Revealing Nature of Portraiture

Excerpt from a work in progress (follow-up to 1st book which focused on earlier life as an actress). This new book is about becoming an artist and what that was all about. The writing of which I must say, is almost as exciting as doing the paintings themselves.

oil on canvas 16x20 by Nancy Wait 1985

oil on canvas 16×20
by Nancy Wait 1985

Portraits were a treasured way I connected to people beyond the surface. The concentration was intense. If it was my eye that noted shapes and shadows, it was my heart picking up feelings behind the form. The determining factor was always the inner being shaping the outer image. This was possible even from a thin, fragile stick of vine charcoal.

I read somewhere that Ad Reinhardt reportedly warned fellow artist Philip Pearlstein that he was responsible for the souls of all the people he painted. I would have shuddered to be held so accountable.

Still, there was no getting away from the revealing nature of portraiture—both for sitter and artist. I knew the truth of the saying that every portrait is a kind of self-portrait.

oil on canvas 18x24 by Nancy Wait 1983

oil on canvas 18×24
by Nancy Wait 1983

We cannot see deeper into others than we have seen into ourselves. And if we have seen deeply, then we cannot help but witness a similar depth. Getting a likeness, what most would assume was the be all and end all of a portrait, was the least of it.

Who the person was, the nature of their character, was revealed in a myriad of ways over which I had no conscious control.

My hand had a will of its own. My thoughts were of no consequence. I might have studied skin and hair, eyes and noses, but I didn’t actually draw them.

oil on canvas 18x24 by Nancy Wait 2008

oil on canvas 18×24
by Nancy Wait 2008

What I drew was the light reflecting off them, in greater or lesser degrees.


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The Hot Seat

perlsI was introduced to the hot seat back in London in the 70s when I joined a Gestalt therapy group in Chelsea. We sat on cushions on the floor and though our hot seat was simply another cushion, it was anything but cushy once you took your turn at the head of the circle. First the confession, then the grilling from the other members. Also from the ever-charming Hungarian-born American who led the group. Lies or half-truths were exposed immediately. By revealing our innermost feelings we hoped for revelation. But we were content to have even a smidgeon of more understanding.

Then in the late 90s I was drawn to a different sort of hot seat. A simple desk chair, from which I sought again to reveal my innermost feelings while typing away at my memoir. The grilling would take place later, at the writer’s workshop when I read my chapter aloud. Meanwhile, at home, when the going got rough I moved operations over to the bed. Or the floor by the bed. Or the couch, hoping that a change in position might shake up the brain cells or the memory cells. But no matter where I went, it was always the hot seat again. The hot seat whenever I was putting myself on the line.

After a period on institutional chairs as an undergrad and then as a grad student, I advanced back to my own desk chair. I had internalized all the different voices, and now there was no difference between reading aloud to myself or reading aloud to the group. Inwardly, I heard all the comments, the questions and objections as well as the praise.

I completed my first memoir several years ago, and since then I have been working on the second. If I thought the second book would be easier, I was mistaken. This time when the going got rough I removed myself to the library to work, or a café. Again, a different location proved useful, but only temporarily.

Since I began writing memoir I have tried different computers, different brands and keyboards and operating systems and fonts. It has felt much the same as when I was painting and drawing, experimenting with different papers and pens and brushes and canvases and colors and strokes as I hoped for some new inspiration. Yet with writing, as with art, while the surface appearance may have altered, the content and concept, the depth of perception or lack thereof, did not.

So now I am back on my old desk chair. The gray one from Staples purchased decades ago, covered now with fabric that matches my workspace. Because now I accept that wherever I place myself, the story I am telling remains the same. Or rather, the truth of the story does not change. As I seek to confront that truth, wherever I sit will always be the hot seat. And, while I might jump up when it gets too intense, and take a walk around the apartment or a walk around the block, I return to the confessional chair. Where my fingers will be in easy reach of my instrument of choice. No matter how tortuous it may feel, or how it might burn. I place my body there.

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Through Art

I can’t save the world, but I can show the world how I saved myself.

Nancy 1985Through Art.

Volume One of my memoir set the stage.

