3/2005

Stories of Us

 

After gazing upon an unfinished statue of liberty in a rather quiet French workshop, it is said that Victor Hugo uttered these words; ‘the idea, it is everything’. I believe that idea was the notion that every person - no matter what his or her race, color, or creed, should have the gift of individual liberty. I have been blessed to be a part of a nation that was founded in its creation on this principal, which is so fundamentally human. And yes, we all know how far we’ve strayed from this ideal in the past and in the present (and most likely the future as well). However, human dignity and individualism are forces that are eternal and undeniable - and this country has been their magnet. The results of this attraction can be seen in many forms; including the individual that speaks to you in this statement.

Having an African American mother and an Irish Catholic father can leave a child with many feelings that can be seen as blessings, and others that can act as though they were lifelong burdens. But there is one essential truth that I cannot deny. I have always seen people devoid of their ‘categories’ (Duke Ellington would compliment a person by saying they were beyond categories, meaning that a certain individual transcended all racial, or social classification). Black or white; rich or poor; gay or straight, it never really mattered much to me. It was evident from early on that we were all branches of the same tree, and that we all had the same basic hopes, dreams, fears and insecurities. And while I realized that it’s our common humanity that matters most; it’s our differences that define the fabric of this nation. Because being an American is being whoever you believe that you are supposed to be, for as long as you choose to do so. In other words, to be an American is to be an individual. And it is this story of the ‘American individual’, which I have tried to depict and represent in my work.

I realize that the beautiful layers and complexity of the society we live in almost make it impossible to gain a view that is even close to all encompassing through one portrait. Yet, by viewing the image of the person depicted, I would hope that one is able to get some sense of the greater consciousness that we all share. After all, good portraiture should allow the viewer to see a glimpse of the many, in the face of the few. And it is through the faces, stories, and expressions of the individuals represented, that the viewer may be able to locate an aspect of a certain piece that also exists within themselves. Whether it’s the plight of the American Indian, the steadfastness of the WWII veteran, the anguish of eighty-six years of cursed baseball, or the memory of better times that have long since past - These stories of one; are the stories of all of us. These are the stories of the American individual, good or bad, right or wrong. And yes, I would be naïve to believe that paint on canvas, or charcoal on paper, could allow someone to better understand their neighbor of a different race, or encourage another to see a certain situation from a new perspective. But I know for sure it’s worth a shot.

The great jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once said that the goal of jazz music was to ‘raise the consciousness of the nation, and bring people together’. As lofty a goal as that may seem, I can only aspire to do the same. For I know not a better cause that one could define for themselves, or for their work.