“I Paint What I See” – Bearing Witness, One Face at a Time

Marc Clamage - Maxine

“I SEE YOU BUT DO YOU SEE ME?” Maxine by Marc Clamage:

Since my last post on bearing witness, I discovered another blogger who refuses to turn away by painting panhandlers he sees in Boston Harvard Square near his workplace.

Meet artist Marc Clamage.

He writes: “I used to hurry by them, but then I began to stop. Each face tells a story, I realized, and I would try to capture as many as I could through a series of oil paintings.”

Marc Clamage - Rosie and David

“Rosie and David” and pet guinea pig, by Marc Clamage

He’d noticed that there were more than usual, “younger, and more troubled,” and sometimes, even whole families begging on the streets.

Many of the people he encounters were simple passing through, and using panhandling as a way to supplement a low-wage job, or help pay the rent.

Others were homeless, and panhandling was their only source of income. Some were obviously disturbed, showing signs of drug addiction or mental illness. Some were sick, and dying.

Marc Clamage - Justin and Lauren (The Lovebirds)

“Newly Engaged, need Motel to Celebrate” Justin and Lauren (The Lovebirds) by Marc Clamage

He adds: “I do not ask the panhandlers to ‘pose”’ for me, but to carry on with their business. I pay each person $10, though I wish I could afford more, because they earn that small fee in the hour or two it takes me to paint them.

Over that time, we often get to talking, which has been a privilege and an education.

I’ve seen or heard many human dramas: the tragic love story of Gary and Whitney; squabbles over the best places to work; the mysterious figure everyone calls “The Rabbi,” stuffing $20 bills into cups and disappearing before anyone can see his face.

Marc Clamage - Gary

“Gary, Desert Storm Vet” by Marc Clamage

“I’ve witnessed a few instances of cruelty, but many more of thoughtfulness and generosity. And when I head home, I’m always struck by one thought: There but for the grace of God go the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why we find panhandlers so hard to look at.”

I was deeply touched by Marc’s paintings and by the stories of the people who posed for him. You can view more of his paintings and read the stories on his website “I Paint What I See“, or at his blog.

I also like what he says about how he paints:

“I paint what I see, only what I see, only with it right in front of me, only while I’m looking right at it. I do not work from photographs, or imagination, or memory, or even from sketches. I paint exclusively from life. The essence of representation is that every choice, every brushstroke must be made in direct response to the experience of visual reality.”

Marc Clamage - Whitney

“Whitney”, suffering from cancer, by Marc Clamage

To really “see” someone, the way an artist does, objectively, without judgement, and yet responding to what is seen, the pain, or loneliness, or confusion, or anger; to see and be seen like that, must be freeing, for both the painter, the one painted. And for the viewer as well.

To simply behold what we see–the good and bad and beautiful and ugly–without judgement, but with compassion and humility, is the essence of “bearing witness.” And it must have a healing effect.

Bernie Glassman in “Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace” wrote:

“In my view, we can’t heal ourselves or other people unless we bear witness. In the Zen Peacemaker Order we stress bearing witness to the wholeness of life, to every aspect of the situation that arises. So bearing witness to someone’s kidnapping, assaulting, and killing a child means being every element of the situation: being the young girl, with her fear, terror, hunger, and pain; being the girl’s mother, with her endless nights of grief and guilt; being the mother of the man who killed, torn between love for her son and the horror of his actions; being the families of both the killed and the killer, each with its respective pain, rage, horror, and shame; being the dark, silent cell where the girl was imprisoned; being the police officers who finally, under enormous pressure, caught the man; and being the jail cell holding the convicted man. It means being each and every element of this situation.”

To bear witness in that way must be the hardest, the most healing, and the most humbling thing we could ever do. And the most needed.

Elsewhere, Glassman writes: “When we bear witness, when we become the situation — homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death — the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. . . . Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.”

More of Marc’s paintings follow. See if you see what he saw.

Marc Clamage - Colleen

“Colleen” by Marc Clamage. She died of exposure and a drug overdose.

