I asked the five artists whose reflections appear below to write about what I call the numinous quality of portraiture. I want to thank them for providing me with their insight and for their personal responses. Each commentary is different and uniquely speaks about the authors’ life, experiences and craft. I will be adding additional artist statements in a follow-on piece.
In portraits, many different qualities are at play all at once. Portraits seem to be a sign of love: of a person, of artistic ideas and family history. Sometimes one of these predominates, sometimes all three. For a portrait artist, I suppose they are an assignment, a challenge, and a means of making a living doing something that they love. So we are back to love.
There is also something numinous about portraits, something sacred. I realized this when my mother died, and I began to wonder whether the impulse to capture her in a traditional portrait—or one not so traditional—to monumentalize her was similarly experienced by others. Was there a strong tendency among artists, or those “of the trade,” particularly those who have recently experienced loss, to seek to capture the likeness of their parents, spouses, other loved ones, or friends when these loved ones reached an advanced age or got ill? Did the activity soothe or help them with their grief? Did the finished artwork help others who were bereaved? What was this impulse? What in this was universal? How might this kind of art serve the bereaved? How might it illuminate end of life issues?
Putting people in the past, letting go, is sometimes so painful that we just can’t do it. We find out how to live through that pain by creating monuments to the people we love. Some of these monuments are intangible: our thoughts, memories, or our pursuit of challenging private or collective goals. Other monuments are tangible: every form of human creation from music to memoirs to money. In grief, some of us work towards achievements we may have vowed we would do for ourselves. Perhaps we even pledged to take something on to fulfill a wish for someone we have lost. This can be of comfort, connect us to a loved one and add to their legacy.
My niece, who will attend Tulane in the fall, visited the university in New Orleans. While there, the family went on a kind of personal pilgrimage to Hope Cemetery. This is where a prominent New Orleans citizen of his day, Richard Relf, was buried, an ancestor of ours on my father’s side. I was intrigued by his epitaph from the cemetery photographs my sister sent me
The epitaph read:
“Aye, ‘tis a holy rite remembrance of the dead that will not let oblivion’s blight around the grave be shed.”
Richard Relf 1776 – 1857
One can reason that behind certain works of art is a desire not to let those we love fall into oblivion. (Of course, this might also include the art maker him or herself.) Creating something lasting, durable, solid somehow helps soothe us, calms our grief. It perhaps gives it someplace to go, a locus. And writ larger, in the sedimentary layer of the historical past are many works of art that at one point had personal significance to individuals or a community. As time has passed, some private sentiment has been covered over, though some stories have been lost, others get carried on through time certainly.
For a brief time, I was once thoroughly fascinated by Antinous, a young hunk who lived in antiquity. Hundreds of statues of the young fellow were commissioned by the Roman Emperor, Hadrian. I’d come face to face with Antinous in one of his iterations while on a trip with my mother once as a teenager. I nearly fell in love with him myself. The Emperor’s lover or friend had drowned in the Tiber, and out of grief, he commissioned tribute after tribute until he’d brought forth some 500 statues of the handsome lad. He created medals with his likeness and even went so far as to have him proclaimed a god, constructing temples for his worship, some of which housed the statuary. Cities were named after him.
Monuments are generally large, built for those who have contributed something to society or distinguished themselves in some other way. Statuary and massive constructions—memorials—dot the surface of our globe. They take up residence in the physical and civic realm after those in whose memory they were created have gone. Traversing any square mile of populated terrain one comes into contact with such physical manifestations of grief. They communicate the honors bestowed on the famous.
Though not everyone has a place in history. Those who have come to be known for smaller scale feats or are simply ordinary folk are honored in proportion. They are loved no less, indeed no doubt just as massively, but their monuments might take the form of nameplates on benches, art to beautify hospitals, buildings, and schools. Professorships at an alma mater are funded, or causes of the deceased are found to be good homes for their inheritance. Worthy good works are funded through their gifts and associated with their legacy donations. Simpler memorials on a smaller scale fill cemeteries and private gardens or are simply carried silently in our memories, untold. And some people are never honored nor mourned.
There is something at the core of our shared human condition that infuses art. Art outlives people. And that is why it is particularly numinous when an artwork is created in the context of the end of life. It is the human attempt to throw off “oblivion’s blight.” It makes the artwork and the gesture of the one who commissioned or created it all the more poignant. In doing duty as the preserver of that person’s life record, art transcends the everyday experience of living as it transcends time. This kind of art is not merely decorative. It is a mix of ritual and craft, a gesture that means more than an artwork to adorn a pleasant room. It might even be seen as a kind of “holy rite.”
