Watching My Friends Work

The Artist at Work
The Artist at Work

Last Friday night, Greenwood held it’s monthly 2nd Friday artwalk.  As part of that event, Taproot Theatre staged its own entry: the making of a portrait.  The artist was my good friend Sam Vance, and his subject was another good friend, Nikki Visel.  The impetus for this was a scene from Taproot Theatre’s next offering, Enchanted April (opening a week from Friday.)  The scene calls for an artist, a specialist in portraiture, to sketch a study of a fascinating new acquaintance (Nikki’s character).  The artist is drawn to this woman not only because of her beauty; she reminds him of his recently deceased mother.   Obviously, to stage the scene in the play, an actual portrait is needed.   So Sam and Nikki set up shop in the small, but cozy lobby of Taproot.   There was the easel, the chaise lounge, a few of Sam’s other paintings (water-lilies and landscapes…he does great work), and usually, a couple of people standing by, interested in varying degrees by what they were witnessing.

Sam Vance
Sam Vance

We all know the strange fascination that comes when watching an artist bring something into our experience that is unexpected and far beyond our own ability to make.  Aristotle said this delight in imitation is in our nature, and it’s plain to see when observing an artist working, and observing the observers.  It’s as if we were rooting for Sam as he stood there, barefoot and engaged, his body as physically involved as his hand, occasionally lifting one foot as he spread charcoal onto the paper.  (Painting as subtle sport, I thought at one point.)  I stood off to the side, brandishing a camera, snapping away, worrying that I was being obnoxious and distracting, but I didn’t care.  I was hoping to get in on the magic-making.  That’s what I was rooting for after all, for something magical to leap onto the canvas, some captured beauty, some effervescent something (as the character in Enchanted April says)…caught.   For three and a half hours this went on, page after page of studies, Sam finding his way toward what would eventually be the finished work (which I haven’t seen yet).

Nikki Visel
Nikki Visel

And then, of course, there’s the subject.  Nikki sat very still for a long, long time.  Sam went to her occasionally, said a quiet thing, touched her chin, asked a question, listened, and then drew again, as Nikki later said, as if he had a new understanding, that whatever he’d just heard or noticed had made a marked difference.   It was, literally, a study.  A study of a human face, but a study not done intellectually, as in the study of history or mathematics, but a study done with eye and charcoal and strokes of hand to paper.  What understanding results from this study is hard to say.  Perhaps understanding is the wrong word.  Perhaps it’s more of a knowledge, a connection, an intimate realization of the presence of the other.  Or perhaps the long stillness and move from one dimension to another (from lobby to paper) abstracts things, allows for less humanity.  It’s an old debate.   But something is exchanged between artist and subject, the between artist and audience, and at the end of the day, a new thing exists in the world, a creation to delight and call.

Sam Vance and Nikki Visel
Sam Vance and Nikki Visel
A few of Sam's other paintings
A few of Sam's other paintings

Hats off to my friends, in this case, especially Sam.  It was a pleasure to him work, and a still greater pleasure to know that its not really his artist prowess I’m most glad of.    What’s better than watching an accomplished artist do their work is knowing that that accomplished artist is your friend.

To see Nikki’s work, about which I feel the same, you’ll have to come see Enchanted April.

I like artwalks…

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