Wednesday, October 27, 2010
The Portrait Artist
by Adam Madison
I’ve been an artist since I was a small child drawing stick figures and boxy houses. I still remember pointing enthusiastically at the Crayola globs saying, “This is Mommy and this is Daddy.” My parents, always supportive of me, applauded my efforts and told me how “nice” my drawings were. Their positive reinforcement kept me motivated and soon the globs became identified as human. Soon I was drawing with enough detail that I was able to draw faces that could be recognized at first glance. I became especially good at self portraits with hours spent in front of the mirror, perfecting the shape of my nose and eyes.
This was the skill that validated me. In High School, I began sketching senior photos from my yearbook. Or I would take my own photographs that I could draw. I often used my portraiture as means to impress girls. They always were flattered, but I still spent prom night at home, painting another self-portrait. I was building a portfolio to submit to an art school.
Unfortunately, I lived in a small town where the only art was in comic books and leaving home wasn’t an option. So, like everyone else with my family’s economic status, I landed in Community College. This was a huge kick in the balls. My progress already had been stagnating, and my confidence was depleting. I feared I might never be recognized as an artist.
Regardless, I continued producing elaborate sketches every night. It had become more than a hobby. It had become my identity, how I legitimized my worth as an individual. And, like my high school days, I hoped that I could impress just a few people and at least gain some social recognition.
Sandy was the girl that I most wanted to recognize me. I could tell she was very intelligent after listening to her speak in biology class. She also was beautiful. One day, before class, I snuck a few pictures of her with my cell phone. I also sat next to her, so that I could maintain a good profile. A few times, I caught myself staring dreamily at her rather than drawing. She must have noticed because she started covering her face. Fortunately, I had the photos on my cell phone to consult.
By the end of class, I had captured a perfect likeness. I tore the page from my sketch pad and rushed out of class. I stood just outside the door, and held the picture right in front of my heart. I wanted it to be the first thing that she saw when she entered the hall. I stood there for what seemed like a century, trying to maintain a smile while my sweaty palms stuck to the paper.
When Sandy finally emerged, her response was not what I expected. She was a deer in headlights, trying to determine if she should run or keep still. Her mouth fell open and her eyes locked on the drawing while she further calculated her response. Finally, she said, “That’s nice.”
“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “It’s for you.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s very nice.”
She accepted it, saying thanks. Her face turned red, and there was the awkward silence to which I had grown accustomed. She then turned and walked off at a rapid pace, and I trailed behind. There was nothing in that direction, but I thought maybe we could have a conversation if I stumbled upon her again. She never once looked over her shoulder. If she had, she might not have crinkled her portrait into a ball with such fervor before depositing it into the waste basket.
I didn’t paint or draw much after that. Instead, I began dusting off all of my old work: pictures of old friends, forgotten friends and imaginary friends. Art apparently had been just a symptom of my loneliness. Cursed with a shyness that kept me from talking to the ones I admired, I compensated by building relationships with their faces. This began with my Mom and Dad, as I tried to paint a more flattering picture of my home life. Sadly, this was the only recognition that either of them had ever provided. Always, they were too busy with work or outside friends to provide the approval that I sought. Instead of being a role model, my father buried himself in his woodshop, making his own creations. Instead, of family vacations, he took time off for hunting season and spent it alone with a gun, waiting for animals to kill. My mother only drank cocktails and read books.
Each portrait became the face failure, theirs and mine. One by one, I discarded them into a metal can that I carried into my yard to ignite. The fire blazed like my fury. The charred faces flared and screamed with smoke. These were the faces of those that had betrayed me with placating words of approval that meant nothing. I had built monuments to them with paints and pencils, yet they could not udder even one word of sincerity.
Watching my life’s work go up in flames was strangely gratifying. This in itself was a work of art and, unlike my portraits, conveyed true emotion. I only wished it could burn forever. I continued feeding faces into the fire, and I stared intensely at the flames that now warmed my face. The heat drew beads of sweat to the surface of my forehead, and I glistened. The slate was now clean, and I felt inspired to create something truly original. It would not be nice, but it would be remembered. It would be abstract and modern, contemplated by all that discovered it.
This vision flourished in my head. I tried to silence it with booze that I swiped from the kitchen cabinet. It only fueled me, as I watched embers float into the night sky. The longer I sat the more necessary it became to follow through with my project. I put it off for another hour, however, as I thoroughly cleaned my bedroom and organized my materials. I drank the entire time, adding periodic doses of ephedrine that I had been using a study aid.
