A few years ago I am sitting on the fire escape of a building in Brooklyn named La Renie, the queen. The window I clamored out of belongs to Devon, a queen in her own right. We are watching the sunset over the sprawling city when my host’s roommate came to join us. She is a French woman who is working to become a chef.
Hanging in Devon’s living room is an old self portrait of mine from my college days.
The chef asks me “are you going to do another one?”
I think for a moment and share my idea. I want to do a portrait that is made up of all the people in my life. For I am the product of those relationships.
She demands I do it. She gives me a deadline to finish by years end. I will deliver it four years late.
The Alchemy Pod
Years later, I’ve moved to Denver and fallen in with a really wholesome crowd of Social Permaculturists and other sweet peas. One is Kris who runs a practice called Honeycomb Healing. She is offering a multi-month group she calls Alchemy Pod. The program follows loosely the Artists Way, we build a morning routine and begin to figure out a final project. After 1st session we are given a homework assignment: make a self-portrait.
I set up a mirror and begin to draw. It’s been maybe a decade since I really sat down and drew my likeness. So I am shocked at how well I do.
I’m excited to show off my work at the next Alchemy Pod, which comes and passes. We receive our next homework assignment: another self portrait.
I recall the conversation on the fire escape and understand what my final project must be.
Each week we are assigned new homework and each week we are told to make a self portrait.
The idea has already germinated and is ready to sprout. A portrait surrounded by the names of friends and family.
I start by listing all the people who have I have known. I group them by era; my college friends, NYC friends, and those I’ve met at different stages of my life. The names go into a spreadsheet.
To begin the drawing I take some reference photos of my pose.
I then capture a sketch based on the reference.
Next, I draw a grid over the sketch so I can transpose it to a larger canvas. The process here is fairly simple. I measure a grid on the sketch, 1/4 inch squares, then apply a grid to the larger canvas of 2-inch squares.
Then I reproduce each small square on the larger canvas.
Once my face is in place I begin placing the names around it. I decide to create little sigils for each name so they are a bit more abstract. I group the names with family at the base of my neck, childhood friends over my right shoulder, college friends above those, NYC friends over my left, and so on.
With my face in place and the graphite sketches of names down on the page I begin inking the background. I’ve decided to draw myself in graphite and use ink for the names and textures around them. I spend a considerable amount of time on the inking because it is very fine details.
Without any images of the process, it might appear that I finished this quickly. That is certainly not the case. I got the piece to a good-enough place to present it for as my final project for Alchemy Pod but it took me many more months of tinkering, adding detail, and fixing errors only I could see.
Any artist will know that one can work on something forever. At a certain point you just have to call it done. So that’s what I do.
All told I probably spent a year to get to this point. Then another year to finally capture and post the final product. This blog post and the accompanying project page mark the end of the 6-year journey of this work.
As I put publish these reflections on the work I already find myself wanting to add new names. There have been so many people who have impacted me throughout my life and they continue to emerge. Even now just a year or so older I see how much I’ve changed.
I am proud of the man I have become. Becoming is a lifelong process and it is a collaborative process. I notice ways of thinking, speaking, and being that have been borrowed from so many of the names on this canvas. Each of them (you) are part of me. It boggles my mind to think of all the people I have impacted throughout my life. How they will borrow pieces of me which have their roots in someone else.
Thank you for helping me become, friends.