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Ted Seth Jacobs
Thoughts of a portrait painter
Hanging in my Museum-Home in France is a portrait I painted of my Mother in 1952. It feels a bit like a presence. As if something of, or from her, lives on.
I love to paint or draw portraits. Over the years I’ve done hundreds, many commissioned by clients. For me, I try to put any sort of egocentric feelings away, and ”become” the other person. I try to identify as completely as I can. There is a Yoga pracrtice called Samyana. It is the same idea. One tries to totally identify on the object of meditation. For example, by fixing all one’s attention on a candle flame.
For me, the uniqueness of an individual is sacred. A good portrait should be a portrait of every part of the face, down to the smallest sub-form. Everything should express the uniqueness of each being, person, or apple.
I began my studies in art school at age 16. We had a different model every week or two. I had the feeling that every part of each model seemed to look like that person, in some way I couldn’t figure out. I would think, if, for example, I put someone else’s nose on the model, would it seem to fit in? I didn’t think so. I was obsessed with the question, why do people look like themselves?
Many years later I found the answer. Each human being is formed by a sort of central seed logarithm. It is a proportional ratio of height to width, and in a modular shape. A shape that repeats itself everywhere on the body. Of course, the modular shape is longer on arms and legs, for example, but remains ”portraitistic.”
In art we have what are called ”high points” on the forms. That is where the contour bulges out more, and then changes direction. On the head, for example, for one person the cheeks may be the widest zone, with a quick tapering to the chin–a rather triangular lower face. On another subject the widest place could be above the level of the eyes, and taper less lower on the face, say, with a heavy jaw. It is this modular shape that is repeated throughout the whole body. That is why every part of a person looks like that person, seems to belong.
In the 1980s I did 125 drawings of dancers, for a one-man exhibition in a New York City gallery. It took me a wonderful eight months. All were drawn from life. Extraordinarily beautiful people, fellow artists, wonderfully picturesque costumes, amazing poses and models who were always ”on,” projecting a certain dynamic energy. An artist couldn’t ask for more.
It was strange though. The drawings had for me a certain poignancy. As I looked at them I couldn’t help but feel the art object would be here long after these vibrant young people were gone. Somehow, there was a sense of that mortality in the drawings. In fact, a few of the young dancers did die a few years later.
In the Egyptian area of Fayum archeologists unearthed a mausoleum of mummies. At the top of the exterior of each casket was a painted portrait of the deceased, where the head would be. These funerary portraits date from the Second Century AD. The technique is truly astonishing, the treatment of form highly sophisticated, and most impressive, the faces have an amazing feeling of being alive. A few hundred years later the Byzantine empire for many centuries produced only iconic art, a highly formulaic and deliberately unrealistic style. A more naturalistic kind of painting only surfaced at the beginning of the Renaissance, in the later 1300s, with Giotto and Masaccio. These artists launched the wonders of the Renaissance. A Fayum portrait could fit perfectly into an exhibition of Renaissance portrait art! Some of the Fayum paintings could almost pass for a Titian.
Portraits can function like a time machine, giving us glimpses of people and life styles from thousands of years past. As an example, women in 18th Century portraits are presented as very refined beings. They seemed to have inhabited another planet than today’s women.
Portraiture is a very demanding discipline. Of course, the likeness must be there. The surface of the canvas is like a hyper-sensitive sort of skin. The slightest false note can ruin the portrait, produce an inharmonious dissonance, or cause an unpleasant expression. Even a tiny place incorrectly done, say, on the jaw, can spoil the whole effect.
Today images of loved ones often exist only in theory. They are just zeros and ones stored on hard drives. This makes me sad because I love photographs. Once I saw silver shimmering in the blacks of silver gelatin prints I was sold on the physical qualities of photographs. The metallic origins of photography are more evident with tintypes. It’s impossible to just look at a tintype. One engages with the image, bobbing and weaving from side to side to catch the image as the light plays across the surface. Inspired by these things I started experimenting with weaving images with wire.
