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A Stranger’s Self Portrait

Written by Andrew Hart Benson

I let the coffee settle on my tongue for a moment. I swirl it around and peer at the four portraits in front of me. Something is wrong with them: perhaps my craft, or the models themselves. Either way I’m troubled.  

There is a duality in the portrait of Giacomo; part danger, part elegance. Dark crescents sink under his eyes, his eyebrows are angular and thick, his hair is slicked back by natural oils, and creases fold around his thin lips. 

I can see his ribcage and small muscles underneath his skin. He is dark, grim, and confident. He has the pride that other men I know have. He revels in a vampiric facade -he wants to intimidate men around him. 

I want to know more. I wanted to be drawn in. I want to draw him! I find myself possessed by this lust for knowledge. He is a demon in control of my brush. He has me convinced nothing could depict the grease in his hair, the angle of his cheeks, his belittling confidence.

My art will never be my own.

Then there’s Charlotte, her eyes large pools of cerulean innocence. I don’t have a problem capturing her essence. Her blonde bob is tucked behind her ears, her lips gradually widened into a pucker.

As she undresses her robe she pulls her arms up to cover her nipples but stopped herself. She forces herself to be comfortable. I doubt she ever did something like this. She is young, impressionable, innocent. She follows the orders of men – and her mother. She doesn’t know what to think, so I instruct her. 

I say, “Put your hand to your cheek,” and she does. “Now place your pinky finger right on the corner of your lip.” It’s too forced. “To the center just a bit…there! Perfect.” Her hands are long enough to be elegant, but not bony. They form to her face like she spent years sitting at the window, gazing astonished at the unknown world outside. 

“Now put your other arm and curve it around your waist.” She holds herself instinctually. Still the portrait looks forced. She tries to protect herself. She did what she thought I wanted, but Charlotte needs to hold and protect herself in her own time.  

My art can’t teach her how to protect herself. 

The third portrait is of Vincent. His frame is angular: square head. Cut arms. Square abdominals. I use harsh lines to carve out his muscles. The more I look at it the more I can see that something isn’t right. So many shadows and curves it’s impossible to sketch them all. The angle of his neck looks incorrect with a large mound of muscle that curves his neck to his shoulder.

“What’s the matter? Distracted?” he’d said as I got lost in the curve of his muscle. 

“It’s not perfect and it has to be perfect.” Vincent’s perfect, beautiful, but my interpretation is meaningless. I need to draw him exactly yet on canvas I can’t articulate the control that radiates from him. I hate my craft. I feel worthless and unable to represent what Vincent embodies. 

This is not what I want from my art.

The last portrait is of Olive. She is the strongest of all of them, shorter in stature and her muscles are less defined. But she can pick Vincent up and throw him across the room without breaking a sweat. Her shoulders are thicker, her chest wider, even her arms are the size of Vincent’s legs. 

She keeps her physical prowess and powerful frame concealed by baggy clothing. Her long brown hair falls down to her middle back and her brown beady eyes invite me into her gaze. 

“Put your clothing back on,” I instruct. She hides her true self from the world. Sure, it’s my job to notice things that the world doesn’t, to make sure I represent her perfectly. But she hated the way that she was built. She makes herself small in the eyes of men -even though she is stronger than them. 

So my art isn’t truthful. 

Each portrait has its own challenges. I’ve successfully understood each subject’s essence. I see right through them. Both Vincent and Giacomo have a dominating male power that seeks to control everything. I let myself be subject to their desires while ignoring the person. With Charlotte and Olive I let their insecurities alter my perception of them. Charlotte has been brainwashed that she cannot think without a man. Olive is insecure about her masculine traits. They’re all controlled by gender.

There’s a taste in my mouth that craves something different, something abstract but concrete at the same time. I take out another canvas. I start to sketch a silhouette. Their frame is tall like Vincent and has the elegance of Giacomo. Their eyes inspire innocence, like Charlotte. But there is a natural strength in their legs and torso, like Olive. 

As I paint over the silhouette, their presence becomes clearer. They take things from all of the different subjects; they are both male and female. They subdue the hyper-masculine confidence and need for control, while they amplify the vulnerability of women. 

The other four portraits before me are stereotypes, paragons of roles taught to us when we’re young. This binary lens of masculine and feminine hinders my ability to portray someone. But the portrait before me lacks any expectations. It is neither: it is non-binary. It forgoes any biases and does what a portrait is supposed to do: portray. Though it may be defined by the binary lens, it exists outside of it.

I take a step back to see my work from a different angle. As I step off my stool and inspect the portrait, I find something familiar about it.

It’s me. 

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