The Nancy Who Drew




Volume Two, in progress, takes me across the Clearing Ground.

oil on canvas by Nancy Wait

oil on canvas
by Nancy Wait

Then it takes me into the Wilderness.

oil on canvas by NW 1987

oil on canvas by NW 1987

And lastly, it takes me through the Cleansing Fire.

Watercolor by Nancy Wait

by Nancy Wait

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Inner Sanctum

Painting by Nancy Wait, oil on canvas (2010)

Painting by Nancy Wait, oil on canvas (2010)

The doorway under water came to me in a dream back in 1976. There was no mistaking the meaning of the vision. It was a dream about ego-death, hitting bottom, and afterwards, being given entry to the inner world.

The door was under water, and opened into more water. I later interpreted more sea to mean more see.

I did not go through the doorway in the dream. That was a task left to waking life.

The dream of ego-death and hitting bottom mirrored the facts of my life at the time. That I stood on the threshold in the dream, and did not go through the doorway, was also significant. It marked the next stage of my journey. The threshold of opportunity. My dream-self, or higher-self, giving me the message that there was a way out. A way through. A way. If I had the courage to enter this deeper see.

Because the way out was through. It will always be so. There are never any shortcuts in the non-physical realms.

1976 was a long time ago. I lived in another country then, both physically and mentally. But the message was to go home. Home to myself. My true being. And come to terms with my inner truth.

This is a journey we are all bound to take in one form or another. A journey that requires us to step back a moment from the dazzling aspects of the outer world. And look within for answers, guidance and direction.

I died to my old life
And woke into the new
In a dream.
Then I woke up
To live a new dream
While awake.
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Flowering Life

rosesOnly a week old and already wilting with the smell of decay. I actually like the odor of decomposing flora and fauna, especially in a city apartment in winter, with snow and ice outside, the promise of spring nowhere in sight. Usually I cut back the stems and put the roses in a smaller vase to make them last longer. But not this time. This time the gift of roses was more than special; it was a sign of life itself.

For many years, decades really, an old, very dear friend, very far away, has been sending me roses for my birthday despite the fact we haven’t seen each other in over thirty years. But on my last birthday this past December, no roses arrived. Since my friend is elderly, I presumed that he had passed away. I have always known that the lack of birthday roses would probably be the only indication I would have that he was no longer in the physical world.

roseThis last birthday was doubly sad as it also marked the death of my last surviving uncle. Those like myself who know death as the beginning of another journey and not an end, can still mourn the passing of those we have cherished.

And then, almost four weeks late—the birthday roses did arrive! My friend was still with me, apologizing for his tardiness, explaining that he had been in hospital. Oh, joyous day!

When we speak of a person in “the flower of life” or the “flower of youth,” we usually think of bodily health. Beauty of form, an active mind, perhaps emotions brimming over with a passionate zest for life. But flowers have their life span as well. And who is to say that a decaying rose is any less lovely than one in full bloom? Or the fragrance of decomposition any less sweet? I will cherish this particular bouquet even as the petals begin to fall.

roses2And still there is more. For as I passed in and out of the room where the roses grace the corner by the window, I didn’t have to look in their direction to know they were there as their swampy smell grew stronger by the day. It was then I thought of taking a picture, maybe writing a blog about them. When I came up very close to the blooms and stared them in the face, I noticed how most of them had just drooped, hanging their heads as if they’d given up. Whereas a few others still held up their darkened heads, despite an obvious weariness, allowing me a view into the black cave of their center.

roses1And still, it wasn’t until after I had taken the photo that I noticed the picture hanging above the now aging bouquet. The picture I framed of flowers painted by my little boy, so lovingly and proudly presented on a Mother’s Day long ago. And I thought, what a wonderful juxtaposition—the bright painted flowers which will never die, and the dying roses from my friend—the gift that showed me he was still alive…

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Goldilocks and the Mobile Wallpaper


When I finally found the right wallpaper for my Blackberry Simple Mobile, Goldilocks came to mind. There are no bears in my story. But there is the question of bearing, and what feels right, and finding the happy medium, which can be taste or size, but can also be a purely visual concern. For me it was like finding a center-point of rest. That place where you don’t have to think anymore. Because suddenly you are there, in the restful zone. Where it all makes sense again. Even with your eyes open.

