Sunday, September 12, 2010

My Portrait, Revealed

A few weeks ago, I began writing about portraits in response to the wonderful show that recently closed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and I intimated that I would follow up by telling you something of the two portraits of myself made at very different stages of my life. Once I took out the first one, though, I realized this might take longer than I'd thought, and I paused for a while to reflect on some aspects of my younger self. Finally, I began posting on the nude as genre, and it finally seemed I might get to the end of this long sidling-up to my own nude portrait, but I found myself wanting to theorize first about the patriarchal/male gaze under which we construct and represent ourselves. Instead of talking about the portrait I'd sat for, I ended by admitting my complicity in that male gaze and pointing to the screen it placed between myself and my very good friend, the artist who painted me.

Before I continue, one more bit of stalling -- an attempt to understand and explain my delaying tactics. As far as I am aware, three elements especially make me feel hugely vulnerable and uncomfortable in writing about this portrait. As Sidonie Smith has pointed out in her defining work on female life-writing, women writing their lives are already defying cultural traditions and expectations. Remember that old dictum that there are only three occasions in a woman's life when her name should properly appear in the paper, birth, marriage, and death. Of course we've moved beyond that, but not so very long ago that our unconscious is immune. And, um, writing about one's nude portrait? Doesn't quite meet the propriety standards. It's bad enough to have one painted, by why on earth would I talk about and draw attention to the fact?! So Discomfort Number One.

Then my ambivalent feelings about my very good friend, the artist, feelings I can't not discuss if I'm going to speak honestly about the portrait, feelings which were part of my commitment to the process. My concern here is less with how Alison will respond to what I write here as it is with exposing my own insecurity or pettiness or whatever this comparison might be on any given day. Discomfort Number Two.

And, finally, the portrait itself, the finger it points my way. (Indexical, say the semioticians.) Owning one's own nudity is difficult and feels at least unseemly, if not all out transgressive, at least for most women of my generation. Wanting such a portrait, sitting for it, deciding where to hang it, and being in its presence either alone or with others, all these are socially awkward, at least they have been for me. Outside of my family, I have only ever told two people besides yourselves that I've sat for, and own, such a portrait. And now here I am. Discomfort Number Three.

So, let's get on with it, shall we?

I met Alison over twenty years ago, in an aerobics class we attended three times a week, parking our pre-schoolers in an adjoining program for some respite from the stay-at-home gig. When we were still just nodding acquaintances, Pater and I attended a Fundraising and Information evening for an environmental cause -- saving an Old Growth Rainforest from logging -- to which Alison had contributed a painting. A slim, beautiful woman (a mutual friend once likened her to Andie MacDowell), subtly hip elegance in a fitted black dress embellished only by her thick, dark, shoulder-length hair, she spoke passionately and convincingly. Shortly afterward, we began exchanging those coffee mornings that get stay-at-home moms through the long days entertaining little ones, and eventually began managing regular runs together as well.

Through the years, Alison has commiserated with me over travails of child-rearing and we’ve regaled each other with its delights; she cheered me on as I went back to school for, first, my undergrad degree and then grad school, and was hugely supportive as I struggled through the slough of despond that is dissertation-writing. I, meanwhile, was lucky enough to read drafts of her first book, a memoir of a long-ago summer she spent working as a naturalist, and was thrilled to attend the launch of that book and see it go on to pick up nominations and prizes and a continuing place on its publisher's backlist. Since then, she's added a book of poetry to her achievements, and has a novel well underway as part of an MFA she's currently working on. Exhibitions of her painting are always well-attended (a number of them hang on our walls), and her travel CV includes regular work in the Galapagos as a naturalist, a sailing trip across the Pacific with her husband, birding in South America, camping in China with her then teenage son. . . the list goes on.

Oh, and I already mentioned that she's beautiful, right?

So judge me for this, or admit you sometimes do the same thing, I have, through the years of a very close friendship with this woman I love dearly, felt envious, felt something akin to, but not exactly, resentment, and, above all, felt myself obviously lesser on an invisible scale I could always see. Having internalized that male gaze from earliest consciousness, I believed -- no, knew -- that gaze would always favour her, and sometimes, along with warm friendship was a niggling degree of envy, even resentment.

