As a painter of people, one of my main concerns is how to create life without copying it. How do I make my characters come alive? What do I need to do? Sometimes it’s only a dab of white in the dark of the eye, or a turned-up corner of the mouth. Suddenly, the figure starts a conversation, engages you. That’s when I know I have been successful, when the artwork talks to me.
Many years ago, in my other life as a professional preserver of historic houses, I found myself sitting at a Zoning Board hearing. Suddenly, a large group of well-dressed men and women entered, obviously awaiting the next item on the agenda. Cashmere-coated and be-furred, they appeared like Birds of Paradise among the usually shabby supplicants for undeserved zoning changes and variances. My husband (the clinical psychologist, who rarely attended these meetings) looked them over with his professional eye and announced: “They look like a bunch of thugs!” And at that moment the proverbial light bulb went off in my head; although expensively coiffed and dressed, they were nothing but a bunch of thugs. I had dealt with them often enough to know that the mask of culture and gentility came off pretty quickly when they couldn’t get what they wanted.
I went home and began my “Man of Importance” series: more than a dozen figures based on the characters I had seen that evening. The wealthy businessman/developer, his wife, his girlfriend/secretary, his lawyers, accountants, bankers, gangster protectors, the politicians he owned, and so on and so forth. I did a series of powerful drawings, then transferred them onto acetate and, using my ever-present overhead projector, turned them into six-foot-tall figures made out of huge sheets of box cardboard. As lightweight cut-outs, they could be held so that the bearers’ legs became the puppets’ legs. I was amazed at how life-like they were: menacing, lewd, conniving, a Brechtian cast of characters, corrupt to the core. The main figure (the Man of Importance) bears a remarkable resemblance to Bernie Maidoff, even though I created him more than a decade before Bernie actually appeared on the scene.
In order to create my characters, I take a piece of charcoal and draw and redraw the giant figures until they “come alive.” Like the Donatello “Zuccone” I referred to last week, they have to talk to me! Once that contact takes place, the work is finished.
I’m currently working with a poet who has created a series of poems in the form of liturgies using a church-style preacher call and congregation response. I’ve enlisted friends to hold the figures up (they become almost eight feet tall) and speak the poet’s lines. Another friend is lending me the use of an old movie theater he owns and the performance should take place some time this Spring.
By the way, since they are a “Repertory Company” (the Renee Kahn Players) please feel free to come up with other ideas for them. They hate standing around in the attic waiting for a gig (see how lifelike they’ve become to me?)