FALL ON YOUR KNEES

oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
Come; see the oxen kneel,

In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

–The Oxen, Thomas Hardy

—————————————————–

Kneeling is everywhere we look or listen right now. Professional football players have been kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem at games, in protest of police brutality against minorities. This has conjured an immense nation-wide reaction. On one side, people say these men are using their first amendment rights to peacefully protest. On the other side, people say they are disrespecting the flag, our freedom, veterans, and America.

I honestly don’t see how you can have one without the other, but there is another point it seems many have missed: since when is kneeling a sign of disrespect?

sancta scala
Pilgrims climbing the Sancta Scala in Rome

In the legend of Hardy’s era, the oxen in their stalls, on the most holy of nights, are struck to their knees at the glorious revelation of God to mankind. We kneel to pray as a gesture of humbleness before God. In Rome, there is a flight of 28 marble steps inside a small chapel. It is the Scala Sancta (Holy Staircase), brought from Jerusalem, and it was a part of the palace of Pontius Pilate. It is believed that Jesus himself walked up these stairs, on his way to be tried by Pilate. Since the 4th century, Catholic visitors to Rome have come to the Scala Sancta, to climb them on their knees.

I read an article about a woman in China who went to an official in the environmental protection office, carrying a canister of contaminated water from her local river. She went to show him what her town was dealing with, and tell him how it was affecting their health and lives. When she was shown in to his office, she dropped to her knees as she begged him to listen and to help her community. The writer of the article was aghast at this demeaning display. He explained that in Chinese culture, it is almost unheard of for someone to kneel to anyone. For her to do this, to kneel before an official, meant that she was truly desperate.

footballAre kneeling athletes showing a lack of respect for our flag, our National Anthem, and our country? Or are they on their knees, supplicating the world to listen, to help their community? They could remain seated (which is under certain circumstances acknowledged as a sign of disrespect— for example, everyone stands when the President enters a room). They could turn their backs. They could shake their fists. Let’s face it, they could moon us all on national television.

But they kneel. A posture which is universally recognized as a gesture of respect, humbleness, or desperation.

Of course, there is a much bigger issue here — what are they kneeling about? Police brutality against minorities. They have been very clear about this, even though some people are choosing to ignore it, and instead insist these protests are against patriotism. A man on a call-in show this morning, who is angered about the “take a knee” protests, talked at length about veterans, homelessness and single mothers — all of which are great things to be concerned about. None of which have anything to do with this particular protest movement.

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTSH3XR

But,” people will say, “that isn’t really a thing. Police kill more white people than black people.” Even though statistically that isn’t accurate (an unarmed black man is 5 times more likely to be shot and killed than an unarmed white man), let’s take a look at that statement: “Police kill more whites than blacks.” So then the BIG QUESTION I want to ask here is this: Are you saying you’re okay with that? Are you saying that since, if you look at the numbers without taking population percentages into account, there are more white bodies than black bodies, no one should be speaking out?

According to a Washington Post article published July 11, 2016, at that point in the year police had shot and killed exactly the same number of white, and black, unarmed people: 50 each. Is everyone okay with that? Really?

What I want to know is, why isn’t everyone kneeling?

I am all for supporting our police forces. I am also all for holding people accountable when they make bad decisions. Some of those shootings were not justified. Some of them were the result of fear or hot-headedness. Some of them were outright mistakes. And yes, some of them were influenced by the fact that the person in the crosshairs was not white. The data shows this to be true.

If no one speaks, no one knows there is a problem. If no one knows there is a problem, it will never be addressed. If it is never addressed, it will grow. Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is our responsibility to speak up when something isn’t working. Right now, certain professional athletes are making use of the fact that they have a public platform to peacefully, and I would argue, respectfully, speak up.

I implore everyone, from here on my knees, to listen.

crying

Advertisements

DIRECTIVE

My eyes half opened as the sound slowly registered into my sleep-filled brain. A distant, persistent drone of a motor was somewhere in the vicinity. Burrowed under the pile of blankets, I vaguely registered the sound, took note that it was still all but dark, and drifted back into my dreams.

Hours later when I got up, it was to a bright new snowfall. While I like snow, the work that comes with it to clear away walks and driveway is one of my most hated chores. I dutifully bundled up and shuffled outside, so that I shovel and then shower away the sweat and get ready for work. I stepped out of the garage and stared, blinking in the morning light, at my freshly cleared driveway and sidewalk.

I moved to Wisconsin in January. It was a very cold, snowy winter that year. Almost every time it snowed, my walks and sometimes driveway were cleared by a mystery visitor whose presence was announced by that very early morning drone of a snowblower. Once or twice I caught site of someone bundled up to the eyes, wrestling with the large machine in the dark. I didn’t get a chance to meet him or thank him, all that first winter. To my shame, it was actually a few years before I did meet him–my neighbor 2 doors down, Norm.

He stopped to say hello as I was raking leaves, and when I asked if he was the angel who cleared my walks, he said, “I don’t know about the angel part, but I do like to clear the walks.” Turned out, he’d been doing that for many years, for all the neighbors around us.