To my credit, I was feminist enough and good friend enough and self-reflexive enough, that I worked to get past this occasional response -- and troubled by its signalling of my own, hmmmm, insecurity for want of a more nuanced term. Because meanwhile, I had my own successes to celebrate and I was also, in the eyes of my husband, a beautiful and desirable woman (I absolutely cringe at writing these words -- so much, culturally, tells me to delete them immediately in all their immodesty). In fact, this guy wanted a nude portrait of his beautiful wife and would playfully (hopefully) suggest from time to time that we find an artist who could paint one.

For several years I dismissed his idea as preposterous, but then about five or six years ago, The Globe and Mail featured a photographic exhibition comprising an artist's nude portraits of his mother, an admittedly overweight woman in her 60s. Some of these photographs were reproduced for millions to see in their weekend paper and they were beautiful and moving and powerful and vulnerable and difficult. They really challenged me, these portraits, as did my admiration for this woman's courageous allegiance to a personal politics. And I began thinking that it might be time to take some small steps toward a richer view of female beauty, to take some responsibility for closing the gap between my inside and my outside.

Around the same time, coincidentally, on one of our walks Alison mentioned that she had been working that winter on a series of nude drawings of the women in her poetry group, most of them in their sixties, some in their seventies. She was exhilirated by the experience, moved by how beautiful this older flesh was, she told me, with its wrinkles and folds and humanity. So I tentatively asked her if she could be comfortable, should I work up the courage, to do a nude portrait of me as a gift for Pater's next birthday.

And yes, the rest is now history, as in a historical visual record of one woman's mid-life nudity in the early 21st century. What you can't see in this record is the sitting, the two of us in my living-room, working together to find a place and a position, a pose I could feel comfortable in. Aware of my extra pounds in contrast to Alison's own slimness, I nonetheless knew that hers was a kind and appreciative eye, a friend's and an artist's. In response, I drew on my own contentment with the aspects of this body that serve me well, its sturdiness, its ability to nurture, its wholeness and healthiness, and, yes, its sensuousness and sensuality.

Despite working to affirm my self-image as the portrait was in progress, I will admit to some dismay when confronted with the finished piece. While Pater was immediately thrilled with it, intrigued and touched by the idea of Alison and I working on it together as a gift for him, my first response was to see my middle as thick. But I was also fascinated by the likeness of the hair and the face, and I was delighted with the gaze that meets the viewer so directly. Not even enigmatic, the gaze keeps the subject -- me -- screened from the viewer even as she sits naked before him or her. As viewer, you may see my naked body -- at least as much as I choose to reveal, in a pose that is deliberately careful, but you cannot even begin to imagine my thoughts. Meanwhile, I am clearly looking back at you, and my gaze is so penetrating that you must accept a reciprocality of relationship that is rarely indicated through the history of the female nude.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect, the most rewarding, of my response to this portrait is how it continues to evolve. I have begun to see, in the lines of my torso, the same lines that used to dismay me with their reflection of too much padding, simply the lines of my body, this body, the one I'm living in, have always lived in. Lines that move me and that move with me, lines that mark the borders where I meet the world. Lines that my friend drew, observing what she claimed was their beauty, and which I now, slowly, belatedly, begin to recognize for myself. For which I thank her and her female gaze -- which has educated my own.

And to close on a lighter note, an anecdote.

Placement of this portrait was a concern at one point. Our children are all adults, used to our oddities, and their partners are becoming accustomed to us as well. So we hemmed and we hawed, we debated where it was less likely to be seen and to embarrass, and finally, we simply hung it in the bedroom of the condo and let folks deal with it. The first few viewings may have been awkward (for my son, perhaps, more than others), but it's become such a non-issue that I'd completely forgotten it until changing Nola's diaper on our bed a few weeks ago. My son-in-law was setting up her Bjorn porta-crib in the room, and we both cracked up at the delightful absurdity of the potentially awkward situation when Nola pointed from the bed to my portrait on the wall, and called out "Nana, Nana."

Why, yes it is, sweetie, yes she is indeed.

What? You're still waiting? Oh, surely you never thought I'd put the full portrait online?! Sorry, but this is as revealing as it gets. . .