Wednesday evening I drove through heavy Atlanta traffic to reach the Buckhead Diner for a 6:30 reservation. I was meeting a special friend I had not seen in several years. The conversation was only the slightest bit awkward for the first ten minutes, and then we talked like we'd seen each other last week. But there was so much catching up, and so much fascinating comparison of notes, that the valet parking closed before we moved from the table, the manager brought us our keys, and I believe we were the last patrons in the restaurant, nearly five hours after we sat down. We thought two hours had passed.
One of the hundreds of things that came up during the evening was that my inner artist does not look like I do on the outside. For one thing, I know the artistic inner me is clean shaven. I'm sometimes startled to see my beard in mirrors for this reason. He's also got darker hair than I had even before I started going gray - almost blue back (mine was dark brown before it went gray in my early thirties).
This led my friend to ask a brilliant question, "So when you do a self portrait, who are you painting?"
I was dumbfounded for a moment. I started to talk and had to stop, grin, and look off to the side for a minute. Then I laughed and said I had never thought about it. After a few more moments I explained that I was painting my external self, the way I see it. But I was not painting my inner self. I said I'd never tried to paint the inner self.
Since then I've given that further thought. (One of the great things about my relationship with this friend is the number of things he's placed in my closet of "things to ponder.") There are actually several internal versions of "me" and each has a different appearance in my mind's eye. For instance, there is Virgil Tangelo, who is certainly an internal Steve, and has actually been one way I see myself since junior highschool. Virgil has a beard, but it's red. He lives a romantic roving life, like some early 20th century British adventurer and explorer (or at least he does in his head). The Virgil side of me is closest to the surface when I read certain fiction, and when I travel through some new place alone, especially if I get lost and enjoy it. I've drawn or painted Virgil four or five times, now, including the two examples here. (Two more paintings with Virgil here and here.)
And there are aspects of my interior sense of self which emerge in the portaits of my external face. All of the portraits emphasize or play with certain visual elements. And one of the fascinating things about self portraits is the way they reveal how the artist "sees." It can be jarring for others, including a portrait subject, to view the results. History has many instances where a subject, or the subject's family, hates a portrait, and has it destroyed, or refuses to accept it (or pay for it). I just read about one of the last annual portraits of Elizabeth I, which was rejected by the queen because it made her look too old. She did not see herself that way.
We all have a self, I think, which is not the same as what we see in the mirror. Many people I've known admit to having several different inner selves, as I do. For me, the self that paints is possibly the deepest and strongest - the one that I can trace furthest back into my past. And while I do have a sense of how that "me" looks, I have never tried to paint that portrait. The artist has never done his own portrait.
So I will have to see what happens, now that this notion has been laid before me.
Illustrations in this post:
Self Portrait 5, Self Portrait 1, Self Portrait with Colored Beard, Virgil's Escape, Self Portrait 2, October Trip Painting 8 (Virgil Rides a Friend)