Touching Portraits

In 2005 the artist James Esber produced a line drawing of the turbaned bearded face of Osama Bin Laden. He subsequently sent a photocopy of his sketch to nearly one hundred friends, inviting each one of them to reproduce it on tracing paper and enhance the work to their liking with shades of black and red ink. The compiled results form the heart of his exhibition “You, Me & Everyone Else” currently on display at the Pierogi gallery in Brooklyn.

Some of Mr. Esber’s friends were members of his own family. Some were professional artists in their own right; others had no previous artistic training. Yet they all succeeded in expressing themselves in a unique way. In Mr. Esber’s words, “personal touch becomes paramount.” Each person possesses a unique touch, which under the proper circumstances can be drawn out.

When I step into an exam room to see a patient, I enter another world. I offer a greeting—an invitation of sorts—create an ambiance, ask a question or two. If the chemistry is right, the patient begins to talk, expressing concerns, fears, pain; sometimes hope, even joy. I provide the framework, the blank canvas, on which the patient might choose to render a drawing, a portrait—a blend of some segment of existence.

I recognize that any narrative might be slightly different depending upon the nature of the interaction. The technique works best with gentle guidance. As with any work of art, it fails miserably with inadequate time and attention to detail.

Thoreau writes: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”

Perhaps, like Mr. Esber, that is what we who work in the helping arts are tasked to do: to draw out the unique touch of those whose lives we touch every day.


One comment on “Touching Portraits

  1. David Elpern says:

    Yes. The practitioner shapes the narrative — in most cases, we are the “controllers.” Murray Nossel says something similar: “There’s a fundamental basic principle that underlies our work; and that is that there’s a reciprocal relationship between listening and telling. So… imagine that listening is a container, like a bowl, and the telling is liquid that is poured into that bowl. Just as the bowl gives the liquid its shape, so the listening gives the telling its shape. So the way that you are all listening to me right now is actually shaping my telling right now, in this moment – and something we don’t often think about; we don’t often think about the fact that our listening is actually creating something in the other person and for the other person — we don’t often think that our listening is giving the other person’s speaking a shape. We think of listening as some kind of passive thing that doesn’t really matter as long as you are doing a good pretence of listing it’s good enough. Not true.” See

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