By Andy Weddington
Friday, 22 April 2011
"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Pablo PicassoWednesday evening a week ago I dined with an artist.
Her name? Madeleine. She goes by "Maddy" and "MADDY" is how she signs her work.
Perhaps you've heard of her? I know some readers have.
But in case you're among those who've not and are already wondering--mentally leaping ahead, she's not related to Austrian-born American author, Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962), who wrote children's books featuring the character "Madeline" (different spelling), and she's not kin to famous artists Basseporte, LeMaire, and Rouart who all share the first name, and more familiar spelling, Madeleine.
So continuing on...
I first met Maddy nine months ago--in her hometown at a dinner celebrating her dad's milestone birthday and a cookout the following day. Those two encounters were brief so I'm not sure if she remembered me or not. How often do any of us remember folks we casually and ever-so-briefly meet believing we may not see them again? And those times were likewise firsts meeting her family and some friends.
Maddy, along with her parents and grandmother, journeyed to San Diego, from the still cold and snowy midwest, to enjoy sun and warmth and see sights and to relax. And to tackle art when the mood struck.
Her arrival at the famous eatery--"CBH" for Coronado Brew House, on the west side north end of Orange Avenue on beautiful Coronado, was low-key. No limo. No groupies. The sidewalk was not lined with screaming, sign-holding, autograph-seeking fans. No paparazzi. No "60 Minutes" correspondent. Not even a photographer or reporter from the local rag. No entourage of any sort--just family. So most likely no one noticed--not even the hostess. And if anyone did notice all they saw was another group for dinner.
Once inside, their party of four meandered back to the table where my wife and I were sitting. They, clad in California casual, fit right in. Maddy wore a bright pink and white striped shirt and a 60s-looking baby blue plastic headband, adorned with a few colorful plastic daisy-like flowers, that kept her shoulder-length dark hair away from her gleaming blue eyes.
We rose to greet them.
Following pleasantries and settling in a chair outside the semi-circle booth, Maddy talked about what they'd seen during the first couple days in San Diego. Sea World was a hit. And the next day the Zoo was on the agenda. She didn't mention drawing or if she'd planned to during the rest of their stay.
But small talk done and drink and entree ordered for all, Maddy suddenly turned to sketching, while chatting, to pass time.
Seated to my immediate left front, she was conveniently positioned so I could easily and discreetly watch. Anyone sketching always intrigues me--wondering what it is and how it is they see the world, and how they interpret and simplify. Without fail, I learn something. I tried not to intrude.
After dinner, while we contemplated another drink or coffee, Maddy returned to her art.
Noticing I was interested, she was pleased enough with an effort to show me her colorful drawing. What first came to mind was Picasso's Cubism figure works--some of which remind me of chickens. And for all I knew, Maddy had recently studied the famous Spainard's work. So before she said anything, I remarked first impression that it looked like a chicken standing up--what appeared a beak for a nose and mouth and skinny legs and some yellow were clues--giveaways; or so I thought.
But I had forgotten the first rule of commenting on art, especially abstract art, in front of the artist--don't.
Of course my hasty analysis was wrong. Completely wrong.
Maddy nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders, let out a breath of air as if to say 'here we go again,' and politely corrected me. She said it was a person and proceeded to point out particulars--"See, here's the head, here's the body...". Her mom said she saw the person and praised the work. Dad and grandmother may have favorably opined as well, I don't remember.
So who was I to second-guess the artist Maddy and do anything other than shake my head in agreement with mom.
If my comment had touched a nerve she certainly didn't show it. Hardly discouraged by my silly interpretation, and likely thinking I had no idea what I was talking about, Maddy confidently continued on with her sketching.
Then a few minutes later she abruptly stopped. And with a little sparkle in her eye and slight smile looked in my direction.
It seemed she'd been mulling over my comment about her drawing and was wondering if I could do any better. So she asked if I'd draw something for her. Nothing like being put on the spot--and after a beer or two.
Deferring was not an option. "Well, sure, Maddy, but what to draw? Hmm, how about I draw you? You know models have to sit still for a few minutes--would you?"
While Maddy adjusted her shirt and headband, mom handed me the drawing pad and a small multicolored cloth zippered bag with assorted markers and crayons. After rummaging a minute I opted for an over-sized triangular-shaped blue-violet Crayola crayon. Not my typical medium but it'd do fine. Besides, a true artist should be able to make do with most any old thing.
After getting Maddy settled and angled just right with a reminding word to relax, she sat still and attentive.
For about 10 minutes I had her undivided attention.
But as the drawing developed, curiosity getting the better of her, she'd slowly rise craning her neck trying to sneak a peek over the top of the pad angled from her view.
Artists really are impatient when it comes to sitting--idle hands get fidgety. I know the feeling well.
Sympathizing and realizing time was now borrowed, I asked for a moment to finish a line and shape or two to pull the sketch together and then assured her she could see. Maddy grinned, nodded, and settled down.
Rarely does an artist receive unanimous approval on a portrait. Frankly, if it's ever happened in the history of portraiture--even artist sketching fellow artist--I'm not aware of it. Male or female, when older sitters look in the mirror they see more hair and less chins and every self-conscious note of character as a blemish. Family and friends of sitters--old or young--all see through different prisms and generally to the point of not seeing the same person amongst themselves; much less what the artist sees. To reinforce this point, posted left is an "it depends on how you look at it" illustration. What do you see upon first glance--bewitching beauty or hideous hag? Do you see both?