After that we bumped into each other on occasion, as I walked my dog or worked in the yard. We didn’t know each other well. He knew I was a graphic designer. I knew he was a Vietnam veteran. When he told me they were planning to move south to Missouri, I was sad because he was one of the few neighbors I knew at all.

Their house went up for sale, new people moved in, and I got used to shoveling my walk and driveway. A few years later when I began the FAMOUS portraits project, Norm was one of the first people I thought of, and knew I had to paint. He was the epitome of the spirit of being “Famous.”

One problem: I didn’t know his last name.

By this point they had been gone a couple of years. I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to find him. As my friends can tell you though, I am the queen of internet research. After puzzling about it for a few weeks, it occurred to me to look up the city tax records on their old house—and there it was.

From there, I googled his name and “Missouri”, and actually found him on facebook. Sent a message off, and was overjoyed to receive a message back almost immediately. He gave me permission to paint him, and from a photo I chose from his facebook profile, I painted the first portrait that was specifically for FAMOUS.

snow_angel
“Snow Angel” Oil on canvas

This was actually fairly soon after I started being able to admit to people that I was even an artist. I don’t have an art degree. I didn’t really think of myself as a true artist. When the concept of FAMOUS was given to me, that started to change. I now had a direction and a voice, and I knew where I was going with the work. A small sliver of confidence began to grow within me, starting to own that title: “artist.”

What I love about Norm’s portrait, besides my connection to his kindness and helpfulness, is the story about finding him back after he’d moved away. Because you see, that in itself gave me a directive that I have been striving to be true to ever since.

Because you see, Norm’s last name is Goforth.

So today I pass that along to all of you, where ever you may be in your journey. Maybe you’ve found your voice; maybe you’re still looking for it. My wish for you is to keep striving, keep looking, and once you have found it, stay true to that calling. It is sacred.

Find your purpose. Be famous. Go forth.

 

THE TWO-BY-FOUR IN THE ROOM

wood_carver

Every year, the National Portrait Gallery in London hosts a competition for portrait artists: The BP Portrait Award. The work that gets included is the ‘best of the best’, and entries pour in from around the world from artists hoping to be selected; in 2015 they chose 55 out of 2,550 entries.

This year one of the reviewers complained that the curators had gone a very traditional route when choosing the contents of the show.

“A visitor to this exhibition may be fooled into thinking contemporary portraiture has barely moved on from the Van Dycks in the gallery upstairs.” He writes. “… it seems this discipline has stagnated.” (In case you are unfamiliar with Van Dyck, he was an 17th century portrait artist, lived at court, painted kings and lots of other miscellaneous royalty, and pretty much lived a darned good life.) He adds, “These works are excellent but they lack a sense of the new; there is nothing …that makes us approach a painting in a different way or to makes us challenge what portraiture can be.”

This is an ongoing discussion in the world of portraiture, revolving around what makes for a good “modern” portrait. It is part of a larger stance in the art world of denouncing realism and applauding the abstract and conceptual. Part of the idea is that if you are not doing something new or different, if you are not trying to push your genre “forward,” then you are not a serious artist. Maybe you actually aren’t an artist at all.

The reality is that if someone commissions you to paint a portrait, they generally expect the resulting painting to unmistakably resemble the subject—but now portrait artists are being criticized for doing that very thing. There is art and there is Art, and a traditional portrait, however well executed, is being relegated to the lower case. There are artists, and Artists.

A lot of this comes down to your definition of “forward,” in the line “pushing your genre forward.”

When a portrait artist paints a faithfully rendered likeness, with true-to-life colors, proportions and perspectives, it appears they may now come under fire for repeating something that has already been done. When did working your whole life to master a very difficult skill become a worthless goal?

There is an episode of MASH where Frank and Margaret hire a wood carver to create a bust of Colonel Potter. They go to the carver’s tent to meet him, and ask to see some samples of his work. He reverently holds up a plank of wood with the comment, “Used to be round.” Frank sputters, “But it looks like a two by four!” To which the carver, with great pride, replies, “Thank you.”

No doubt Mr. Khan thought his comment about modern portraiture resembling “ the Van Dycks upstairs” was an insightful jab at a group of artists who continue to paint in a traditional style. I for one would be cartwheeling through the halls if someone thought my work in any way resembled a Van Dyck.

And if anyone ever looks at one of my portraits and protests, “but it looks just like her!” I can only bow my head, like the old wood carver, and proudly say, “Thank you.”

Click here to read the original review of the BP Portrait Award Show: http://uk.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1435358/review-bp-portrait-award-2016

wood carver 2

#whyareyoufamous

SIZZLING YOUTH

I recently had a long ride on the New York subway, coming into the city from the airport. When I got on there was a man sitting in the farthest front seat, his body hunched protectively over the 3 ragged bags around his feet. A frayed woolen cap was pulled low on his brow, and he was dressed more warmly than the balmy weather outside might dictate. He stared at the ground.

