A family can be our deepest cause for celebration or trauma, a source of both pleasure and pain. We are all born into one over which we have no control, a set of people who come fully-loaded, so to speak, with fully-formed personalities or baggage that shapes our outlook on life. Traditions (and recipes, photos, linen, clothing) are passed, exchanged, amended and carried on throughout generations. As children grow into adults they begin to fashion their own families, changing bits here and there where possible and transferring what they either intended or never intended to transfer. All of this makes me feel that the importance of family (especially of a good one) is irreplaceable, and to acknowledge this, I set out to paint nearly thirty portraits of my family members during a three week stay in my home town.
Over the course of this project I focused my attention on one root stock of my family tree, my mother’s side. Both immediate and extended family members exuded copious amounts of love, kindness, and generosity, and they were generous with the most limited of assets – their time. Of any kind of social gathering I’ve always felt most comfortable with my family, but sitting with each individual family member for an extended amount of time was not exactly natural. Sittings for portraits are intimate occasions. And yet at the outset it seemed perfect – we were to be uninterrupted by phones or TV or other people, the perfect “family time.” Coincidentally these interruptions did happen and so it is with family; you learn to accept the things you cannot change, hoping only for the wisdom and the strength to change the things you can.
What was unnatural about each sitting was the so-called “gaze” of the artist, or my gaze, making the sitters a little uneasy. Games were played, TV was watched, and wine was consumed to alleviate the discomfort of being looked at, but true relief for everyone was found in conversation. It is admittedly difficult for me to talk and paint simultaneously, but it quickly became something I needed to master. I believe this says more about the role of art in our society than it does about my family. We are trained to believe that art is something holier-than-thou, that it should be difficult to understand and perhaps even judgmental. My family joked that I was attempting to capture their essence, a magical word, really, reinforcing the idea that art is ethereal or conjured, but I believe because of my own experiences that all art forms are both learnable and teachable.
So my family and I talked. Conversations included travel plans, family history, advice about relationships and children, and health and wellness, with touching moments of support and enthusiasm for the project. We even talked about art. My mother asked about my painting process and I told her I looked at faces for their shapes and colors, and so she managed to shift the gaze; saying nothing, she looked right back at me, and I felt the discomfort that I’d instilled in others as she examined my face for shapes and colors. The only thing that could break the tension was to talk about something else.
More than what it says about art in general, this project holds meaning for me on a deeply personal level.
“It is interesting,” said my oldest brother during the first sitting of the series, “how we can have the same genetic material but turn out so differently.” He was referring to my artistic inclinations but could very well have been accurately talking about our entire blood-line. Though the same, we are all so very different. It was only fitting that each family member receive an individual portrait to somehow reveal their unique personality.
And yet, as the series grew outward, expanding to include portraits of second cousins and great aunts and their children as well as everyone who’d married into or been taken in by the family, my work became less about blood and genetics and more about ties, connections, associations, and closeness. All these people live more or less geographically near each other, and that helps with remaining close, but plenty of families live in the same place but don’t speak. That isn’t what makes our family a family. We have also all felt the absence in this series of children, grandchildren, siblings, and cousins who live farther away. Even I live far away most of the time. So what is it? What is it that makes a family a real family? I’m still not sure. Perhaps it is one of those things that you just don’t try to fix unless it’s broke.
Taking Family With Me
As an artist, a portrait has always been a way for me to pay homage to someone I love or loved. In the past I painted my deceased grandfather and gave it to my mother. I painted pictures of my siblings when I longed to be closer to them. I painted portraits of boys I loved (then dutifully painted over them when new boys came along). The sentiment of this series is really no different and I recognize it as a way to bring my family home with me to a place that will never be their home. I miss them, and this project, in some ways, mitigates that longing. As for longevity of the set, perhaps it will eventually become one of those familial objects that we pass through generations, perhaps changing and being added to as time goes on. Like our family, I only hope the portraits somehow remain together.