Lace-edged sentiment is sweet, but this February 14, don't just give your heart. Take Valentine's Day at face value: air-brushed on a quilt, imprinted on a pillowcase or sculpted into a mug, or even made into a chair.
"It's not a 'Me Decade' thing at all. It's more of a futuristic 'rootsy' thing," explains Sandy Speiers. Sandy and Richard Speiers recently had Altina Carey cast their images into a fiberglass bench. "We wanted it for the children," Speiers adds. "They love it and climb all over it."
Love? Roots? Take that, Tom Wolfe! Take that, Christopher Lasch! Although the pessimistic prophets proclaim that the family's declining because everyone's too busy being his or her own best friend, portrait artists here see it differently. From caricatures to "chairacters," not only are more people getting likenesses done, but they're getting them of someone they love or, if of themselves, to give to someone they love. And more often than not, that someone is family.
The young man gazes intently at the camera, trying to ignore the stiff collar chafing his neck. A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth but he doesn't dare smile. This is for posterity, and posterity is serious. He tugs the black frock coat over his jeans and stiffens as he's bathed in silver light. After 15 interminable seconds it's over. He can take the collar and frock coat off. Bob Fackelman from Iowa, here visiting his brother, has just had his tintype done at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.
"Who knows, maybe someday my grandchildren might have it," he says, grinning as he dons his down parka and re-enters the 20th century. Next in line are the Treadaways from Houston: father, mother and 10-year-old Krista. Krista, her mother explains, is a "Little House on the Prairie" fan and wants a picture of her family in 1800s garb. "We're going to have three copies made. One for the grandparents, of course."
The grandparents. Of course. Grandparents, grandchildren, mom and dad and the kids, high-school sweethearts. That's the stuff portraits are made of. "A young couple will watch me for a few minutes," says caricature artist Charles Fulton, "then the guy will say, 'Hey, do her.' She'll giggle and say 'Oh, no!' but he loves her and wants her picture." Many of silhouette artist Inez Renwick Johnson's customers are grandparents who had their silhouettes cut as youngsters and now want one of their grandchild.
Despite the photography explosion and the ability of every grade-school child to wield a Nikon, people still want their portraits "done." What's more, they're getting them done not only as T-shirts, tintypes and caricatures, but as chairs, cakes, mugs, pillows, pillow cases, dolls and computer printouts. Whatever happened to memories made with Kodak?
"Oh, everyone's got all these high-powered cameras. There's just not enough drama to it," explained Mrs. Treadaway as she tried on a beribboned Clara Barton bonnet for her tintype.
Washington psychologist Steve Farber looks at the phenomenon this way: "At the turn of the century, when photography was first invented, getting a photograph taken was a big occasion; it was a real investment. Now that everything's so fluid, people are turning back to portraits as something to hold onto, a way of establishing themselves as a family. They want to create heirlooms. But photographs are cheap now. Everyone's got their Brownie or Polaroid and the actual image isn't worth much. It's no longer a real celebration of life. They're looking for other ways."
Potter Joan Kriegman's friends were about to be parents. "They got very involved with who they are and where they came from. Grandparents, stability, heirlooms: That's what having a child meant to them -- being a stable unit," says Kriegman. So she turned to her kiln and made her friends a set of plates with their portraits, their grandparents' and the baby's embellishing the borders. "Most people really like the plates, although one woman covered the faces with a lettuce leaf. She said she couldn't stand to look at them while she ate." Kriegman just completed a set of portrait mugs for a groom to give to his ushers. Each fellow got a mug in his own image, complete with sideburns, moustaches and beards.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, just think of what a life-size doll might elicit. Artist Gail Gorlitz is sitting across from her strangely silent fiberfill alter ego, and the effect is unsettling. "Their presence is so much more than a photograph. It's a very human presence. They're so much like a person. The only thing they don't have is life." Gorlitz says of the pillow people she's been making for about a year.
"One woman wanted me to make a doll of her to send along with her husband who was going to Africa for a year, so he'd have something to cuddle up with, she said. I think she was afraid he'd find someone else to cuddle up with, but how could he with that thing staring at him?"
You can't really surprise your guy or doll with one of Gorlitz' dolls. She has to cast the face in plaster, with plastic wrap protecting your dearest's epidermis and tresses. Gorlitz then stuffs leotards with fiberfill on a wire base to form the body. Carey likewise casts the head in plaster (swathing you in bandages first) as a preliminary for shaping your chairacter. She metamorphosizes the bodies into sturdy Styrofoam as suits her fancy and then coats them with fiberglass. Both Carey's and Gorlitz' large-as-life likenesses are costly and take time. Valentine IOUs might be in order here. Other artists, like Dasi and Kriegman, can work from photographs but still take some time. Quick on the draw and under $10 are Fulton's caricatures, Paula Davis' buttons, Johnson's silhouettes, Silver Image's transfers, the Computer Hut's printouts. And there's always the 4-for-50 booth at the dime store.
Although they work in radically different materials, Washington's unusual portrait artists agree that children and older women are the toughest to do, old men the best.
"The younger they are, the more difficult they are to do," explains Dasi, who does caricatures in porcelain. "The features are so unformed and change so rapidly. I enjoy doing mature men: Their faces have a lot of character. The problem with doing women is that society expects women to be beautiful, and you can't have any fun with that."
"Babies are the worst," affirms caricaturist Fulton. "The older you get the more unique you get. Also, parents have these ideas of what their child looks like. People come up to you and say, 'Here's little Poopsie. Isn't he wonderful?' So you have to make Poopsie look cute and hope to capture what they see. Vain women are also a problem. Especially between 30 and 50, when they're a little rough around the edges. You have to flatter them without being obvious, because obvious flattery is an insult. Old men are the greatest. You don't have to handle them with kid gloves." To Altina Carey, "A fat person would be terrific to do. There's more there. Tip O'Neill would be a great chair. He's so huge, he'd be a sofa."
Fat or thin, young or old, the human likeness is something special to all these artists. Dasi finds it very maternal: "It comes from the same motivation as motherhood. I'm making people and paying attention to them." Gorlitz says, "Nobody grosses me out. I don't have an idealized concept of what people look like.To me the human face is inherently interesting."
But sometimes not even a portrait is a joy forever -- at least not when it's one of Pat Loube's intricately worked portrait cakes. "I always ask people to take a picture of it, but usually the head is half-eaten before they remember," Loube sighs.