I think I’ve mentioned before that I was contacted late last year by artist Riva Lehrer who wanted to do my portrait for a series she’s creating, Mirror Shards.
Animal imagery is at the base of countless metaphors and similes in human language. They are, in fact, among the oldest elements of any language. This project, Mirror Shards, is an exploration of the role that animal symbols, metaphors and similes play in how we learn to become empathetic.
Empathy begins in the ability to imagine what it’s like to be someone or something else. The earliest myths, fables and religious tales tell stories of talking animals, people who could talk to animals, or human/animal hybrids. In many of these stories, the separation between human and animal is blurred or provisional.
The Mirror Shards series delves into the needs and history of animal metaphors by clothing people in animal costumes. A costume allows for the merger with another body and mind. Each animal is one that has a strong presence as a metaphor, in English or in other languages. There will be about 10 portraits when the cycle is complete.
Here’s one picture from it:
|Jessica/Hyena, Acrylic and paper on wood, Riva Lehrer, 2011|
This is a portrait of artist and animal rescue worker Jessica Johnson. As I’ve gotten to know Jessica I’ve been struck by her relationship to femininity. On one hand, she’s a straight girl with no gender dysphoria.
She’s not transgender or gay. But I’ve come to see just how ironically she views the tropes of femininity. She approaches all things girlish with amused suspicion and skepticism. None of this is obvious on the surface, but Jessica inside and Jessica outside are two very different beasts.
For this reason, choosing the Hyena as her mirror was a perfect choice. Hyenas are complex and paradoxical creatures. What people think of them, and what they are in reality, is often quite different. Hyenas are assumed to be canine due to their appearance and behavior, but are actually much closer to felines. Their reputation is as cowardly scavengers, yet most species hunt and kill all most all of their prey. It is extremely difficult to tell the male Hyena from the female, as external genitalia is almost identical. The female Hyena has the largest proportional clitoris in the animal kingdom, closely resembling the male penis.
Riva and I had talked back and forth via email for a couple of years (I admire her work). But now we talked for over an hour on the phone. I told her that as far as I know I don’t think of myself as an animal. She kept talking, making me think. She pushed me just a bit, asked me to imagine what animal I might be. Eventually I said I could possibly see myself as an Arctic fox. She said, no, she didn’t think that was quite me—how about a big cat of some kind. By this time I was attached the notion of snow and ice, and thought that a snow leopard might be kind of cool. (Perhaps because it was only a month or so after doing the BBC Radio 4 thing, Catwomen of the Moon.)
So then she asked me to get Kelley to take some quick phone snaps of me doing cat-like things. I did a series of things like this:
A month later, Riva came to Seattle and we spent an entire afternoon talking about and shooting iPhone pix (an older model, with crap cam) of me in various poses with some closeups, like this:
She asked—delicately—if I minded my crutches being in the picture. I said no, but that I hadn’t the faintest idea how they could be incorporated with cat-like things. So we talked about that, a lot—crutches as arm extensions, as life extensions, as big claws… Riva went back to her hotel and the next day came back and we did it all again. This time it was gruelling: posing is work, especially the kind of thing that looks like a snap-shot of an animal caught in mid-(twisting) leap. Especially when holding heavy canes and then crutches. But the conversation was extremely interesting. We talked about empathy and characterisation, about reader and writer experience and communication—how we talk, sometimes, across a gulf of centuries. I said that one of the things I love that I’m constantly trying to get across to readers in my work—that I try to feel, every day—is flow. A living, moving, pour-through-it-or-around-it-or-over it flow. Every book I’ve ever written is full of flowing water, streaming cloud, and rippling tree canopy. I love movement—it’s one of the reasons I like martial arts so much. It’s all about continuous, unstoppable flow: like blood, like breath.
Then Riva went back to Chicago. She sent me this concept sketch.
The crutches, as you can see, would extend beyond the drawing’s frame. The leopard skin would be a costume, tied on but still showing the essential me—and laid on a separate piece of paper, to add dimension. On top of that Riva would put snow, on individual pins, adding further texture.
We agreed that we liked the notion of the dimension and texture, but I thought the crutches were kind of wrong and the rocky background didn’t give the right feel. Too static. How about a frozen waterfall? I said. Oooh, said Riva. And a week or so later sent me this:
Yes, I said. Do it. Last week she sent me this:
After I got over the shock of sporting stripy underwear (I have nothing like that in my closet, trust me) I really liked it. But the longer I pondered it more I felt sure it wasn’t entirely right. My face looked kind of…spread out (so did the rest of me, but, hey, I knew the costume would cover most of that so I wasn’t too bothered). Here’s a close-up:
Riva decided it was a lens distortion issue, so she employed her trusty eraser and fixed it. I think this is a much truer representation:
Here’s me (the unaltered, somewhat wide me) with a rough outline of the costume taped on:
And now we’re beginning to get there. Part of the fur will be ruffled by wind and so project farther than the rest of the costume (which will be less transparent than it appears here**)–which will also be conveyed by pins.
The whole thing will be 32 x 44—pretty damn big. Riva promises it will be done at the end of October. I can’t wait to see it. I won’t own it (I think it might be a bit odd to have something this size on my own wall), I might never even see it face to face if it gets snatched up fast, but I’m hoping there will be HD video of it so I can get a really, really good look at the texture and 3-D effect. I think it’s going to be an incredible piece of art and I feel privileged to be part of it.
* Yes, a crutch-related pun
** The partial transparency, though, is the reason for the stripy underwear. Otherwise, apparently, it would look muddy and blobby. (I’m guessing that’s a technical term…)
7 thoughts on “Portrait in progress”
This is fascinating: that you would let someone close enough to paint you, and that they would do such an accurate job. Good for you.
It is a rather intimate process. In some ways I'd expected that. In others–particularly how collaborative it's been–I hadn't.
Fascinating exploration and there is flow in this work… Fabulous.
Glad you like it. I think the finished piece will be astounding.
So do I. I think you should hang a drawing, if that is an option.
I'm not sure.
Thank you, N, for sharing this intimate moment.
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