IN YOUR FACE
I’ve always fancied myself a storyteller, a raconteur, even before I could put a name to it or understood what it meant. Storytelling has taken many forms in my life, mostly through the written word, sometimes augmented by music. My degree is in creative writing (Miami University Poetry Scholar of the class of 1986), and I’ve written many short stories, songs, plays, autobiographical essays, hosted a true crime podcast for five years, and so on. I even did a couple of nights of stand-up comedy. Most significant, I suppose, would be my twenty-five-year career in journalism.
I did all kinds of work as a writer and editor for my hometown newspaper, but my favorite thing to do, the thing I was best at and best known for, was in “telling the stories of my people” better than they could do it themselves. Whether it was an artist preparing for an exhibition or an 80-year-old veteran recalling his days in World War II, I delighted in being able to get inside someone’s head for a while and write about it. I often likened it to the work of a sculptor. We have a conversation or two so I can gather raw material. I take a lot of notes and come away with a big bundle of words, then before the next deadline sit down and whittle away at my notebook, stacking up quotes and filling the gaps with paraphrase and my own keen observation, creating a word picture as dense as poetry to fit into however many column inches I was allowed. Sometimes two stories a day. That’s some heavy word lifting, but it’s what I did best. During one evaluation, my editor said, “You could fall out of bed in the morning and get a story out of it.” I took it both as a compliment and as a challenge.
It was and is my deeply held belief that “Everybody Has a Story,” and for a time I wrote a weekly feature under that header. My coworkers would challenge me with the most mundane tips (an old fella with a collection of meat grinders or a woman who made a scarecrow out of clay pots and grew flowers to sculpt into clothes and hair), but I could get twelve rich column inches out of any ten-minute conversation. If you had an hour to give me, I could write your masterpiece. When I created the True Crime Historian podcast, it was much the same process, different media: gather vintage newspaper accounts and assemble them into an oral narrative.
So now in this final quarter of my life, I have been challenged by the visual arts. Painting and drawing, specifically. My painting experience up to now has mostly been about slapping paint around just to have a grin. In my early 20s, during a period of unemployment and deep depression, I painted three or four Van Gogh copies that I gave to friends, but then I got a job and could afford to party in my spare time, so that passed. When my kids were little, we’d take art classes together and sometimes go on plein air picnics, displaying our work on a family gallery wall in the rec room. It snuck up on me this time. Inspired by a Bob Ross marathon one dreary winter night after my old dog died,I got the urge to paint some picture for my kids for Christmas. I’ve always loved getting artwork from them. My paintings came out okay enough, and I still had some paint left, so I did a few more landscapes and some flowers. When I posted them on social media, my friends were very encouraging and one sent me a photo and asked if I did portraits. I did not. I took it as a challenge.
I’ve been told I should “get serious” about it, and I took that as a challenge, too. But if I’m to do this, I want to do more than make pretty pictures. If I’m to be “serious” about painting, it needs to fit into my own biographical arc, my life as a raconteur. I have plenty of ideas for epic narrative paintings, to be sure, and I want to get to that, but for my first exhibition, I wanted to do something basic that gets to the heart of “everybody has a story” in a visual sense. The most obvious visual expression of someone’s story is how they reveal it in their face. I’ve done interviews where I never had to ask a single question, but just let them talk. Likewise, visually speaking, some people you can meet for the first time, look at their face and know they have a story or a hundred to tell. I’ve sought some of those people out, but I’ve also challenged myself to get a story out of Everybody, even if I have to ask a few questions to pry it out of them.
Everybody does have a story, and it’s in your face.