This piece was published in Family First/Mishpacha magazine this week. Enjoy!
Portrait of an Artist
The self-portrait: every artist’s got one. Some have many. I, personally, have done three.
What is it about a self-portrait that is so engaging? Is it merely a reflection of the artist’s peculiar self-absorption? Is it the belief that in all of G-d’s glorious creation there is nothing as lovely or as worthy of recording for posterity as my own exquisite face? Maybe it is simply a practical exercise in light and color using the most readily available model? Or perhaps it is an honest attempt at self-discovery, an inner struggle to answer the eternal question, Who am I?
As an artist, I will tell you the truth: I don’t know. All I know is that there is something oddly satisfying about the self-portrait.
Art, thankfully, is not photography. When you see a picture of yourself, you are more likely than not going to exclaim, “That is not me! I am not that pale! Is that my nose? I do not have that many wrinkles! And is that a sheitel or a bird’s nest sitting on my head?!” And when, due to a miraculous fluke in the lighting, you finally get a picture that makes you look taller, younger, thinner, and prettier than the person you usually see in the mirror, you have an urge to blow it up and hang in the living room. Or maybe put it on a billboard. Instead, you simply send it out on the upcoming holiday card, or forward it to everyone on your email list. Cropped in a number of interesting ways, in case anyone wasn’t paying attention the first or second time it flashed across the screen.
But with a paintbrush, you are master of your own destiny. You want roses in your cheeks, an aristocratic nose, and silky chestnut curls? Not a problem. While I’m at it, I’ll erase those fine lines and blemishes.
That’s not to say you won’t recognize the finished product as me, in all my painted glory. I pride myself on my ability to capture a likeness. But a little artistic license never hurts, if you know what I mean.
When you use self-portraits as landmarks in the journey of self- discovery, it’s a fascinating ride. The first recorded self-portrait of the great artist, Dena Ackerman, dates back to her youth, when she was about thirteen years of age. You can see that she takes her art, and herself, very seriously. Not a glimmer of a smile, no Mona Lisa mystery. Just a fine pencil drawing of an awkward adolescent, large plastic glasses and all. It will be a few years before she learns that staring straight into the mirror with a poker face is not the ideal way to portray oneself to one’s best advantage.
Here we are, a few years later. We see a bit more creativity in terms of pose and attitude. This self-portrait is all long hair, long legs, and ego. I suppose that’s what being sixteen is all about. Shockingly narcissistic. Let’s move right along.
Ah, 2013. An absolutely lovely self-portrait! See how serene she is, how demure, as she gazes down tenderly at her brood of four? See how they cluster around her like little angels dressed in white, so innocent and loving. And clean!
Yes, this is me! These are my children! I could stare at this vision of loveliness for hours. Again I have to wonder, am I really so obsessed with myself? The painting is finished; it has a happy home in Florida on my grandparent’s mantel. Let’s get back to real life, and put in a load of laundry. Or pull the kids apart before someone gets seriously injured.
When the kids are not exactly behaving like angels, and I’m feeling frazzled and not particularly loving, I wish I had that portrait hanging in my own living room. Then I could reassure myself that the image on the canvas is what my real life looks like. The scene in my kitchen, with all four kids screaming for my attention at the same time, where I’m wearing the same clothes as I wore yesterday because I fell asleep in them and didn’t bother to change this morning, is an aberration. Really, my life is picture-perfect. Or rather, painting-perfect.
My sixteen-year-old self done in pencil would agree.