Nottingham, Chicago, Wroclaw – portraits a-go-go!


It’s funny, but for nigh-on thirty years I’ve avoided portraits. I remember my mum trying to tell me I should become a portrait painter, but for me – deep in the canon of “Contemporary Art” (capital “C”, capital “A”) – down that path lay Death. I saw portraiture as the epitome of establishment, conservative – indeed pretty much feudal – values, and would not pander to them. I guess there are worse things to do, kiddy portraits being one, then a notch down from that comes pet portraits….


But I’d always taught portraiture in life-drawing classes, teaching students the mechanics of how they could draw heads as a way of overcoming their fear of what is seen as the most difficult aspect of life drawing and painting. “Do it like this” I tell them “then it’s easy!” Well, easier. It’s all about how to look.


A few years ago, for my Silesia project, I started using photos I’d found on internet dating sites as the basis for paintings – and lots of them. They were great fun, and made some terrific paintings, but I told myself they weren’t really portraits. These were paintings of gifs and jpegs, and if they looked like portraits they were actually about something else – they were about looking at Silesia through the internet – an evolving ‘digital way of seeing’. But underneath it all, sneaking up on my conceptual purity, bit by bit, something about them eventually made me admit that they were paintings of people’s faces. People, not anonymous digital images.


When the ‘two Goths’ were spiked by a fork lift truck in transit I was heartbroken. When my entire collection of Silesian portraits was stolen in Scarborough, I dived into depression.


And then about a year or so ago I thought I’d draw a portrait of my son Theo – though once again having something beyond portraiture in mind. The first one was a fairly quick sketch, and using the iPad app Brushes gave a “play-back” video of the entire process which I posted on YouTube, and I was amazed at the response – it clocked up far more “views” all across the world than I’d expect at any exhibition. The feedback was terrific – people used it to teach students about painting (I use it to teach students too), invitations came to give demonstrations and workshops, artists, curators and other arts professionals were very complimentary.


“Animating these drawings in time lapse is a perfect accompaniment to seeing the outcome of the sketch. It brings back to us the physicality of touch, gives us an insight into your process, each choice & trace of mark recorded showing us the skill & eye of the draftsman. It being of Theo, your son, is just lovely.”

Marek Tobolewski, artist


I drew two more iPad portraits of Theo, exhibiting all three at the Platforma (art & refugees) festival in London, and was commissioned to draw several for a Liverpool hospital. The patients I drew were dead-set against being photographed, but happily won over by seeing their faces magically appear in the “play-back” video on the iPad screen.


Over this time my thinking about portraits shifted, partly in response to the making of them – my fascination with the processes of “looking” has grown, built on thirty years of life-drawing and teaching, and feeding into the processes used in the Silesia project. But also how the idea of portraiture fits with my work at the moment, using the genre as a signifier for a community, a people, almost anthropologically documenting ideas of identity, of what is “Silesian”.


François Matarasso spoke to me about portraiture being “another way of knowing” and that helped make me see the value of a ‘human made’ visual response, a document of a situation not mediated by photography. “The art of portraiture can give us access to experience that cannot be put into words. It makes that experience reach across time and place, to touch those who have no connection and make them understand… real things that have happened to real people.”


So now, having discovered that I enjoy it, I’m looking to work more with portraiture and, as a spin off from the Silesian portraits, see if it can cumulatively create a portrait of a community. As a kind of ‘field study’ I am about to work on a project in Ilkeston, a small town in Derbyshire, where I have been commissioned to create a series of iPad portraits of the locals. This will be a useful test because I have plans to look at this idea of community portraiture here around Nottingham, in Chicago, and in Silesia.


I have a “big idea” that has been germinating for two or three years, ever since I learned of the massive emigration of German post-war refugees to the city of Chicago in 1953, assisted by descendants of Germans who settled there in the previous century (30% of Chicago’s population is of German descent). I want to go to Chicago, to meet and make portraits of those German Silesian post-war émigrés that are left, having been in contact with a Chicago based German historian who has kindly offered to help.


As I grew up in the Yorkshire coalfields with no German community of any kind, it would be fascinating to talk to those that are still alive, recording through drawing, their stories of refugee experience from the European national borders moving westward in 1945, and their 1950’s settlement in a former enemy land. How did they survive (two million German civilians died during the post-war expulsion) and how were they received in the USA, become part of it, taking on the identity of America, yet retain their German community? How much can be told by their faces, by my looking and drawing? But I’ll have to be quick – I’m sure there won’t be many still alive.


And then finally I want – after working on this project Considering Silesia since 2003 – to go to Silesia for the first time, and (as well as developing several other ideas) create a portrait of the Polish Silesian people there. On the surface a simple compare and contrast job, but one that would act as a document of over seventy years of Silesian history, so a micro-history of post-war European migration.


The ambiguities of nationality created by this post-war migration and its trans-atlantic reach resonate with today’s cosmopolitan British streets and rapidly changing society. Recently I was introduced, through a friend of a friend, to a Polish chap from Lower Silesia here in Nottingham with a view to drawing his portrait. As I showed images of paintings of Silesia I’d done from internet jpegs he kept saying “I know that place” – it turned out that his home is a few minutes walk from Albert Speers hidden bunkers that I’d made several paintings of, and he was able to tell me quite a few things about Speers Riese project that I hadn’t known. I had a quick go at drawing his portrait and I hope to do more.


So now portraiture is very much on the agenda – albeit with my particular slant.



One thought on “Nottingham, Chicago, Wroclaw – portraits a-go-go!

  1. Hello Mik, I am the Editor-in-Chief of Anthropology and Aging Quarterly, and I have recently introduced a “Portfolio” section, since my wife (an artist and portraitist) is ever reminding me that, as you write above, art can be another way of knowing a person. As I read through Winter Fires, I thought that it would be wonderful to feature some of these portraits in our journal. If you are interested, please contact me. I can show you the journal and we can work out details. Wonderful work. Thank you!

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