Anyway, there's far more to portraiture than capturing mere physical appearance of the head. Lighting, fleeting expressions, mannerisms, those self-conscious "blemishes," and body language are important elements of good portraiture. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), an American born, reared, and trained in Europe and the leading portrait painter of his day, when responding to a query to define a portrait, said, "A portrait is a painting with something wrong about the mouth." Sargent's point, the mouth--so flexible and expressive and rarely still when interacting with others--is difficult to freeze. Many artists struggle with it. Do they ever.
And then there is the psychology of relationships that flavors perspective(s).
In short, portraiture is complicated.
And, by the way, good portraiture has nothing to do with copying photographs--an all too common plastic compromise these days foregoing invaluable time between sitter and artist all so necessary for a good portrait and work of art.
So satisfying all is not so simple. The general rule of thumb, from the artist's perspective, is if pleasing half of those who see the portrait then it's a smashing success.
There's a story about American artist Peter Hurd (1904-1984) who painted President Lyndon Johnson's (1963-1969) portrait--intended to be the official rendering. Some thought Hurd's portrait was a wonderful likeness. Some did not, including Johnson. The gruff Texan declared it "the ugliest thing I ever saw." And shortly thereafter Beltway gossip circles were whispering, 'Artists should be seen around the White House but not Hurd.' The painting did not make it to a wall in the White House. It hangs in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. I've seen it but will not opine in print.
As it turned out my simple crayon sketch of a fellow artist, of Maddy, received resounding approval--from sitter, parents, grandmother, and my wife. We didn't ask other diners for their opinions. Nor did any offer. I liked it, too. Decent for 10 minutes--realizing a nice drawing while capturing a good likeness. For the artist, happiness is one or the other, and pure joy when achieving both.
Ah yes, a successful portrait--a smashing success, the accent to a fabulous day visiting Coronado and dining and enjoying an ice-cold micro-brew or two with friends. Maddy opted for milk.
I think Maddy may have been impressed with her portrait though she didn't comment how it stacked up against the person she drew and the rest of her art. And I didn't bother to ask because our styles completely different, and mostly for fear of an artist's candor.
As it was, we managed to get through the entire evening, even savoring ice cream at an outdoor table along the busy sidewalk, without Maddy being recognized. No paparazzi. No reporters or photographers. No "60 Minutes" correspondent. No groupies. No screaming, sign-holding, autograph-seeking fans. No passersby, not a single one, hesitating then backing up and asking, "Wait a minute, aren't you...?" And then asking for a photograph or the distinctive "MADDY" mark.
And that's because...
Though Maddy's artwork is original and plastered all over the place, you've probably not heard of her.
She's not a famous child prodigy artist/painter--if there is such a thing. At least not a prodigy in the eyes of the world. But it's a certainty her parents and grandparents see genius. And I thought, despite my error interpreting one work, she was pretty darn good with the markers and crayons.
And "...plastered all over the place," as described by her dad, is pretty much limited to the kitchen appliances and walls of home, her dad's office spaces, and maybe her grandparent's home--all back in the midwest.
Fact is, knowing there'd be down time once in a while during their vacation, Maddy's mom wisely, just like most moms when traveling with children, packed a sketch book and markers and crayons. And the portable studio went where Maddy went. Simple as that.
Maddy drew and colored when the mood struck.
And I, unexpectedly, drew and colored when Maddy's mood struck for me to, and was more than happy to do so.
Her abstract person, and my portrait of Maddy, lasting proof. Artist to artist.
Sometimes drawings and photographs trump words--this one of those times. Posted left is a wonderful sequence of photographs my wife and Maddy's mom and dad snapped of me drawing Maddy and Maddy with her drawing.
Any more need be said?
Nary a word comes to mind.
Just look at Maddy!
Two points resonate for doing that sketch of and for Maddy.
First and foremost, I warmed the heart of a little girl. That's not so easily done. As if more proof than photographs necessary, shortly after dinner--while rallying for the ice cream on the opposite end of Orange Avenue (if you've been to Coronado you know the place--Moo Time--a cow and Elvis greet all), Maddy, while talking to her parents about the drawing, referred to me as her "good friend." Nice.
Second, just maybe there'll be a lasting imprint on her and her outlook on art. And that, for me, is important and priceless. Who knows, maybe one day "MADDY" will be a famous signature in the corner of drawings and paintings. And limos her lifestyle. And she'll be hounded by paparazzi; "60 Minutes" correspondents; photographers and reporters; groupies; and screaming, sign-holding, autograph-seeking fans; and passersby who back up and say, "Hey, aren't you...?" And just maybe she'll remember her "good friend" who these days signs many drawings and paintings with just "Andy"--it's how I signed her portrait.
1. My wife, and some family and friends, will affirm Picasso's opening thought does not apply to me. Fifty years Maddy's senior, I've yet to grow up; at least not completely. Nor do I plan to for fear of losing my artist eyes. And maybe that's why Maddy and I connected during her portrait sitting--for 10 minutes or so a big "child" drew a small child.
2. The sketch now hangs in Maddy's parent's home amidst her art--my honor indeed to be represented amongst the creativity of a child. Maybe even an honor higher than representation in the National Portrait Gallery. One day the blue-violet crayon portrait will hang in Maddy's home--amongst her art and her children's art. And with any luck survive longer still.
3. Art endures. Even simple art. And even refrigerator art!
4. Maddy's father is a Marine--now a Navy officer soon to be promoted to lieutenant commander. And Maddy's grandmother is a Marine, and so is her grandfather.