May I Paint Your Picture?
I wanted to ask the woman waiting on the bench outside our restaurant. “You’re so beautiful. Can I take a photo? I’m a painter.”
It worked in Italy, but that woman was Swiss, and “of a certain age.” Past the point of caring what she looked like in the hot sun, holding her watering can in her wide hat and sweating hair, she said yes. But this American woman was younger and unhappy. In a paisley summer dress designed for her cleavage, if need be, she could cover up with her white shawl. She was freckled, heavy armed, but firm. Hair draped in coils around her face hinted at red, as did her speckled cappuccino cheeks and nose.
Was she waiting for a no show? OK Cupid was wrong? They were not, in fact, a 95% match?
I’ll never know her story or what she thought of us. I pretended out loud, in wonder of the $6oo dragon faced heels in the window. My husband and I were full of muscles, cooked in cream and garlic, and rosé from the Bistro next door. The salad had been too much after the pommes frites, but we didn’t know that when we first clinked our glasses. “Aren’t they lovely! They’re sculptures,” I said. She sat on the bench, waiting and not looking at us. We walked on.
The last time I asked a strange woman if I could take her picture, I was in Philadelphia. The confusion of 30th Street station made her nervous. Her light gauze cap with dangling ribbons were useless against the heat. The heavy cotton of her long sleeves and dress were the real problem in August. She said no, but I took it anyway. It was a terrible picture. Today I still feel guilty, trespassing on the herding of her young children behind a husband in black straw hat, blocky clothes and heavy boots.
I am inspired at inconvenient moments. On the top floor of a double decker bus in Ireland, I stared at a man who had fallen asleep on the steps of a church with his arm outstretched. Walking lost, steps away from a narrow sushi restaurant on the southern tip of Manhattan, I was early for lunch with an old friend. It was easy to take a picture of the caretaker and her charge. She looked angry, while the pale old man drooled in his wheel chair. Cell phones make this easier, except for the guilt.
According to google photos, I took 887 photos on my recent vacation. I wanted to take more. The lawyers rushing to appointments. The kilted men queuing for Guinness. The family crossing the street to get married. The pensive man on the top of his bus next to mine. What would all these tiny, random, unfocused moments be worth if I took the time to paint them?
I didn’t ask today, and I was caught. Mothers are tender hearted fools, especially when watching other mothers. We relive those regretted phrases of haste or anger, often in public. “Now, please keep the volume low,” she whispered before handing her son the device from her purse. He quickly replied, “Yes Mam,” eager and hungry to get his screen. Subdued, like nursing a baby, mother and child abandoned themselves to separate inner worlds. My phone was held low as I pretended to read. He was dressed like my twelve year old, but seemed years older. That’s what drew me to them. I have a thing for awkward man-children with bright, searching eyes in the care of other adults. By the third picture my subject looked straight at me, and it was perfect.
An artist friend is hosting a workshop this week focused on the three essentials for creating: a community of support, regularity of practice, and a commitment to following inspiration. I’m inspired by strangers going about their business. This is an awkward relationship, and hardly the basis for a community of support. Sanctioned, seated portraits bore me. I prefer my people off guard. Timing is everything. Regularity comes at the cost of being that person who occasionally really annoys other people, or worse, steals their privacy. Today, I did not care. “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”