Homeless. Possibly unbalanced. One glance took this in, as I and everyone else moved farther down the car. No one sat across from him, even though for some of us it meant having to stand. As the car filled up more and more at each stop, still no one chose to sit across from this man. I clung to the pole I had claimed as I tried to learn the unfamiliar movement of the train.

subway

As soon as someone got up to leave a few stops later, I quickly slid into a seat. From my new vantage point I watched as a young man dressed neatly in a sweater and long shorts walked to the middle of the car and set down a small paper bag with a few dollar bills peeping out. One of his legs, from the knee down, was a gleaming metal prosthetic.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” he began, as the train swayed into motion again. “I do not enjoy being homeless, and I try very hard to stay clean. If you could find it in your heart to help out in any way you might be able….thank you,” as a few people held out dollars and coins to him.

“Here, brother,” a voice came from the end of the car, and I turned to see the original “homeless” man moving forward, a five dollar bill clutched in his hand.

The man with the paper bag immediately waved him off. “No, no, I couldn’t let you do that. You need that. Thank you so much for your kindness, but no.”

“Yes, I want to!” The other insisted. “I’ve had a good day, and I’m not like that. I want to share it with you.”

“God bless you, God bless you,” murmured the young man.

The courtesy passing between them put all of our presidential hopefuls to shame.

The older man clapped a hand to the younger one’s shoulder. “You’ve done service for us, and for me. I know what it’s like to be homeless. I used to be out there, without hope or anywhere to go. I know how it is. But I got my life back together, with God’s help.” He flung one arm wide as his chest puffed up proudly. “And look at me now!”

Perception is a tricky thing.

When first starting the “Famous” portraits project, I looked for a way to contact Naomi Shihab Nye, whose poem “Famous” is the inspiration for the series.  I wanted to see if she would consent to being included as a portrait subject. To my surprise and delight, she responded almost immediately to my first note, with a warm and very kind letter which included agreeing to let me paint her portrait.

Given that she lives in Texas, I live in Wisconsin, and she travels all over the world almost constantly, it was another matter to try to coordinate a meeting for a photo shoot. While not ideal, I don’t always get to do my own photography for portrait subjects—I suggested that I could work from a photo, if she had a good one of high enough quality.

She responded to that idea enthusiastically. Over the next few months during her travels, she sent me photo after photo, all of which were completely useless as reference material for a portrait. She sent a photo of herself in Abu Dhabi with a group of about twenty school children, her face almost lost in a sea of little smiles. There was one from Ireland: a snapshot of her with two men (“I’m the girl in this photo”), she sandwiched in the middle, all of them grinning happily with arms entwined. Hong Kong: a lovely view of lush forest—and Naomi in silhouette in the foreground.

hong kong

Eyeing this last one gloomily, a phrase from her original letter came back to me: “Certainly I would consent to be painted, and it would be an honor to be included,” she wrote, “though I am no longer at my youthful sizzling best.”

Aha…..

I sent off an email: “I’m noticing a theme in these photos, which is that you seem to want to be hidden as much as possible.”

“Busted!” was her immediate reply.

Well.

What to do with a portrait subject who doesn’t want to be seen? I assured her that I took the responsibility of painting her very seriously. She assured me that she trusted me.

As luck had it, we did get a chance to meet in the fall of 2015 when she was speaking at a book festival in my state. Contrary to her internal dialog, she is very photogenic and I came away not only with some good material to work from, but an enhanced respect for her as well. I spent 2 days trailing her, listening as she spoke in schools and talked to kids about poetry. I watched her keep a large audience at a university captivated for an hour and a half, and duck her head in apparent surprise when they gave her a standing ovation. I learned that she doesn’t allow someone introducing her to list her awards (which are many); instead she wants them to talk about how her writing may have spoken to them personally, or which particular poem they like.

She didn’t read “Famous” while I was there, which was just as well since I would have undoubtedly burst into tears. She did read several of my favorites, including “Kindness” (the kids all call it ‘the kindness poem’):

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

(excerpt, Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye)

Perception, humility, kindness. Two homeless men on the subway. A brilliant writer shrugging away accolades. People who don’t know me, opening up their time and energy to help propel this art project forward.

I understand that we all have an internal view of ourselves, and “know too much” as Garrison Keillor says, to really take ourselves all that seriously. I started working on Naomi’s portrait about a month ago. The painting is almost life-sized, which makes me nervous given her reservations about being prominently featured. Maybe she will forgive me. Maybe I will manage to capture not just the likeness of her face, but something of her spirit which refuses to believe she has done anything unusual, while traveling the world and inspiring people who have also found that kindness can be a rare event. That it can be like a cool cloth pressed to a feverish cheek. Or a five dollar bill offered on a subway.

“Look at me now!” The man’s proclamation still rings in my ears, weeks later. Who knows what paths have brought each of us to where we stand today?  Who knows what obstacles have been overcome to get here? Before casting our mental vote assigning someone to a particular class or group, how often do we consider that they may well be proud of where they have gotten themselves?

While ruefully lamenting the loss of her “youthful sizzling best,” I dearly hope that Naomi has not missed the blooming of the beauty she has spread to the world, in a way that few of us ever will. She may wish (as most of us do) to turn back the clock and erase some of those lines we all earn with the daily effort it takes to navigate the world.

But oh, Naomi, look at you now.