A black-and-white man stands with his hands behind his ears. His thumbs are placed behind his earlobes, and his fingers are splayed open like collecting horns receiving an invisible broadcast. His mouth moves as he speaks, but only the sound of a projector clacking can be heard.
An icon is a small slab of wood onto which is painted the image of a heavenly face. It orients a viewer by virtue of its flatness. There are, technically speaking six sides – front, back and four finger-thick edges – but functionally speaking, an icon has only one side: the front side. The other sides serve only a supporting role. When a viewer experiences an icon, he faces its painted side. In this way, an icon is like a looking glass. For it to work, a viewer must be directly in front of it, facing it like a mirror from another realm.
Ever since seeing a movie a couple of months ago about street artists and graffiti artists who use stencils to paint their works on buildings, I have been wanting to do a large-scale art project. When I saw the old tractor shed looking sad and abandoned with some lazy and ugly graffiti on the doors, I knew it was the perfect spot for something. Cleaning out and fixing up the old house on the property had been rewarding, so I thought it was time to give the shed a new look. But what to paint?
(When I visited England in July, I spent a day with Andrew's Aunt Bonnie. She is an artist with multiple talents including drawing, fashion design and, most recently, sculpting with clay. She is writing a book about some of the techniques she has discovered working with clay. She asked me to write an introduction for the book and so I interviewed her and wrote this short piece.)
When we were children, my sisters and I would spend every summer in the mountains of Bulgaria. Small and pale, we stood out among the strong and sun-tanned village kids who lived there. They called us "the little white ones". The adults would work all day in the fields and, left to our own devices, we would wander through the mountains to play. The air was thick with the fragrance of pine and wild geranium. The water in the rivers we swam in was clear and clean enough to drink. When we got hungry, we would feast on the strawberries, blueberries and hazelnuts that grew wild in the forest. I am sure there were wild animal around – bears, wolves, boars – but I can't remember ever being afraid. In my memory of those summers, it was always sunny and pleasant.
I had the idea to reclaim my dad's abandoned tractor shed by painting over the graffiti and replacing it with the spray-painted image of a hand pointing rightward I got from a book on nineteenth century wood engraving. Either black or red-orange.
From the porch of my grandparent’s home three broad steps folded out and connected with a little concrete sidewalk that stretched across the lawn square by square toward a squat knobby oak tree making no clever turns along the way. Squares big enough for a child to sit entirely within but small enough for him to hop from one square to the next. I’d count them as I hopped. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve – the first twelve were well defined – but as the sidewalk approached the old oak, the boundaries became rougher. Buckled upward by the slow churning of the tree’s growing roots twisting silently in the darkness underground, the squares became less countable: some breaking, some broken, some breaking-versus-broken. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen or twenty, even twenty-one or twenty-two, depending on how you counted. The merrily-this-way-forward-up-and-turned-the-crooked-stile. Life is a lot like a sidewalk.
The brain is a humming grid of electricity and chemicals, then life pulls the plug and the brain’s humming ceases. While the brain is alive, its circuits are engaged and the living network of neurons shapes and reshapes itself continuously, growing as it absorbs the richness of its environment. Brain tissue is not unlike a highly sensitive film we carry around in our heads to capture and preserve experiences for review at a later date. Show the brain a bowl of lemons and – when the power is on and the grid is alive and humming – an image of the bowl of lemons will be etched into the brain. The wet and salty bulk of the brain is the texture of warm tofu. Somehow, this miraculous material is able to register the shape and the color of the lemons. By virtue of its liquid-like shape-shifting, it stores the memory of lemons in the architecture of its substance, and, if the neurons sizzle correctly, the lemons can be remembered. Beings with brains have memory. Objects without brains are unable to remember, at least not neurologically. Objects without brains are also unable to forget, in any event, you can’t teach a bucket to fetch.
Would you ever wear lipstick? Would you ever not wear lipstick? Would you only wear lipstick in a studio? What is it about the tip of a stick of red wax – or whatever lipstick is made of these days – that frightens us into submission? Why does lipstick draw such a bright line between us? To which groups do we belong? From which groups are we separated? When is it OK to cross over? What part of ourselves do we give away daily to the pull of the people around us? What part do we fiercely defend? Why do we fear being apart? What is the thrill of belonging? Why do we wear costumes to make us feel real? How is adding lipstick a subtraction? How do we become ourselves naturally? And how do you say this in a portrait? One act of artifice on a face bearded with artifice in a studio illuminated with artifice, stacked like layers of lipstick to reveal the unspoken truth: I choose to become myself even though I am afraid.
Some people say, “You will never put lipstick on me if you ever take my photograph!” The braver souls among us say, “This lipstick is my armor and my foil. I dare you to take my portrait.”