I was struggling with proportion, and paying a lot of attention to Ding’s drawing. She was looking at mine, too, and giving me stern looks while pointing to long chins or wide faces. I wanted her to tell me “How do you measure from the nose to the lips to the chin,” or, “How do you know how wide to make the spaces outside the eyes?” It seemed unfair for somebody to think she was your teacher, when all she was doing was pointing out to you what you could see for yourself, thank you very much.
Ding is cute and well preserved for a grandmother. I think Europeans age more than Chinese. They eat better than we do -- less self-indulgent -- and Ding has a resume including dance at the Beijing Opera and martial arts, but her long black hair has just enough silver wires in it to convince me the color doesn’t come out of a bottle.
When it comes to English, Ding doesn’t speak dick, so there was no hope that we could talk about what she wanted -- and I wanted -- to see in my drawing. Ding has stock phrases that she uses, mostly Li’s powerful talking points, and a personal dictionary in a small notebook, with English words next to Mandarin characters, or, mostly, drawings of facial features. It took me months to get Li to tell me that the distance from the eyebrows to the tip of the nose is two eye widths, but he couldn’t tell me how to rotate an eye ninety degrees and hold it against a nose. If you want to get an idea of what I wanted from Ding, explain what Li told me, and what he couldn’t in the language you took in high school. Frustrating.
But Ding is a friend, as nice as anybody you’d like to meet in any language. And brave. Imagine the guts it takes to sell a drawing to strange people who speak a language you don’t understand.
I came in late one afternoon, to hold the fort until closing. There was a gorgeous drawing of a baby on ding’s easel. The drawing was in the lovely brown of the dreaded “special Chinese charcoal,” and the chiarascuro was gradual and delicate without having been smoothed by finger or paper stump. The baby, African-American, was sitting up, round and solid, with her hair pulled into little pigtails, and her fingers interlaced. She was turned three quarters to the right and gazing up, smiling. I would have bought that sketch off the easel, then and there.
Two things happened that night.
The first involved a young woman from Ethiopia. I’m looking at the drawing I did of her now. She’s pretty, with a round face on a slender neck. Untamed curls spill from her scalp, looking full and round, with places a bird could fly through, like the trees across a ravine. Round eyes gaze steadily between full lids top and bottom with fringed with long thick lashes. The eyebrows break wide, where they wrap around the almost spherical outer corners of her eye sockets. The woman’s nose is straight and just a little wider than a European’s, and her lips full, and thrusting above a babydoll chin. Do I have to say she has high cheekbones? It is a very solid drawing.
She came to me after dark, in the neon light from the amusement park. The girl who always rides the Screaming Yellow Zoomer was shrieking every six seconds, as the ride fell away from her butt.
“What is it you do? Will you make a comical drawing of me?”
When I applied for the job, I thought it was a caricature booth, so I spent the weekend teaching myself to do comical drawings of movie stars. I had to explain that we do portrait sketches. The caricaturists work downstairs, in the park, but probably weren’t open.
She was waiting for her friends, looking forward to late supper at Tucci Bennucch, veal parmigiana and a rough red, watching the parade of shoppers across a low wall, with weathered wood and vinyl grape vines suggesting a Tuscan vantage point. She was up, feeding her good mood, and a portrait seemed like a good idea.
It’s a rare thing that I talk while I draw. One of my teachers insisted on quiet. He said that drawing was a right-hemisphere activity, and talking left-hemisphere. This time we talked. She was the young cosmopolite, whose parents had survived the Red Terror, but moved to the States in ‘92, seeing little future in the Horn of Africa, even without Mengistu. I was the tough, sympathetic old guy, virile even in age, safe repository for flirtation and confidences. We exchanged views, me pretending to more knowledge of Ethiopia than I possessed by name-dropping Haile Selassie and the Italian occupation early in WWII. And I drew and fell a little bit in love.
She was patient with my slow search for a likeness. I really don’t know what I’m doing, but if I make a bunch of marks, I can sometimes see when something is wrong, and change it. Our live sketches happen on the newsprint that newspapers use. It’s a cooler grey than the stuff at art supply stores, more flexible, and has a lot less tooth. It is very erasable and very forgiving. My sitter was up, as I said, and seemed glad to be with me. Maybe I was parasitic to participate in what I had told myself had to be an unstable joy. It was a mistake to let flirtation get in the way of a good drawing.
When she saw my work, her crest fell like a souffle in an earthquake. She didn’t look like that. The change in her mood was palpable, and she threw out ideas and explanations in rapid fire, trying to fix the drawing, our relationship, and her good mood. She could suggest second sittings or bringing me photographs until the cows came home (Ethiopia is the world’s tenth largest livestock producer), but she was sad and hurt.
I told her to take the drawing for free. She could use it as a conversation piece at dinner, but she wanted no part of it. I hoped for a couple of weeks that she would come back, but I never saw her again.
I rolled the drawing up in tissue paper, and put it out of the way. I really liked it, likeness or not. I was embarrassed and unsure of myself, but still at work. I had to be cool. I had signed on at Lee’s Gallery to master one, small, difficult skill, and hanging on to egregious goofs wasn’t going to help.
To my shame, my tendency is to press my bruises. I needed distraction. I went over to Ding’s easel, hoping for inspiration from the beautiful, umber baby. It was still a cool, cool drawing.
A woman came up to me. She was African-American, forty-five, dark, overweight and overworked.
“That’s my niece. I wondered how the picture was coming.”
I told her that I thought it was coming very well. When we do color drawings, there is always an under-drawing in special black and white that includes all the details and values. I suspected that the drawing I loved was destined to go under a layer of pastel. It would be good -- Ding has a huge vocabulary of color technique -- but it would hide something remarkable. I asked if this was going to be in color.
“Yes. I was scared when I saw all this brown.”
I reassured her.
“She was my little sister’s baby. She had Down’s Syndrome and a problem with her heart, and she died. Are they going to put wings on her?”
“Angel wings. I told those Chinese people that she should have wings, but I don’t think they understood.”
In my mind’s eye, I saw Bouguereau putti flitting around some self-absorbed tart in the surf. Okay, I saw a flock of bare-butt angels around a painting of some self-absorbed tart in the surf. Little feathery wings that couldn’t lift a hummingbird, levitated some pretty chunky cherubs. Detachment was coming easier.
I told the customer that I would make sure the baby got wings, and the next day I came in early to make sure Ding knew before she took the drawing too far.
It took a three-way conference, with Jiyao translating, to get the job done, but Ding committed to wings, and I didn’t give it another thought.
The last time I saw the drawing, it was in color, and the baby had gorgeous, gaudy, butterfly wings. A worm that turns to jelly inside a shell of hard skin, then emerges with shimmering, colorful wings, is probably a better metaphor for birth to eternal life than a toddler with pigeon wings.