The subjects I depicted became more important when rendered in metal. The qualities of strength and permanence became more pronounced compared to an image printed on paper. The soft cotton or linen offset the rigidity of the metal, making the pieces more yielding and approachable than cast sculptures. Because the weave structures prevented the light from falling evenly across a plane I was able to achieve an affect similar to a tintype’s shifting image, but on a much larger scale. To see the image the viewer has to interact with it, in a way interacting with the person depicted. The disappearance of the face while standing in front of the weaving perfectly illustrated the fleetingness of life and the inability to know someone completely. You think you know them, then from a different perspective you see something else. Now they are here, now they aren’t. Photographs are images on paper, something that can be torn or discarded, but the woven metal becomes a portable monument to the person.
I was contemplating my next subject when I saw some 5,000 year old bronze artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I thought, bronze lasts, linen lasts. My mother had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and although her time was limited I could fix her likeness here using those materials in way that would last longer than any photograph printed on paper.
Throughout history, monuments have been made to those considered great and worth remembering, and my mother was that important to me. She was worthy of such noble materials. So I set out to weave her portrait.
My mother became camera shy in her later years. Aside from the cancer, she was healthier than she had been in a long time, and it showed. She looked great. But she no longer looked young, and her response to this was to hide in the back of group photos, or crop her face out of a much larger photograph and blow it up so it became very soft and the wrinkles were not noticeable. I wanted to document her as I knew her, strong and enthusiastic and the life of the party, but she cringed when I told her I wanted to do a portrait. When I brought it up again several weeks later I said, “I’ll let you chose the picture,” when what I should have said was, “I’ll take your picture and from those images you can choose which I weave the portrait from.” As soon as I said she could choose the picture she said, “I know which one!” She zipped off and returned with a portrait taken when she was 19 years old. I was crushed. I never knew that 19-year-old. It was a beautiful portrait, but of an unformed person. She hadn’t met my father, she hadn’t gone to college, or Europe, or fought against social injustices, or, or, or. And I guess mostly I was hurt because she wanted to be documented as she was before she knew me. I didn’t want to argue with her, I said that picture would be fine.
The whole thing bothered me, and I delayed starting the portrait for months. Eventually I decided to stop taking it personally and look at it from an objective standpoint. Photographs document a moment. They may not lie but at the same time they don’t tell the whole truth. We are very aware of the power of having our image fixed in time. The camera is one of the first things we become aware of and one of the last we forget. Babies quickly learn to smile for the camera, and bedridden patients in nursing homes will make an effort to smooth their hair for the camera even when they can barely lift their arms. The camera, or the knowledge that the camera is documenting you, is powerful. I had to respect that power and the way it affected my mother.
The person she was at 19, while not fully formed, had the same personality and qualities that she did at 70. The enthusiasm, the loud laugh, the take charge-ness that I knew would have been present then. Her body may have been 70 years old but she certainly didn’t feel old, at least she didn’t until she saw recent pictures of herself. I believe the most difficult think about cancer for her was that she loved being in command, and there was no controlling this thing in her body. The 19- year-old in the picture was not frightened of anything and that was how she wanted to see herself. I may not have been present the moment the shutter opened for that portrait taken in 1961, but I realized I did know that person.
I wanted to weave the portrait in silver on white linen so as the silver tarnished the image would become more visible. Mother was going to die but with this portrait the longer she was away from me the stronger her image would become. It would be an extremely slowed down version of the way a photograph becomes visible as the paper sits in dektol. The expense of silver ruled out this metal for a first attempt. Copper was chosen because it was so close to bronze.
My mother never saw the finished portrait. She saw other pieces I’d been working on and became quite excited about her portrait. I completed it before she died and planned to show it to her in person but never got the chance. Currently, the copper is pale and shiny against the white linen and the warm image flickers in the light, but with time it will become darker. I could keep it covered so the copper doesn’t oxidize, but I look forward to watching it change. I’d like it to turn very dark, maybe even go green in spots, a way of putting the age and experience I wanted to capture back into youthful image.
“Here in the Olive grove, Under the cobalt dome, The Ancient spirits move and light comes home”
— Excerpt from The Olive Grove by May Sarton
In my work, both with paintings and the Day of the Dead Installations, the real impetus is not necessarily an external event or person, but more an exploration of an elusive and often unconscious realm. Layers of time, ancestors, mystery, birth, death, transformation and hope are often themes in my work.
