“I see your face in my sleep,” she said. “I know every feature by heart.”
Not the words of a lover, or even my mother. But from friend R. for whom I had been modeling for the a week.
And I believed her. Never had I been examined, dissected, scrutinized so closely for so long. And oddly enough, it wasn’t odd.
Another on my list of things I wouldn’t have done — or even remotely had time to consider doing — in my previous existence: sitting for a portrait. But when my schedule opened up, R. saw an opportunity and jumped right in, asking if I would consider letting her paint me.
I figured I was doing her a favor. Models are expensive for artists; she wanted new material (or, maybe, old material – many of those models are young and fit and gorgeous, but I digress); I was available. Besides, I was curious. What is her work day like? How does a painting come into being, really? Could I really sit still that long?
There was one, not inconsequential, catch. I’m not a big fan of being the center of attention. I don’t really like to be looked at. I’m kind of a behind-the-scenes sort of girl, a little camera shy. I built a career in that all-important but slightly mysterious #2 role. As a kindergartner I once burst into tears when I was cast as the lead in a little performance in which I desperately wanted to play a part, just not that part.
So deciding to be seen, really seen, was an interesting and very intentional choice for me, another plunge into the UnComfort Zone. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” I think she means that courage is about getting past our fears of revealing our authentic selves, but I also think there is a literal interpretation that is equally important. So, despite past preferences, I decided I wanted to show up for this gig and be seen. I would sit and be looked at and interpreted and captured in whatever way R. wanted.
The truth is, we’re all looked at and interpreted and captured all the time, often in significantly less friendly circumstances. But this felt more concrete.
This is the model’s job: you sit for 20 minutes in pose, not moving, braced (if you are lucky and the artist is your friend) and supported in hidden ways that don’t show up in the painting. Then you get a five minute break. Then you get back in that chair and you pose for another 20 minutes. Lather, rinse, repeat. From 9:00 to noon, and then back again from 1:00 – 4:00, until the light starts to fade and you’re both hungry and a little punchy.
For six hours a day for days on end, R. stared at me. She peered from around the canvas, squinted from several paces back, studied every inch of me. She used binoculars and mirrors to look at me even more closely, to catch every illusive feature. Her teachers came in and joined her in the squinting and staring.
I expected to feel exposed, revealed, unmasked. I expected to feel naked, even though I was fully clothed.
I believe as a species we don’t typically reveal ourselves fully. There are things we do that we don’t let others see (surely I’m not the only one who steals bites of forbidden fruit when no one is looking?), but I don’t subscribe to the idea that we are more truly ourselves out of the view of others. There are just things we choose to show – and things we don’t. But what happens when you are watched all day, every day, for days on end?
What happens is … you’re seen. Simply seen.
It was both more and less intimate than I anticipated. More, because no one has ever looked at me that intently over so many days, ever. Less, because all that staring still just scratches the surface. Surely, some facets of “inner me” were visible, but I didn’t feel invaded or trespassed upon. Rather, I felt deeply appreciated.
And in a society that is so often framed by the “male gaze”, in which women are scrutinized and mercilessly judged, I felt seen for who I am and valued just for that. R. and her teachers and colleagues stared at me – and they murmured about the beauty of what they were seeing, and wondered aloud about how to reflect what they saw as grace and warmth and radiance. They smiled back at me and spent hours working to capture what they were seeing.
Being seen in that way is really quite lovely.
p.s. When the portrait is complete, I will share!