In my room, I found a large mounted canvas that I had been saving for something special. I knew now that this would be it. I painted the entire surface a deep yellow. I added a frame of tree-green paint along the perimeter. This was my favorite color; but, most importantly, it would really bring red to life like the spot on a 7up can. Finally, I hung it on my wall, just a little higher than my own head. Its position was critical.
The paint dried quickly, and that was a good thing because in another hour I would likely fall unconscious. I was nearly done with the canvas, but I was afraid that it might tear. I decided to reinforce it with a sheet of plywood, and there was plenty of it in my father’s woodshop.
I measured the canvas and started up Dad’s table saw. The burn of the wood was pleasant. The grind of the blade was a symphony, and I thought about the damage it could do. It badly needed replacement and did not make a clean cut. Large slivers were left jagged along the edge. One stabbed my index finger, as I picked up the board. I was entirely numb from the alcohol and did not feel a thing, as I extracted the splinter with my front teeth. I squeezed out a large bead of blood from the tip of my finger, admiring its color. Very slowly, small droplets fell to the floor and sunk into a carpet of sawdust. I wiped the excess onto my canvas.
Despite the poor cut of the board, it fit nicely behind the canvas. I hammered several nails through the frame and into the board. I was incredibly drunk at this point, so the nails stuck out every which way. I thought this added a sense of desperation that complemented the seriousness. But it also would add stability to the face of the work. Finally, I anchored it to my bedroom wall with woodscrews.
I now went into preparing the photography element of my project. I set up a tripod and positioned the camera, focusing on the bright yellow with the green frame nearly touching the perimeter of the shutter. I set the timer, clicked the shutter release and hurried to stand in front of the frame. I felt like I was having my picture taken for a driver’s license, only much more exciting.
I didn’t smile. I looked very sad, deranged and delirious. This definitely was a step forward and truly original as far as I knew.
I returned to the garage to sweep up a large quantity of saw dust. But this was more for courtesy than artistry. I carried it back to my room in a five-gallon bucket and dumped it all around my bedroom floor. I pushed the timer button on my camera again and stood on the mound of saw dust. I put my father’s shotgun in my mouth, angled it up toward the yellow center of my canvas. Three—two—one—CLICK
It would have been glorious; the splatter of blood across the yellow canvas, a speckled mosaic of hair and skull fragments. The random burst of pellets from the 12-gauge shotgun shell would have peppered through to the wall behind. Timing the trigger with the camera’s timer, however, was more difficult than I had anticipated. I pulled at the moment the shutter clicked. I realize now that this would have only captured the aftermath, not my head’s explosion.
I now had two images and a wasted canvas. I feel the first displayed confidence. There I was, taking ownership of my life for the first time. I was not afraid. I made my decision and I was following through. My determined stare was fixed on my audience, whoever it might be. It said, “Fuck you. This is my face, and I am taking it with me.”
The second photo was the epitome of failure. Not only did I miscalculate the timing, the stupid gun misfired. So instead of feeling my head, my soul, my consciousness blast into infinity, I only heard the hallow twang of the firing mechanism. My eyes were suddenly clenched in fear. My lips wrapped around the barrel like a faggot sucking a cock. Drool dribbled down my chin with the taste of metal. I did not try again. I merely lay down in the saw dust like a penned animal and cradled the weapon.
I woke to panic-stricken voice of my mother. “Adam, Adam,” she shrieked. “What have you done? What is all this?”
My head pounded, and it was hard to see at first. And, through blinding light, the consequences of my actions slowly came into focus. I first saw the legs of the tripod, as I stared down the perspective of the floor. Then the clunk of my father’s boots came into sight. I felt the stock of the gun pressed between my thighs, and one hand rested on its pump. I wish I would have had the frame of mind to make a second attempt, but I was too scared to think.
“Adam,” my father said. “Adam,” was all that he could say.
Slowly, I erected myself and raked my hands through my hair. The gun now lay at my feet. I straightened my hair again, as if doing so would prepare me for what was to come. But there was no talking my way out of this. I could only wait and see. So I said nothing. I just stared at the gun on the floor until I felt the strangulating arms of my mother embrace me. She wept. She stepped backwards. She ran her hands down each of my hands, trying to brush everything away. Her quivering lip and streaming tears; my expression was stone. She passed off to my father, who ushered me to the car. I never asked. He never said. But I knew where we were going.
I was wrong that night; my suicide had been a success. I am dead now. The life in me simply evaporated. My father shipped the remnants off to the psychiatric hospital. They keep me fed and watered; give me pills so I don’t think or feel too much. I’m now completely inanimate, being passed back and forth between my assigned keepers. I eat and defecate. I sleep and wake. Sometimes I have visitors, but they don’t see me; only themselves in my glassy stare.