketch I’d done of him. And I drew a pair of big eyes with lashes for his little sister.

Then P., who I have spoken to before when getting coffee at the corner store, came in. We spoke for awhile before he had to cut someone’s hair. He said it had been a long time since he’d drawn, maybe not since when he went to Art & Design High School. “That was back when “graffiti” was in, so that is mostly what I did. Maybe I didn’t spend my time as wisely as I could have, if you know what I mean! It’s too bad, but some people still haven’t moved on from that.”

In addition to giving haircuts, P. also sketchbook_barbershopis a photographer. We agreed it was hard, whether in a painting or a photo, to really get a portrait to capture more than just what the person looked like. It takes time to get to know who the person is, time to really see what’s important in them. He does wedding photographs, and thought maybe some of the couples he photographs would like to spend some time together posing for a painting. A deluxe package!

Another Portrait of W.

2013-02-21 14.21.34When W. and I were working on his first portrait, I asked him why he had chosen to wear the warrior beads for his portrait. He said because he was from Sierra Leone and had come to the US as a young teenager after living for a year as a child soldier in the African bush. I asked him whether we could include something that suggested this experience in a second portrait that would use the reflections in the window of Anthony’s, the store across the street. He was really into this idea, and I am still working on the painting.

Second Portrait

tzvi_posingWorking on W.’s portrait got the ball rolling and more people started stopping in, particularly young men! In general I’ve found that young men are the most interested in getting their portraits painted – maybe it is an ego thing? Women who come in are usually more interested in the paintings that I’ve already done, especially the Russian Reflections. But whether it is a matter of time or money, or both, getting people to actually commit to sitting has proven the biggest challenge. So in the meantime, I did a charcoal sketch of my son.

While we were working, M.P. and T.–  two men who live in the homeless shelter in the armory building with castle turrets across the street – stopped in. They were interested in sitting for their portraits, but explained that during the day they had to be out of the shelter. T. told us that in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, FEMA had been hiring casual labor, so he was working, at least for the time being.

Portrait of W.

2012-12-18 11.35.57When Window Studio started, I shared the space with Fredricks & Mae, a pair making hand-made bocci balls and other decorative items. As part of my artistic practice, I like doing watercolors from direct observation to warm up, and I asked them if they would mind if I used them as models. W. was working with them and he liked the portrait idea so much that he agreed to be my first model. He decided to wear a set of African warrior beads that he had made while working with Fredricks & Mae.


First Paintings

Russian_Reflections1&2The first paintings I did at Window Studio where actually not portraits; they were reflections in a window of a flower shop that I saw in St. Petersburg, Russia last summer. Creating them allowed me to speak with the people who came in to Window Studio about the way that I’ve used windows and their reflections as a way to include more in a picture than what appears immediately on the surface. In these paintings, images of workers during the Russian Revolution are incorporated. Several people I spoke to were interested in the way that oil paint can be used transparently in layers.