Pastel Portrait From the Heart

I met Lisa, the subject of this portrait, on the first day of high school at the High School of Music and Art in New York City. We remained the closest of friends for life. We were elated when, in our adulthood, she began to sit for her portrait.  As a doctor, Lisa had only limited time available, so our sittings stretched out over a period of one and a half years. It was an emotionally rich experience to be at my easel, looking into the face of my dearest friend as she watched me celebrating her through my work. There were times that we conversed with our usual intensity, covering the highs and lows of our lives. At other times, we worked in the silence the work would sometimes require.

My goal was to show Lisa how beautiful she was to me and the portrait began as a recording of her vivacity. Her hair, always long, was full and wavy. Her chin was lifted a touch, her coloring a blending of the rich olives and ochres of her Mediterranean heritage. I took digital images of the stages of the portrait to show Lisa when the portrait was completed, because I did not show her the painting along the way. In private, I looked at my initial drawing and, occasionally, the digital images. I saw that somewhere during the course of its development the portrait had begun to take a turn: the hair seemed to become quieter, her chin lowered, her eyes saddened, and her coloring was becoming pale and a little cooler. It was a painful struggle for me. This was not the mirror I wanted to hold up to Lisa. But it was what I saw in her.  Something unrecognizable had steered my vision and would not let go. Then, one nightmarish evening, Lisa called me. She had been to the doctor and had learned that she had stage-four lung cancer which had metastasized to numerous organs. Our sittings had to stop.

After the diagnosis, when I finally showed my friend her portrait, I was afraid that it would be painful for her to see her illness looking back at her. But her response to the portrait was that it was completely true. Later, after we hung the portrait in her home, she told me that when she looked at it she felt  as though I was watching over her. Her family wept when they saw it, so true did it feel to them.  

With most sitters, I am aware of the limited time I have to complete a portrait. With Lisa, I thought I had forever. The painting, unfinished, bears witness to her illness, but also to our friendship.  She offered herself to my eyes and heart despite the gravity of her physical condition. The tenderness that Lisa’s family sees in the portrait conveys to them that she had a friend who loved her and understood her. This is a tremendous comfort to them in their loss. To be understood in this world is so precious.

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