Susan's "subject matter, context and medium...present a coherent artistic vision"
John Torreano, Clinical Professor of Studio Art, NYU

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Seymour Chwast

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Body and Soul


I recently painted my best friend, Kenneth Feldman, who I call Feldy. At the first session: I sit him down in a possible pose, studying intently every feature of his face, body and posture. I take into account all of this physiognomy and store the information in my brain. But now I must mix it with the intangible "patina" of Feldy, such as his personality, wit, intelligence, background–indeed, his soul. If a painter attempts to portray a person by considering only the body without taking into account the soul, she is no different than a house painter.

While we are deciding on the right pose, Feldy mugs. He pulls his lapel, which sports a boutonniere, up to his nose and smells the flower. I love this pose and and tell him that this is the way I want to paint him. Curiously, Feldy says "Please don't paint me that way. I'll look too fey." I am not sure what he means, but choose another pose. Even though he is a delightfully lighthearted and amusing model , I choose to show his more serious side.

In my mind I have blended his "patina" with his physiognomy, so I feel I am ready to block in the paint on my canvas. This involves exploring the shapes of his face and body and constructing them with paint, running my brushes up, around and over the various facial forms to "flesh out" the paint rough. I round out the cheekbones and forehead, I build up the volume for his nose and lips, and I darken around his eye sockets so they will appear sunken–on a lower plane than the rest of his face.

I continue the block-out of all of Feldy - his neck, shoulders, torso, pelvis, legs, right down to his feet. All these anatomical parts are merely shapes. But through my exploration and manipulation of them I know that I will reveal Feldy's soul. His essence, not just his form, will be reflected in his portrait.

Feldy patiently subjects his body and being to my artist's gaze. The work on the paint rough progresses smoothly and quickly. For me, the purpose of a rough is simply to get the paint onto the canvas. At this point I do not concern myself with any likeness these embryonic paint splashes might have to my model. However, in this instance I am struck by the remarkable resemblance between the painting and Feldy.

After that first day, I could not work on the painting for ten months. Sadly, almost immediately after, Feldy was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. I did try to help his body though, trying to restore or at least maintain what was left of his health, by escorting him to and from doctors, keeping him company while he was being treated, transporting him to and visiting with him in hospitals, bringing him meals, newspapers and clothing.

On one occasion, I even bathed him when a nurse was not available. I was struck by the similarity between running a warm washcloth over his physical face and running a brush over his painted face. Toward the end, Feldy had to be moved to a hospice. While he was there, I realized that I had been so concerned with his body that I had forgotten the importance of his soul. Sadly, I then had to watch his soul drain out of his body bit by bit until it was gone.

A rabbi told me that I shouldn't feel so sad about death. It is not the end. Our bodies are just temporary homes for our souls. Therefore, we should view our bodies as just short-term rentals. He assured me that the spirit of Feldy lived on.

Soon after the funeral I got back to finishing the painting. Although I usually use multiple layers of paint when finishing a painting, Feldy's required very little finish because the rough was so "right." While working on it, I remembered that Feldy didn't want me to use the pose with him smelling his boutonniere because it made him look too "fey." I finally looked the word up in a dictionary and learned that the first definition given is: "chiefly Scottish: fated to die, doomed; marked by a foreboding of death or calamity."

Still, the spirit of Feldy lives on.



16 comments:

  1. can't see Ken sitting still for more than a few minutes unless engrossed in a book or film so you had your work cut out for you. You captured it nevertheless! kate

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  2. We have always thought of Ken as "Feldmaaahan", although we didn't know him as well as you did.

    Your most moving portrait captures all that Kenny had to share. Thank you for sharing this beautiful work of love.

    Lynn & Mark

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  3. So beautifully written, Susan--and the painting is powerful. Ken's wit and intelligence, as well as your deep affection for him, come through instantly. Surely Ken's spirit makes contact with us whenever we look at your portrait of him. Love, Sarah

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  4. Lovely...the man, the friend, the love, the art, the lyrical memories that your narrative & work creates... Thanks
    Love ya, manita.

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  5. I love the story. I will copy and paste and put into my Kenny scrapbook that I will attempt to put together one day soon! I know Kenny's proud of you!

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  6. Millicent GoodmanMay 2, 2010 at 11:16 AM

    Your paintings are rivaled only by your words. Beyond amazing!

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  7. Binx was a great guy, very witty and fun. He is dearly missed by all who knew him. You have certainly captured his essence, I can see him smiling in his eyes. The nightowl certainly was appropos too. Love your work. tut..a pal of Binx on Imdb.

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  8. Susan, thank you for giving us access to this moving art. It captures a lot of what 'Binx' was about - the cards, the owl, the turtle, the dragon fly, umbrella (you shared the story with me earlier). He was a remarkable person, one who enriched my life and you were obviously affected deeply by your friendship with him. He must have felt very protected having you by his side as he grew weaker. I continue to think of 'Binx' (Kenny) and count myself very lucky to have encountered him through chance. He and I often wrote of the serendipity which ran through our dual lives.

    My best thoughts go to out to you, Susan.

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  9. Binx was a Keeper (Imdb users know what I'm talking) great painting!

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  10. A true story of how a fragile human body can be transported to a canvas looking healthy and alive.
    Susan is an amazing artist and also an amazing writer.

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  11. Great Art. I feel like I can step right in it and take up with Kenny where we left off.

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  12. Loved your portraiture of your dear friend. You are so talented to be able to bring out the soul to become part of paint in motion on a canvas. It takes a bit of your true ability to understand what hides in the body to give true features.

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  13. Thanks John, Odd as it may seem, sometimes I have to paint a model wrong to get the intangibles right.

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  14. Love this story and painting!

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  15. I did not know him but remembered beautifully in this painting. Certainly one of your best.

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  16. Love the birthday posting of Feldy s pic. It was one of the first things we put up in our new house.

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