Friday, January 6, 2012

Portrait Painting

On our way back to Mysore after a very full three days working in the hospital, painting portraits of oncology patients. I was shepherded through the chemo wards by Mala, a lovely young woman who anticipated my needs (fresh water for painting, a stool or chair to place my supplies, a pen for portrait sitters to give me their information), whose presence was light and comforting. Whenever she led me into the wards, which are small and crowded with beds and family members, I felt a kind of flowing energy, surrounded by women of all ages in saris, clusters of hospital employees, some wearing sari uniforms, some in more western white garb. When she led me to a patient, sometimes the person was too groggy to be painted, other times they feared I might bring germs.

The patients were both curious and shy at my presence. Those that agreed to have me paint them were very willing to sit still for up to an hour, patiently and silently watching me work. Onlookers would gather around, photographing and sometimes videoing the process with their cell phones.I was keenly aware of the priviledge of being allowed into their lives at such a vulnerable time. Even the several older Muslim men I painted, with their fierce whiskers and furrowed brows, returned my occasional smiles with soft and humorous expressions. One Muslim man, wearing a red and black stocking hat with the improbable word Cute embroidered on its rim, invited me to his home “on the road to Hampi.”

I struggled with feelings of inadequacy towards my sitters, wanting to do them justice for the honor they extended me. I found when judgment arose, my paintings became stiff and overworked. Really I only felt good about half of them. Especially moving to me was the children’s optimism, lack of self-consciousness, vulnerability and endurance for the lack of privacy and the mysteries of what was happening in their bodies.

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