I picked up my charcoal and went back to the eyes. They were vacant, but not in a good way. Not in the way that makes a self-portrait haunting or provocative. They were dead, really. My teacher, a seasoned artist, was hosting a two day workshop in her home studio. As the hours passed, she made her way around the room of seven, issuing critiques on our technique and progress.
“Why are you doing that?” she asked, her breath on my neck. Ever uncomfortable when she approached, I immediately began shading an area that didn’t need it. “Just adding some detail,” I blubbered. “Jenny-you have got to step back. You’re being too literal here. I mean, you are drawing each individual eyelash. Can you actually see each eyelash when you look in the mirror?”
Thank God. She’d given me an opening. “As a matter-of-fact,” I responded looking at her deadpan, “with my new Cover Girl Lash Blast Mascara, I can”. She half-laughed and began making her way to the next easel. And just when I thought I was off the hook, she looked back over her shoulder. “Something’s missing,” she said. “And I suggest you explore it.”
I knew she was right. I knew I had heavy chains on both ankles. One that tethered me to a city I didn’t want to live in and the other latched to a nasty hangover and the unrelenting itch for 5 pm. But drawing that version of me wasn’t on the table. I didn’t know how to draw a stranger.
So I pushed through the exercise, attempting to make it blurry and abstract enough for her approval. Never daring to reveal the gooey, monstrous mess that my insides had become. The portrait that resulted was of a woman that looked nothing like me. It wasn’t interesting or important. It was a throwaway, like the paper you’d wrap a fish in.
But instead of scrapping it immediately, I kept it close by for four more years. A bit of shading here, a sparkling earring there–adding layers to a mask that hadn’t suited me in the first place. An artist friend once told me, “The secret of creating something beautiful is knowing when to stop”. Her words vaporized as I kept at it. If I could just get the angle of the chin right. The whisper of a cheekbone. Then, surely, she would be complete.
What should have been an exploration–an artistic purge–had immobilized me. My inner-territory had grown so foreign, so wildly unattended that it was impassable. I was a madwoman sketching in the dark. Zooming in on my lashes, the curves of my ear–was self-preservation. A frog splayed out in a tray with pins in each limb. Up close, my parts didn’t seem at odds with one another. My facts and fictions were separated by marked out squares, and could be examined separately–or not at all.
More years passed until my charcoal became an unusable stub. The paper, torn through from my sweat and heavy pressing with holes where my eyes should be. I had no choice but to toss me out. I upgraded from newsprint to canvas and bought some colored paints. But as is the case with any renovation, the demolition stage came first. At times, the transition was excruciating. The colors fought against my blending. The canvas laughed. I eyed the balled up original in the trash and contemplated pressing her out. Returning to the comfort of my previous vacancies.
But eventually, the redesign took shape. And the new portrait, the one with a palette as vibrant as my insides, is a work in progress. And when she’s looking at me wrong–when her mouth crooks to the side or her eyes drift toward the hollows, I don’t mindlessly slap on new layers. Instead, I reach toward the painting and I hook her eyelids with my thumbs. I pull them back until she’s forced to focus back at me. And we stare at one another until a silent pact is made. A promise to share the weight of who we were and who we’ve become.
Both of us willing to explore the untapped wilderness.