Day 36: No Ordinary Artists

“I decided on the spot that I would be an artist, and I assure you, it was no ordinary artist I had in mind.” –Henry Ossawa Tanner

A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on to canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is, in itself, a living thing. –William Dobell

During our visit to Boston this weekend, my in-laws threw me a surprise 40th birthday party. I celebrated my birthday early with four generations of family members and a few dear friends whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. We had a wonderful time hanging out, playing, opening gifts, and, of course, eating delicious, home cooked food.

Among my generous and thoughtful birthday gifts were paintings created by Rafiq Ali, one of Nigel’s cousin. I’ve known Rafiq since he was about 10 years old, and he was always drawing such striking images. Recently, he’s been painting portraits by request. He works from a photograph, and the portraits he created for us were painted from professional photographs that Nigel’s sister, Crystal, took at Wyatt’s baptism. To say that his paintings are copies of these photographs, though, would totally ignore the artistry that is so apparent in them.

The painting Rafiq did of Wyatt visualizes his young spirit so keenly that, when I unwrapped it and saw it for the first time, I was drawn into the painting like I am pulled into Wyatt’s face now — just overwhelmed with a feeling of awe at this newish, precious person. It took Rafiq weeks to paint Wyatt’s portrait, he said, because babies are really difficult to paint. I’ve heard that before, once from a professional painter in Vermont who said that he doesn’t paint children’s portraits until they are at least five years old. Young children just change so much so quickly that it is hard to render them in a lasting portrait. Rafiq painted and repainted this portrait and even spent some time with his baby nephew just to get a better feel for what he wanted to accomplish in the portrait. He told me at the party that, in the end, he didn’t want to let the portrait go; he had spent so much time with it.

And the portrait of Nigel and me captures us on Wyatt’s baptism day. We were back at our house taking pictures with family and friends. The house was packed — the best way for us to celebrate our new little one. The original photograph actually pictured us holding Wyatt between us, but Rafiq repainted it the way it appears here:

These portraits will always be two of my most cherished, valuable pieces of art. With these paintings, as with the other portraits Rafiq has painted recently, there is a way that he is able to capture so much more than a person’s visage. He renders a person’s spirit. What a gift — for an artist to take precious time to create art for someone else and to capture with care people in a particular moment in their lives. And, in doing so, to share an artistic vision of not only some of who the person in the painting is, but also what the artist sees within the subject. And because I know Rafiq, I know that he pours himself into his art; he is immensely connected to his creative process. When I see these portraits, I can’t help but also think of the positive energy he emits from within himself.

When we got home from our trip, I immediately put the pictures on our mantel. They joined the portraits we asked Natalie Del Villar to paint of Logan and Lucas a couple of years ago. Natalie also has a keen eye for the character of her subject, and she creates such fresh, enlivened portraits, full of verve. We are fortunate to know her through her brother, Angel Del Villar (aka Homeboy Sandman, (his own lyrical talent who Nigel and I taught years ago at the Holderness School). It’s quite a gift to know and witness such creative talent.

When I showed Wyatt his portrait, he became really excited; he kicked and smiled. I think he recognized himself in it.

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