Stories for Lent: #11 Beautiful People

I like to say I was an artist as a child, but in truth, there was only one thing I painted – pretty women. Most often princesses, with beautiful hourglass bodies and even more beautiful gowns. The day I figured out how to draw in profile was a major revolution for me, a turning point for variety where I practiced button noses and Egyptian-painting eyes until the cows came home (it took a critique from a guy friend of mine to get me to start painting eyes as they look like in profile, but that would be years later).
I like to say I drew a lot, but the truth is, all my princesses looked the same. I don’t think I’d be able to tell one year from another if I only had those drawings as a compass. I seemed to think that, against all evidence to the contrary, all women looked the same. Or at least, the women worthy of being immortalized in art.
I wish I could say I didn’t remain this shallow for long, but the truth was, I was drawn to beautiful people – my teachers, who were also artists and thus cooler, in my mind, than anyone else, because they made art as well; my friends, or so-called friends, who had long hair and better drawing supplies that they let me use (if I asked nicely); later, when hormones started kicking in with full force and boys started to become attractive as well as annoying, I went through a stage of crushes on the prettiest classmates I had. (Valentine’s Day was supremely disappointing in those years.)
Then the pendulum swung the other way – kind of. I came across a few teachers who had more than singing praises for me, who challenged my drawings. I forced myself to notice more things – shade and half-shade to add dimension, and how the “realistic proportions” of a human face wildly diverge from the “ideal proportion” (I actually hated those classes. All the people I drew seemed too big, too… fat, for my taste.) When I tried branching out into drawing animals (horses were a big deal at one point) my teacher sat me down with some Old West comics and had me stare at drawings until I got the kind legs right.
Slowly, my mental landscape started to change, at least in the way I drew things and people. I saw that there was a place for animation and for realism, I saw there was room for weirdness and messiness. I also started to see attraction in mistakes, in little deviations from the norm. I would give a woman wrinkles, or make her wink, or turn her hair into a mass of triangles, or put sunflowers in the place of her eyes, and suddenly, there was a story leaping out at me. I added moles. I drew less placid, serene Madonnas, and more open mouths and dimples and surprise. I tried – poorly – to make faces come alive, and I seemed to succeed most when I made mistakes.
With actual, living and breathing people, the change took longer. One might say it’s still going.
I stopped crushing on pretty boys – that was the first big indicator that something was happening. Then I began to notice the weird things, the imperfections. Tattoos and body piercings, for one thing, and not just on the models on the cover of “Skin Deep”. Haircuts and the way they shaped the head. The way some people’s eyes become animated when they talk, or they see someone they love.
And then there’s me, and the reflection I can’t always face, but occasionally appreciate. I found the guts to chop off the hair I’d painstakingly grown over the years – first, a little bit, then more and more, until it’s as short as it was in nursery school. I started to wear skirts, realizing that nobody was looking at my leg. I learned to wear red lipstick, despite the fact that every once in a while, I hear a voice in my head telling me that I look like a clown.
It’s progress. It doesn’t look like it, doesn’t feel like it, but it’s progress.


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