When I created the painting, “A Widow Keeper” it was a sorting through of a deep range of feelings, both my own and those of my best friend who had just lost her husband to an early death. Later, I realized it was an attempt to create a vessel to hold the pain and suffering we both felt.
While painting, and without a conscious intent, a shamanic woman began to manifest on the canvas. Layered in robes decorated with ancient symbols; a hand of death behind her back, her kind deep eyes rest on the viewer. She became the Widow Keeper; the one who helps hold the widow’s deep sorrow and sadness. Mythological and mysterious, unseen and present, she emerged from a veiled place in time to help and heal.
Some months after the painting, I created a large 10-foot tall three-dimensional Widow Keeper for a Day of the Dead installation. A larger than life (and death) figure who held the prayers and sorrows of those who left notes for her at her feet. She stood strong at the back of the gallery for weeks, honoring those who died and also offering a place of peace and hope for those left behind.
I never imagine how people will respond to my work. I only hope that some essence of the places I go when making the art may, in some small way, reach out to someone, and remind then of something true in themselves. For me, the Widow Keeper was a reminder that “The Ancient spirits move and light comes home.”
As told to Katherine Relf-Canas
Nina told me several poignant stories of loss in her life, which she responded to creatively. I was stunned by all the experience that was stored in this one person. I first learned about her when I went to see The Poetic Image at The Main Gallery in Redwood City, California. The show’s interplay of words, texts and iconography captivated me because I was writing about visual art, and the show was a visual art tribute to the written word.
Nina is a member of the Main Gallery co-op and participates in the gallery’s operations and shows. Though she has been through much grief, some of what I see emanating from the characters that she animates with clay is that her artwork also gives others an experience of joy. She lends form to animal figures who engage here in the real world with the spirit of whimsy.
I arranged to talk with her. Through her words, I felt I could imagine the art projects she described to me as though I were standing in front of them. (They are not on public display.) I was spellbound listening to how they came to be. They were absolutely grand, and she told the sad and poignant stories so well, stories that I paraphrase in my own words below.
I plan to profile Nina’s Lifeline project as well in a later write-up, which she co-developed with a friend. Both confronting loss, they wanted to openly explore the healing power of art with others and so they developed and led a series of hands-on workshops. The project was a great success and enriched many lives.
In Boboli Garden in Florence, Italy, is a set of drawing pencils that Nina set down into the earth on the grounds of Palazzo Pitti. The drawing tools are submerged and covered over with dirt. They were put in the ground as a marker to honor an artist who dreamed of studying art in this sophisticated town, birthplace of the Renaissance. This artist was Nina Koepcke’s daughter who died of a brain tumor at age 23. A ceramic artist, Nina Koepcke, whose hands have touched earth so often, dug into the soil to give something to it. Her daughter now touches that landscape in a symbolic way that is also concrete. She is a figure in that landscape. The pencils that once belonged to her daughter now belong to this city. And so she belongs to the garden and the city too, in all its beauty. And thus was created another piece of history that belongs to this city of artists.
On the wall of Nina’s studio are some large portraits. They are giant paintings on rolls of paper based on drawings Nina created at her husband’s bedside in the hospital. She went over them in acrylic and gouache. They depict him as a hospital patient; she has collaged his death certificate onto the paper’s surface. “I’ve been living with them all these years,” she tells me. I can’t help but take note of her phrasing thinking about how this simple phrase speaks to how those we lose still maintain a presence in our lives. I saw in this story of the making of her husband’s portrait a way that a painting of someone can be more than a simple artwork one might do to put on display. As Nina put it, “I did these just for me.”
Koepcke recently said her farewell to a lifelong friend who succumbed to breast cancer and died less than a year ago. They talked over their lives as she sat with her in hospice, sketching her “tubes and all.” Koepcke recounted the madcap and almost miraculous way she tracked her friend down as she had nearly disappeared without leaving specific information about where she was receiving her treatment. They were able to come together in time to see her friend again. She managed to hear stories she had never heard before and share some of her own. Over the course of the visit, Koepcke drew. It seemed to me that the drawings that she did lent new substance to their substantial friendship. She recently helped with a memorial for this friend. When her friend’s daughter asked to see the drawings she wondered if perhaps they would not be appropriate to show as the mother they depict might, she thought, be somewhat disturbing, “warts and all.” And by warts I mean tubes and wires. Yet Nina likes to look at the work, a record of their time together, a woman depicted not in her greatest beauty but in her veracity wherein another kind of beauty resides.
