This hunger is deeper than aesthetic fascination; it goes all the way back to my earliest years. I grew up in the hospital. Because I was born with spina bifida and underwent dozens of surgeries by the time I was 5, I was constantly surrounded by white-coated doctors and white-uniformed nurses, each of whom were in charge of my body. Each made me fear for what would happen next: Was I going back to surgery? Being sent for painful tests? Was I ever going home? I had no authority to say no, so I learned to read the truth in grown-up faces no matter what their words might say. I studied their subtle signals with the passionate dedication of a Talmudic scholar.
For me, each mask is a small but painful theft. The virus has stolen your face from me; it’s even stolen my face from myself. I use my face to mitigate people’s reactions to my body — my curved spine, my orthopedic boots, my silver-red hair, my limp. I beam out my expressions — and my words — to defend myself against harassment. Against ignorance. Against being ignored. Now my mask muffles my voice, kidnaps my face and reduces my body to a diagnosis.
All that is difficult enough, but how can I convey the misery of being a portrait artist during a pandemic? For 30 years, I’ve depicted people who experience stigma. My subjects have been mocked, threatened, demeaned because of the way they look or move or enact their identities. I paint to make them visible as they truly are, as bearers of iconoclastic beauty. Portraiture is the purpose of my life.
Visibility is crucial. Many of my collaborators — they are not mere subjects, but partners in creation — are disabled, or queer, or trans, or people of color; those, in fact, who are most at risk from Covid-19. Faces that aren’t just masked, but are entirely missing from public life. People who, like me, are at such medical risk that we have little choice but to shelter in place. We’ve been rendered invisible as well as vulnerable, our lives controlled by those who don’t mask, who are, to be frank, barefaced threats. How do we remind them that we exist from behind a million closed doors?
And so, my career has been upended. I can’t make portraits if I can’t let anyone into my studio. I’d need a space the size of an airplane hangar to create sufficient social distance, and even then, I’d have to view my subjects through a telescope. Not quite the intimate experience one wants when doing a portrait.