 

Marc Clamage - Gideon

“Gideon” by Marc Clamage

 

Marc Clamage - Anthony

“Too Ugly to Prostitute, too Kind to Pimp” – Anthony, by Marc Clamage

 

Marc Clamage - maria

“Maria” by Marc Clamage

 

Marc Clamage - Laurel

“Laurel” by Marc Clamage. Here sign says she’s a mother of 4 and a victim of domestic violence. The flip side says, “I’m not a whore, asshole.”

 

Marc Clamage - Carrie

“Carrie” by Marc Clamage. Now clean and sober and off the street.

Bearing Witness – Refusing to Turn Away

A Beggar

Italian painter Gaspare Traversi (1732-1769) Mendiant accroupi or A Beggar – Courtesy of the Narbonne art museum.

I found this painting of a beggar at the blog site of an artist that I admire. She found it on a rainy day in Narbonne, France where she’s traveling, and wrote:

It is the emotion and compositional strength of this image as well as pure skill in foreshortening that had me coming back to this painting several times. Every centimeter of this canvas is in full use and allows you no room to shrink from the image. The beggar has seen us. We must respond in some way and whatever that way is he and the world will know. It is our human condition we are facing in this painting. (Terrill Welch – Creative Potager)

It struck me how often we are tempted to turn away from images, people, situations, that seems too horrible, too hopeless, that makes us feel too helpless to even think about it, let alone do something ourselves to help. Like extreme poverty, hunger, homelessness, addiction, rape, human trafficking, mass murder, mental illness . . . the list goes on.

It’s human nature to do so, to turn away from the ugly faces that our human condition sometimes shows us. To pretend it’s not there, or doesn’t affect us, or isn’t us, or won’t be us, or someone we care about, some day.

But it’s important to resist that urge to turn away, even if we have no way to address it. It has to do with what I’ve come to think as “bearing witness.” It has to do with, not only, bearing witness to an atrocity that should not be forgotten nor repeated, as the holocaust survivors have done, as we’ve come to regard the towers falling on 9/11.

It also has to do with simply being there for another human being in pain, “bearing” that pain with them, in that we acknowledge it and in whatever small way we can show them they are not alone. That we stand with them, if only in spirit, if only in refusing to turn away, to pretend it doesn’t exist, or that they don’t matter.

I’ve found myself returning to this motif in my writing again and again: the need to look, to not turn away, and the importance to bear witness to another’s pain and suffering.

I wrote about this on another blog site in a post called “The Deer’s Scream – Beauty and brutality in the Backyard and the Hills of Vietnam.” I wrote:

“I don’t know why I’m writing this. Perhaps just to bear witness to the beauty and brutality rolled into one all around us everywhere. We can’t separate it out. We have to swallow it whole. There’s no other way.”

I wrote about it in “13 Ways to Look at Dying, Just Before, and the Moment After” about care for my mother, a difficult woman, during the last few months of her life when she was dying of cancer. It begins this way:

She streaks past me naked in the dark hall. Light from the bathroom flashes upon her face, her thin shoulders, her sharp knees. Her head turns toward me, her dark eyes angry stabs. As if daring me to see her, stop her, help her. 

And I’m writing about it now, on this blog site, my determination not to look away from, but to bear witness to the suffering caused by drug addiction. To not turn away from my son’s suffering, or mine, or from my own culpability.

I see so many other bloggers doing the same thing: facing down a painful past or something that haunts them still, or is hurting a loved one, or destroying a community.

I love how Kaze Gadway in her blog bears witness to the struggles of the homeless in her community.

I love how Art Mowle in Drinking for a Lifetime bears witness to his own struggle to overcome addiction and create a new life.

And there are so many other writers and artists and activists who are doing the same thing. Who are refusing to turn away, and instead bearing witness to the pain they see and experience when encountering the dark side of the human condition. As this artist was doing when he painted “The Beggar” so long ago.

I’m touched by all the readers who have left comments on the blog posts I’ve written here, who have responded to my struggles, and shared theirs. Sometimes it’s all we can do to help another. Bear witness. And sometimes it’s all that’s needed.

Somehow I feel blessed by the artist’s painting on this page. His refusing to turn away, to reveal the humanity he saw in the face of suffering, reveals his own humanity, and challenges us to do the same.