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An Invitation to Paint My Portrait

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Don Bachardy is an artist famous for his portraits. His work is included in the permanent collections of major museums around the world. One feels honored when invited to sit for him. I was.

On the given hour and day, I drove to Don's house in Santa Monica. It was late morning. Don had lived for many years in this house with his life partner Christopher Isherwood, the renowned writer. Don is not well-known for small talk, so we adjourned to his studio whose windows caught the magic of the ocean.

We got right down to work. Over the next several hours Don did three portraits of me. In the first I sat in a chair looking out at the water. We didn't talk. He worked in silence, deeply absorbed. During my drive to his house I had gone through a "Cowardly Lion" phase that was part introspective and part feeling scared as hell. What exactly would the portrait show? In other words, how would I look to Don as he painted me? More to the point, how would this work of art appear hanging on a wall? I felt extremely vulnerable, clueless concerning the final result.

Don worked quietly away. He placed me in different sights for three different poses. I got the clear idea that the best way to help him was, in effect, to minimize myself. Sit quietly without consciously asserting my personality or feelings. My job was not to strike a pose and/or maintain it. I was not there to define myself or project a point of view.

I noticed that I was breathing very easily and was quite relaxed. Looking through a window at the distant ocean, I seemed somehow to meld into the whole scene simply as a part of it. It became a dialogue involving Don and myself, so required a certain balance. I realized we were engaged in a distinct intimacy. It took the two of us. I played a specific role. Obviously so did he.

After several hours, we had finished our work together. It was then he showed me the three portraits he had paiinted. The first was a kind of classic (It would have made a great book cover). I could identify with it immediately. I was introspective, vulnerable, absolutely relaxed, my eyes were extraordinarily clear, and there was a Mona Lisa aspect to the whole thing. In other words, a certain mystery, hidden and deep.

The second portrait I couldn't identify with. The figure (me) seemed to be a mystery within a mystery. At the same time I recognized an incredible honesty in it. It occurred to me this was a "me" I didn't know very well. (Maybe I didn't particularly wish to.) In the first portrait I'd been cool and in possession of myself. In this one I seemed out of control. But I didn't "want" to look like this! I wished to appear more handsome, stronger, someone with considerably more charisma or sleek, cultivated charm.

So I couldn't immediately identify with it -- or did not want to. Yet what if this interpretation of me was absolutely right, on target? Or, what if this portrait was exactly me? Could I accept its reality and immediacy? Instinctively I recognized this portrait was more vulnerable than the first. Did I prefer not to share this with a viewer?

The third portrait was my favorite. I lay on an immense pillow. The colors came together magnificently. I'd be happy to let the whole world see this portrait and exclaim "Perfect!" Years passed. I found I was not through with Don or his portraits when he invited Mark Thompson, my partner of many years, and me to sit for a "double" portrait: the two of us together. What can I say?

As the artist, Don perfectly caught the two of us.

Mark is, well, completely Mark as I know him. He's all there: the different shadings, mood senses, the eyes that could sink a thousand ships. And me? Don completely caught me. He matched my eyes with Mark's. I hold back no secrets in this portrait. It seems to cut eons beneath the surface in candor and revelation.

Want a portrait, anyone?