It is not all about me, the opener the group hit upon as I sat having my portrait painted last week by artist Tanya Raabe. The renowned painter was in Hull for a weeklong residence with her national Portraits Untold project as part of Square Peg, a new disability and diversity initiative devised by staff at Artlink Centre for Community Arts.
I’ve been photographed numerous times and painted myself a fine shade of blue last year for Sea of Hull, but never have I sat for a portrait painting. I recall a Hull Arts drawing session in St. Johns a few years back on a balmy summer evening, where I sat still for just ten minutes while all around pencils and charcoals scratched on paper, my likeness captured from a dozen angles. I was also interested in the conversation dynamic suggested in the blurb about the Portraits Untold project, a quick look on her site revealed a number of video clips of previous sittings with anti-drag artist David Hoyle and the Stoke kit man Neil Baldwin, where each are engaged in conversation and discussion all the while Tanya paints.
Added to this painter/sitter dynamic was the group element, with a number of persons in the room observing Tanya and creating their own drawings of me the sitter. They asked me part way through whether it was unnerving having twenty or so pairs of eyes staring intently in my direction. Strangely it wasn’t my love for the limelight quelled any such concerns, what was discomfiting was Tanya mid conversation would at times look at me directly, but not in an interactive, almost as if she was staring at something inanimate. When you have a conversation, you look for little clues that the person has picked up on what you have said, how you are feeling, a smile, and a gesture… that sense of recognition wasn’t there all the time just a painterly gaze staring intently at the subject. The sense of disconnect in those moments was unnerving.
Sold to me as a chance to play interviewee – as opposed to my usual journalistic role of interviewer – I was looking forward to the experience. I describe myself as an open book a lot of the time, so had no qualms over the interrogation. The first question ‘Who is Michelle Dee?’ was a good one and having being described as a spoken word artist in the blurb for the project I responded with a little burst of poetry that recalls my early years. This was the only bit of rehearsed speak and was done as a simple way to immerse my audience in my world.
Discussing all time favourite romantic movies hours later Tanya suggested her favourite was Out of Africa with Meryl Streep (mine is Truly Madly Deeply) As if it was planned this gave me the perfect opening to talk about my childhood experiences living in Africa. It was clear the audience were very much engaged in the storytelling, asking questions and commenting on different aspects. The interaction was informal and conversational, yet the need to sit relatively still – no waving of hands and gesturing, which I found a little difficult: I can be quite expressive when I’m in mid flow, yet the experience had this layer of gravity and almost solemnity.
Encouraged to look at the canvas at the midway point I looked with certain trepidation. I was first surprised by the amount of colour. We had discussed favourite seasonal colours and Tanya had instinctively known I would choose autumnal, deep reds, golds and tan. Having been asked repeatedly what I would wear for the sitting, I’d chosen a simple red dress – it was Valentines day – my Skelmersdale earrings and a deep blue scarf with silver tassels given me by my sister.
Which brings me neatly onto talk of disability. I shared a bit about my sister Lottie, about her being a wheelchair user and living with cerebral palsy. Tanya and I talked about mobility, access and opportunities for disability communities. Even as someone who has grown up around people with different conditions, there were a few moments where I was unsure, as to the accepted or acceptable terminology. It is only through communication and engagement – two things at the heart of the Squarepeg programme – that we can learn and understand how to best support those with complex needs.
Lottie is a stickler for issues around wheelchair access, she has appeared in the local press having persuaded various buildings to up their game and improve accessibility for wheelchair users.
During the afternoon I was encouraged to have a go drawing with an iPad and a drawing app called Procreate – we laughed too. As I tapped away on the screen Tanya painted directly onto a projected image of my screen in real time. That was fun, I ‘sketched’ my audience and Tanya added colour and texture, the sequence was simultaneously recorded and then played back. This way you could see the whole drawing process, from the moment I put the magic pen to the screen. Tanya showed how you could create layers using the software like layers in Photoshop, which built a timeline of events. You could see a painting in very stage of its making, how each layer related to the other. A remarkable tool and one that Tanya uses in her practice to striking effect.
The final remark upon this unique portrait painting experience – I really like the way she has made my eyes draw the viewer in to the work – I give to Tanya Raabe…
‘It is all about capturing the personality in a person and revealing their humanity.’
For more pictures Tanya’s Hull residency see @PhotomomentsNews