The recent passing of my father has had an enormous effect on my life. My dad was one of my biggest advocates, and his support shaped me to believe that I could achieve anything. His example, the way he lived his life, was with honor and integrity. These principles shaped me as an individual. He always told me never give up, be strong, be aggressive in my perseverance and follow my dreams. Since dad’s passing I feel calm but with deep sadness. I’ve had to tread lightly with facing the reality that he is no longer in my life. I no longer have that presence or that amazing platform of support.
Recently, I have discovered a surprisingly enormous underlying strength within me, as I’ve had to carry all responsibilities of running my school, Bay Area Classical Artist Atelier (BACAA). Reflecting back on the last few months, I’ve found that I have a sensibility to push through and continue with all that is expected of me. Tending to my family and my widowed mother as well as being anchored and centered. He was exceedingly ecstatic when we finally moved to our permanent location, April, 2011. It’s as if all of his support of me came to fruition. He was so proud. My dad loved to travel, and I spent months planning our trips to Europe. The trips were focused on the beauty of the European landscape, cities, towns and villages. Our trips were filled with art, and we discovered the culture and beauty in all that we saw and shared. Dad always made me feel appreciated and special, I miss that.
In my early years I really wanted to pursue an art career, and asked my dad to support my desire to go to an art school. My dad did not want me to pursue an art career and instead wanted me to study business. There were also very few artistic opportunities to convey classical realism in the early seventies. I was very disappointed and for a few years gave up the notion that I could develop as an artist. This and other growing pains caused my relationship with my dad to cease.
While I was working in Chicago, I was commissioned by Battle Star Galactia fan club to draw a series of portraits of the cast for a zine (independent magazine) where they would be publishing these portraits. The portraits were exhibited in a one- woman show in Chicago’s City Hall. When my great aunt saw my ability to draw portraits, she provided me an opportunity to become a court artist for the Chicago Courthouse. However, I ended up moving to the San Francisco Bay Area instead of accepting the offer.
In my mid years I felt this incredible urge to pursue becoming a full-time artist. I felt absolutely that I had to develop and share the beauty that I felt in my heart. I discovered a wonderful artist, Tony Ryder who influenced and shaped me in my journey to discover realism. I then travelled to France to meet with his teacher master artist Ted Seth Jacobs. Learning from Tony and later, Ted taught me to look more carefully at the amazing structure of the human form and how the organic forms are put together. I realized that not only did I want to continue to learn from them but also share their amazing gift to convey realism. As I was inspired by this amazing gift I wanted to start a school in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I could share my vision of beauty and realism.
In 2001, I hosted the first workshop with Tony Ryder in the San Francisco Bay Area. This grew into the Bay Area Classical Artist Atelier. BACAA provides a unique blend of classical art classes and workshops focused on the use of live models and natural light. We host the best contemporary classical artists of our time for these intensive workshops, which continue a traditional approach to drawing and painting.
Since then, BACAA has grown to be one of the most influential ateliers nationwide. We have hosted some of the most important classical realist artists today. The pinnacle was when we invited Master Artist Ted Seth Jacobs in 2007-2011. He has become my most influential teacher. I have also been influenced by Michael Grimaldi, who studied with Ted, and is a master artist in his own right. I continue to paint and draw. My inspiration is the organic human structure and form. Conveying with an open mind and complete honesty is where I am striving to be as an artist.
In mid 2011, we moved to a permanent location in San Carlos, California. My dad was thrilled beyond words with my accomplishments. He had instilled in me the strength and confidence to run a successful business, continue to teach my students, and develop my own artwork. It has been a huge and enormous undertaking. Our new location has provided much room for growth. In 2012 alone, we launched a three-month master program, hosted four highly lauded master instructors and continued providing intensive training on drawing and painting with Renaissance methods.
I feel privileged to have the opportunity to offer the teachings of master instructors of such high caliber here on the Peninsula. Unlike in universities, BACAA offers students one-on-one instruction to help them develop the skills and techniques required to paint like the masters. There is no better way for artists to develop their craft than to be taught in an atelier setting where the master teacher walks the students through the step-by-step techniques of drawing and painting a live model.
My dad remains in my dreams, and I see him as my guiding light. I miss him deeply as I coast gently over the waves of life knowing he is with me but not present.
Katherine Relf-Canas 2012