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Friends and Strangers

Shaken from the pages of an unwritten text, strangers are walking fiction.

Friends and Strangers


Shaken from the pages of an unwritten text, strangers are walking fiction. It is not a passive fiction; we have no choice but to actively invent and imagine the lives of others, even if the stories we tell ourselves are unbearably short or recklessly inaccurate. Clothes matter to us; we are modestly vain, but we are also detectives, trying to figure out the meaning of the unfolding clues of each new passerby.

Do those boots mean she works in a stable? Can we deduce from his shirt that he knows how to dance? It is not just the clothes; it is also the pose. We notice the head and the shoulders, standing up with pride or rolling down with the reality of unmet promises. The pose continues with the position of the hands and feet and the decision to bear the weight on one’s right or left leg, and the particular placement of the non-weight-bearing foot. This other foot is the key to the attitude of the pose—sometimes it extends out, while at other times it bends at the knee just enough to rock the hips up and to one side. This bent knee is often counterbalanced by a corresponding opposite tip of the shoulder line in a classical contrapposto style. Checking out a stranger, I always notice whether the hands are on the hips or dangling down just past mid-thigh. Are the eyes and neck turned in the same direction, or is the stranger facing one way but looking another?

When a pose starts to move, it becomes a gesture. Looking closely, you can tell right away if a gesture is a part of someone’s regular vocabulary of movements, or was made-up on the spot, never to be repeated, except by chance. We end up sharing more gestures than we’d like to admit, but almost everyone has some personal variation in how a gesture is expressed, so that even our most common movements become unique.

In between high school and college I taught ceramics at the Oregon School for the Blind. The students there could identify me halfway down the hall from the sound of my steps. They called out my name, not as a question, but with complete certainty, even before I was close enough to really see who was calling.

When hunting for strangers, I’m looking for faces connected to a pose. I take a picture, and then paint from the photo back in my studio. I want to ask them who they are and learn about their lives, but then they would no longer be complete strangers. I never know their names. One day, at the Haight Street Fair, I spotted a young couple in the crowd. The man had on grunge-style clothing and the woman wore a rubber horse mask. It was not Halloween, just the street fair. No one else was in costume. They saw me with my camera and immediately stood close to each other and posed for a picture. You can just make out the eye of the woman peering through the horse mask. They never explained their costume, or even spoke; they were perfect strangers. Later I wondered if they were dressed as some sort of allegory of the demise of Kurt Cobain. I never got the chance to ask. Maybe the grunge and horse mask meant something else, or nothing at all.

Getting friends to pose is a different process. Working with a friend you can be more hands-on and adjust the pose, move the light, and adjust the hair; but to get a really good photo, you almost have to act like strangers. A good photo is a little like acting. One friend couldn’t keep from cracking up while I was photographing her—it just seemed funny to her seeing me with reflectors strapped around my neck so I could single-handedly bounce light up under her chin and take the picture. The solution was to have her close her eyes, relax her face and then slowly open her eyes and stare straight into the camera. Right when her eyes were open, I took the picture, and then seconds later she burst into laughter again.

The stranger safari goes on whether I have a camera with me or not.

Glancing at strangers, I’ve started to pay particular attention to drape. The interstitial space between the body and the garment guides my imagination and speaks to me in a vocabulary of imaginary volumes. The space does not exist - it is a ghost that appears and then slides away as each advancing limb twists or rotates to cause the shaped space to relax and then tighten, and then inflate and then disperse. This space between the fabric and the figure is the essence of drape. In cutting a dress, one constructs this space and nothing more – the rest is decoration. The drape of clothing indicates the body beneath; it gives a skin to gesture.

Back on the street, watching a woman walk, calculating the length of her stride and the off-set tilting of her hips, so that a traveling ellipse could be created in space that wobbles to the side as it tracks the peaks of her hips, pivoting on a disembodied sacrum that moves forward with each step and slides slightly to each side when it pivots, so that it sea-saws, like the profile view of a canoe traveling over rolling waves of river water, you could imagine a virtual representation of this particular woman’s style ballast. She carries it in her hips. She dips it side to side while moving it forward. Tracing the path of this virtual flow would yield a graceful wake of movement, like dragging a gentle finger zig-zagging through the icing on a cake.

Over on the side of the road are three men talking to each other in a shorthand code that they know so well they almost don’t have to speak. A topic will come up and the others already know the answers each will give. They say very little. They all smile at the same time at something no one else would notice. They unconsciously maintain hairstyles that complement each other’s outfits. They are a pack. They wear the same tightness of clothes. The group might all wear tight clothes, or all wear baggy clothes, but rarely will a group of male friends mix the degree to which their clothes indicate their bodies.

I never stop looking, even at home. I call out after my wife as she walks down the hall, not because I have anything to say, but only for the reason that if I call with just the right tone in my voice, she might half-turn back towards me while continuing to walk forward, and this elongated twist, this sloping S-curve that not only rocks forward and back, but also right to left, is the essence of all sculpture—she is moving in space, but connected back to me. She is coming and going, focused back, and yet moving, a part of the current moment, never stagnant. The transition of the figure is the teleos of drape. Watching the woman you love look over at you and smile is to draw an invisible chord between the ends of the arc that starts in her mind and ends somewhere deep within your chest—at a location that is near your perceived center of gravity, somewhere between your gut and your heart.

Putting chains on the tires of our truck as we drove over the snowy mountain pass, I remember looking over at my father and seeing only his broad back. He was wearing a wool-lined denim jacket, jeans, cowboy boots and a baseball hat. In that moment, I didn’t recognize him—I just saw his enormous back as he bent down in the snow and worked the chains. He became a stranger for just a moment, and in doing so, I saw him as a person, and not just my father. He became a stranger, and in doing so, I felt like a finally knew him.