Self Portraits

In this month of inspiration to bring new visions into outer expression – after musing on what would feel good to be done with – I got reminded of a vivid enlightenment that took decades to internalize, to invoke in the current moment, not just marvel at in the rear-view mirror.

When I was very young and unsophisticated about the different ways that people see, I sat as a model for a portrait painting class. During a break, when I was allowed to walk around the arc of easels, I felt a giant empty space open up in the place where I’d previously known who I was and what I looked like. Each student had painted a different person.

And I was going to have to choose: my payment for sitting was to be the portrait of my choice. I chose one with rough strokes and blurred edges, where energy seemed to be whipping through me, light escaping from my skin and eyes and hair. My smile was rebelliously amused.

My parents were also involved. They chose the version that was sweet as peaches, demure, genteel. Even the brush strokes were hyper-controlled. My smile looked confident but kind.

I’m embarrassed to report that I was numb to the politics of the situation. The sweet peaches one was painted by the dear lady who’d invited me to sit, she being a treasured friend of my parents and the teacher of the class. Whether this influenced the style in which she’d painted me, knowing how my parents preferred to see me – or whether my parents would’ve chosen whatever she painted, to be gracious to their friend and respectful of the teacher and the invitation – or whether they were friends because they saw the world and people through the same lenses – or whether there was a general cultural ideal we were all swimming in – or all of the above, I’ll never know. I imagine I embarrassed everybody by choosing the wild portrait. Of course I didn’t say “wild.” I gently took my parents to that artist’s easel to show them my choice. I don’t think it’s an unconscious reinvention to say I remember the artist’s warm smile, the twinkle in her eye. We took both paintings, and it occurs to me only now to wonder if my parents paid the wild woman for her work. All I knew, in later years, was that the sweet version was on their living room wall. It’s lost to history now.

In recalling this portrait memory, I feel refreshed in publishing a blog post: in a sense, I’m painting a self-portrait, knowing there’s a whole arc of easels out there, painting my words in your own minds with your own palettes and perceptions. This idea lights up the reality that there are hundreds of little inner artists painting my own interior screens of impressions of everything.

The topic might seem like useless navel-gazing during a fraught, chaotic time in the public world. Yet for me it’s powerfully inventive: every image, inner and outer, of self and world, is art (literal root of imag-ination) – unique and temporary. A split-second kind of temporary. Listening within for the impulse to paint a more harmonious world (the change one wishes to see, and be) can be the first moment of a new world.

Readers are invited to ponder the photo at the top of this piece and notice how the ripples in the water change the reflection of each bird, how each bird has a unique perspective, how the movements of their bodies and the motion of the Earth in relation to the reflected setting sun inevitably created a new reality the instant after this image was captured.

About Cat and the Gateways

Photo credit: Laura Schrek via stockxchange