Three apples, two gourds. Five items. One-two-three-four-five. All in a row. Like a human hand. One row. (One hand.) One window sill. Two colors, green on orange. As soon as I took the picture and saved it as wallpaper, I not only saw calmness, I saw music. Such calming notes, humming a slow and easy tune. In this world of constant movement and ever-present noise or sounds or some sort, how pleasant to observe objects at rest. Digital ones maybe, but still identifiable as the ones I had picked with my 3D hands at the 3D supermarket, and three of which I would presently eat with my 3D mouth. Etcetera.

Oh sure, I can create little tableaus at home any time for any number of reasons. This one is special because it was created at random for the special purpose of fitting into the rectangular screen of the Blackberry. And I didn’t know what I had done until I did it. And yes, I can calm myself and connect to the real in any number of other ways, but the point here is connection, and what I am connecting to while I am connecting to something else. The very phone that connects me to the outer world in a digital sense, (how it does so is beyond my mental comprehension) now also connects me in a strange way to something else. A bar of silent music I can listen to with my eyes.

blackberry2A rectangle of light. In between a top bar and the lower bar — filled with shapes, aka icons, numbers and words, (which are also representations) and below that the keyboard filled with more letters, more numbers, which magically (if punched in correctly) transport me to the far corners of the globe — I had a bit of the old familiar 3D world. A world that I had actually touched, and would actually consume with an actual mouth, so that it would actually become part of my actual body.

The phone in question is the older version of the Blackberry with the small screen and qwerty board. It’s my backup phone, though I have to say I’m still partial to the tactile feel of the qwerty board. After I advanced to the Android and then the iphone, I missed that little Blackberry, and was happy to find another one that didn’t require a plan or commitment beyond thirty days. The first year I didn’t bother with wallpapers. Preloaded pictures of standard scenes were adequate. But then I became restless. Visually restless, you might say, and so I began to take my own pictures to use as wallpaper. But the Blackberry camera on the Simple Mobile is terrible. It bleaches out the colors. Plus it’s a rectangle. I couldn’t find anything that looked right.

blackberryIt finally occurred to me to find some objects I could place in a line that would fit into the small rectangular space without interfering with the business ‘above’ and ‘below.’ Voilà!

The issue is balance and harmony and comfort, feeling and finding that place or state of mind that feels just right. Like our friend Goldilocks. Except my world is more complicated than hers was. And unlike Goldilocks, I am not dealing with actual porridge and chairs and beds, I am dealing with states of mind caused by looking at images. Which naturally as a visual artist, I am keenly attuned to. I might even go so far as to say I vibrate with them. Which is to say that although I have no physical contact with an object, and am not present in the scene being represented, I absorb and react to the sensory knowledge as if I were. I could say, oh well, I have a 4D sensibility, meaning that the life of the imagination is equally, if not more powerful than the physical world. But I want to keep this simple. Like my Blackberry Simple Mobile. Calls, texts and Twitter.

merkabaI want to say how if at one time I found I was led into a deeper, more real world, (the world of energy and vibration) by the intricate, complicated geometric shapes and drawings composed of circles and triangles intersecting one another, designs as flagrantly, impossibly beautiful as a snowflake, then now I have come full circle, back to the solid physical plane. Or at least the one with the illusion of solidity. The one where an apple decays in time. Or is eaten and digested, also in time, and goes through various  chemical changes that react upon the body. In time.

I guess I’m not so eager to be transported any more. It happens anyway. Ascension means different things to different people, and whatever it means keeps changing as we grow and develop and expand our awareness, develop our perceptions. Engage with our surroundings in different ways via sound and sight and touch and smell and taste. And then engage in the hidden world beyond the five senses through dreams and visualization and meditation. We need to know both, and feel at home in both, at one with both.

We need to be high at the same time we are low, be out when we are in. Transcend time while being in Time. Be in Space even if we aren’t sure where the ‘space’ actually is. Because now we are everywhere. We are everyone and No One. Everything and No-Thing.

