Last month I said yes to a request I would normally say no to. There’s no way to explain this without sounding self-important, so I’ll just come out with it: people sometimes ask to paint my portrait. These requests are immensely flattering, of course. Once you’ve published a couple of books and been on TV a few times, I suppose that’s what happens: photographers and painters see you and think there’s something there.
However, it’s not a simple proposition. I’ve written a lot about particular times in my life and if I’ve done my job well, people think they know me. I also share certain aspects of my working life on social media. But as much as I reveal a lot about facets of my existence, the bigger and more meaningful things — the things that make me “me” — are private. My partner, my home, my close relationships, my family, my inner world … these are precious and I protect them fiercely.
Have you heard of “para-social relationships”? It’s a nightmare. Strangers see you on the television or internet and think they know you. People you’ve never met feel you’re friends. The term was coined by Donald Horton and R Richard Wohl in 1956 and, as you can imagine, the advent of social media has seen the phenomenon explode in both intensity and prevalence. Theorists have described para-social relationships as an “illusionary experience” that develops with exposure and every extra detail the media personality shares. Some influencers and celebrities are masterminds at maintaining these one-sided relationships. I find it disturbing and strange.
Something you learn very quickly if any part of your work occurs in the public eye is that you cannot control other people’s perceptions of you. When I finish a work of art, like a book or a story, I have to let it go. It floats away, down the river of life. It is not mine anymore. Others interpret it, imbue it with meaning. A film or a piece of music is usually received by an audience, but writing is different in that it requires the reader to meet the artist in the middle: they co-create the work, bringing themselves to it. This is all well and good. In fact, the more I accept it, the more I find it a source of delight. A harder lesson — one I keep having to relearn — is the same thing happens with your persona. My image and snippets of my personality get sent out into the river. People make interpretations. And I can go no more than halfway in guiding their judgements — often not even that far.
Which brings me back to saying no to portraits. I always long to ask the artist the question I can’t: what do you think you see here? I can’t ask that because the artist’s only true answer would be the portrait itself. So what is required of me is an extraordinary amount of trust and vulnerability. A good portrait is more than a likeness. For many great artists, capturing the sitter’s physical attributes is quite low on the list of priorities for a work. Saying yes to having my portrait painted means inviting the artist to divine the essence of me; to decide which aspects of my personality to privilege and which to hide. They create their interpretation and if the painting is then shown, an extra level of interpretation will take place between the viewer and the artwork. Where is the sitter in all this? Nowhere of import to the meaning-making process yet right in front of your eyes. What a trip.
I said yes to Colin Mac because he’s good, of course, but my trust in the artist’s talent wouldn’t normally be enough. Something in me has shifted lately. I’m 30 now. Lots of my friends are having children and our parents are ageing. The lonely life of the dedicated intellectual has not only become less appealing, the clichéd package has revealed itself to be a farce. Having artistic freedom at my desk each day feels pointless if there is no passion and laughter in my home at night. My heightened awareness of the preciousness of my close connections has thrown the opinions of the public into sharp relief. Why lose sleep over the thoughts of a stranger when I could be kissing my husband? Why stress about projecting an image of success when I should be calling my mum more?
I first met Col half a dozen years ago at some event, back when we both lived in Brisbane. Several months later, on exiting my shabby rental I noticed a painting of a blue dog had mysteriously appeared, nailed to the power pole outside our rusty front gate. I took a photo and posted it on Instagram. Col was putting pictures of his signature blue dogs everywhere. My partner and I delighted in the find. Our home was marked. When we moved to Sydney, I commissioned Col to paint a blue dog we could take with us and it now hangs in our lounge room, a little piece of our home town. “Blue Dog” reminds me how far we’ve come in so few years. It reminds me that home is a place I can always return to, as much in my heart as in real time and space.
Seeing Col again was great. As we hung out and caught up, my nerves receded. He took reference photos of me and we chatted about all kinds of things. I told him about the novel I’d just finished writing and he told me about the digital art he’s been making and projecting onto buildings. He has a scruffy dog and I myself am in the market for a scruffy dog. I explained that my PhD is about the new “public interest” defence to defamation proceedings in Australia and we laughed about the Duttons and the Porters of the world embarrassing themselves.
Each of us contains multitudes. We are all a dozen roles. If someone were to paint your portrait, what would you wear? Would you put on makeup? Would you clean up your home? I dried my hair properly but left my face bare. I wore jeans and a T-shirt. Col had to wait outside for five minutes while I tidied my apartment. It wasn’t enough time to create some sort of Architectural Digest vision, I can assure you. There were dishes in the sink, laundry drying in the corner and quotidian debris covered the dining table. I tried to look at the scene through his eyes: what is here? What is missing? Who is this woman?
As he was leaving, I asked Col how he preferred to work. “With my writing, I don’t like to show anyone until it’s completely finished,” I said to him. “But if you want more feedback or to share your progress, that’s fine, too.” He replied that he was like me. I won’t hear from him for several months, and then he will show me the finished product.
He left and I felt surprisingly calm. What an honour. What an almighty privilege. I can see that clearly now, all because I put my ego on ice for a moment. Why had I been so anxious? I had presumed I was nervous about being misunderstood or misrepresented but, actually, I think I was nervous about being perceived as I truly am. What a thrill these next few months will be as my image makes its way down the river with Col. And perhaps one day it will make its way into the wide-open ocean of the world. It’s going to reveal something and conceal something else. It already has.