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June '05

Announcing: Hobart’s First Annual Mini Book Contest
prize: $500 and publication as the first installment of our new Short Flight/Long Drive "minibook" series

He Liked Fighting Nazis
  by Jonathan Shipley

Injured Wolf Howls at Moon
  by Lincoln Michel

How to Have Your Portrait Painted
  by K. B. Dixon

Harvey's Mouth
  by Caroline Kepnes

What it Means When the Sky Turns Pink and the Rain Starts to Fall
  by Kevin Kalinowski

First, find a painter. It's not as easy as you might think. Ask your artist friends if they know of anyone. They won't be offended that you haven't asked them -- they are abstractionists and performance whatnots and clearly dozens of isms beyond this sort of thing. Be persistent. Eventually someone will admit to knowing someone who will admit to knowing someone who will admit to knowing a figurative painter. Get his name. Talk to him. His political opinions will be appalling (the neanderthalic excrescencies of talk-radio), but his artistic judgments astute. Visit his new show. Pass on the punch they offer at the door.


Spend a week talking yourself into it. You were brought up on the romantic idea of the artist as hero, as visionary, as genius who peers through the veil of mere appearance to see the Truth. Get over it. Don't worry about the painter discovering and displaying something you do not want discovered and displayed. If you want to worry, worry about the painter imposing something -- either inadvertently or for his own sinister painterly purposes.


Meet for a cup of coffee. There are things you need to discuss. To begin with, you want to know how much this picture is going to cost. You also want to know how long it is going to take to complete. (The literature of portrait painting is filled with stories of marathon encounters -- Lord's 18 sittings for Giacometti, Vollard's 115 for Cezanne, West's 300+ for Auerbach.) When the painter tells you one, maybe two sittings, feel encouraged -- sort of.

Sort of because, while this is the answer you wanted to hear, it is not -- you realize when you hear it -- a completely comforting piece of news. It confirms what the pictures themselves have suggested: this is a painter who is to some degree committed to the aesthetic of the spontaneous. While there are lots of things you like about these sorts of pictures -- the sort that are the product of painters who are to some degree committed to the aesthetic of the spontaneous -- there are some things about the idealization of the impulse that trouble you. (The anti-intellectual nature of this idealization for example.)


You have a couple of requests. Don't feel bad about them. Before the artist was a hero who saw through the veil of mere appearance to the Truth, he was a craftsman and, as such, usually worked to order.

Ask first for something smaller. (You are afraid you are going to hate it, and the smaller it is the easier it will be to hide.)

Secondly, ask for something darker. Most of the pictures in the show were done in a bright, quasi-Matissian pallet of reds, oranges, and pinks -- a pallet to which you do not respond. Ask for something closer to the depressive Flemish end of the spectrum -- something maybe in blacks and browns.


In all, the picture will take three sittings. Frayed at first, you go all Gombrichy. You rattle on about Rembrandt and his command of light, Rubens's symphonic qualities, Ribera's debt to Caravaggio. On your way home that evening it will occur to you that in chewing all this highfalutin fat you may have made the painter nervous, bedeviling him with concerns about the nature of your expectations. At the next sitting you try to lighten things up. Bring something you doodled at lunch. It's titled "An Artist's Alphabet": D is for Dada, the movement that was, in a sense, MOMA's papa; E is for Easel, the rack upon which an artist's hopes are tortured; F is for Form, and so on...


Wait until you get home to look at the finished piece. (Sitters' reactions to their portraits have run the gamut. Gertrude Stein loved Picasso's picture of her -- it hung at the center of her famous salon. Winston Churchill hated Graham Sutherlin's. He said it made him look like he was having a difficult stool. Manet took a pair of scissors to a picture Degas did of him and his wife.)

When you see the picture for the first time, feel tremendous relief. Exhale. Whatever else it might be, it is first and foremost "good." In this regard, it's not something you are going to have to be equivocal about. That hurdle cleared, start looking for your features. Likeness -- while not a high priority -- is not entirely unimportant. Get excited when you find your nose, your chin, your eyes. You have no idea what you expected, so you have no idea how close this has come to being it. Over the next few days relax into an acceptance of its being whatever it is. Assess it on its own terms. Keep looking at it. Keep wondering if it is you. Show it to someone else. Ask: is it me, does it challenge one's sense of the familiar, further the debate about volumes and voids, seem Kokoschkafied?

Show the picture to your mother when she comes to visit. She likes it. Mention this to the painter. He will be pleased. Mothers, he will say, are a tough audience.


Live with the picture for a while. Say a year. Congratulate yourself on having gone through the experience. Ridicule acquaintances who seem fearful of trying it themselves. Call them lily-livered. Write about it for one of your favorite publications. Borrow a literary device from Lorrie Moore.

K. B. Dixon lives in Portland, Oregon. He has published poems, stories, and essays in a number of journals. He has also written visual arts reviews for The Oregonian and was for a time a regular columnist for both Scene Magazine and Metro Magazine.