My experience with the wallpaper for the Blackberry reminds me of the Lamaze class that prepared me for the pain of childbirth. I was instructed to bring a photograph to the hospital along with my nightgown and slippers and toothbrush and so on. The photo needed to be a picture of someone or something I loved and cherished that I could focus on during the contractions and take my mind off the pain. I practiced the breathing while looking at the picture, and when the time came, I was well-prepared to calm and soothe myself with both breath and image. At least for a few minutes. Until I had to have the C-section. Still, lesson learned. Pictures matter. Focusing on a specific image matters.

Now, at this birthing time of the New Age, when we find ourselves going through rebirths in various degrees at various times, we have to keep finding new ways to stay centered. At least I do. Because it is never the same moment, yet the moment is always Now. This week at least, I am keeping it simple with my Simple Mobile. Fruits of tree and vine, lined up quietly in a simple rhythm on the window sill. One-two, one-two, one…

iphoneJust for the record, my lock screen for the iphone is a playful Wheeee! A free-floating, flying figure, somewhere in time and space… while fruit waits, stationary and patient, on the window sill.

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Art and the Equality of Seeing

Student work, pastel, Nancy Wait (1979)

Student work, pastel, Nancy Wait (1979)

Excerpt from a memoir-in-progress ~ first life-drawing classes at the Art Student’s League. 

“The models were different every day. They came in all shapes and sizes but to us they were simply “nudes.” Most were young, though some were middle-aged, even old from time to time. I was amazed at their lack of embarrassment in showing themselves so freely. I thought they must be a breed apart. Then after a few days it all began to seem normal, and I wondered how I could have thought it otherwise.

After the strangeness wore off, I found it freeing, as if studying other’s bodies, not to be critical or admiring, but simply fascinated, was the way life should be. I stared at the nudes for hours on end, studying them intently. Observing where the shadows fell, and where the light. Where the bones were and where the muscles. My only goal was to portray what I saw as honestly and realistically as I was able. I had no opinions, no judgments. If the model was an old woman with sagging breasts, so much the better. I liked drawing wrinkles. There was character in every line. Flabby, sagging skin was far and away more  interesting than the smooth, unblemished younger faces and bodies. The more lines, the more character—the more interest. The more flesh the better. I rejoiced in the model with folds and folds of flesh. Unsightly bellies and double chins were a feast for the eye. Even with the young and slender models I prized the sad expression, the stringy hair. Previous standards of beauty flew out the window. A kind of equality took over. An equality of seeing, where everyone was equally fascinating in their own right.

(detail) pastel, Nancy Wait, student work 1979

(detail) pastel, Nancy Wait, student work 1979

I didn’t quite realize the effect all this was having on me until the night Lenny was trying to flag down a taxi. When a cab stopped at the corner to let out a passenger, we waited while the woman extricated herself from the backseat. She was obese. Before the life-drawing class I probably would have looked at her with disdain thinking how could she have let herself go. I would have been critical of the red dress that clung to her overblown misshapen form. Instead, I observed how she lugged her heavy body across the seat, then heaved herself up. I thought in uncritical terms of form and mass. I saw the fabric of her dress pulling and stretching with her movements, and then I looked through her dress, through her skin, imagining the bones and muscles beneath the flesh. I noticed how her face showed the strain of exertion. I sympathized. I felt compassion. Once I was relating to her, seeing past her physical form, I saw her beauty. As if my eyes, piercing her flesh, had reached her soul. Then she was out of the cab, onto the curb, making her way to wherever it was she was going that night, and I slipped nimbly into the back seat followed by Lenny. The door slammed shut and we were off. It all happened quickly, just another night in the city, but I thought about it a lot afterwards. I think I was realizing how learning to draw was changing the way I looked at people. At everything really. As if it all became beautiful simply through the act of observation. Once I had seen, I could never go back to the place of not-seeing.”

I decided to post this today as an antidote to the video:  “the power of Adobe Photo” shared on Upworthy by Laura Willard  who says, “…what I really want is for us to stop turning beautiful women into drawings and passing them off as real.”


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