Someone asked me recently what was the most difficult commission I have ever done. And without hesitation I thought of one of the very first ones I ever did.
I used to do art festivals. You know, the ones that pop up every year in the summer. I had to lug around my tent and paintings hoping to meet families that wanted portraits of their kids. I love painting children and for me this worked out well since families with young kids just don’t go to nice galleries – they found me at the festivals. So for many years I braved the sun, rain and many comments of “Yeah, my aunt paints too.”
One summer I was approached by a very young couple and they asked if I could paint their baby. I said sure, although I liked to work with them a little bit older. But there was no time for that. The infant was in hospice and Make-a-Wish was granting them a portrait of their terminal daughter.
So I said yes. I met the mom and the daughter at a Hospice Home for babies in Shadyside near Pittsburgh. The baby was 4 weeks old, but only 4 pounds and looked like a very premature infant. A part of her brain was undeveloped and so she could not take in any nourishment from food. It was only a matter of time. So I took photos of the baby. But she was so tiny that the painting would also have to be very tiny otherwise if I made her bigger than she was, it would just not look right since her proportions were distorted. So I asked the mom if I could paint them together. This would allow the painting to be a bit bigger and put the moms’ hands and face in the painting for scale. The painting was still very tiny- About 14″ wide if remember correctly.
But I was having trouble getting the light right inside of the home where she was. So her mom wrapped her in a blanket and took her outside. I was still using regular Kodak film at this time and still getting a grip on even how to shoot photos for portraits. It was the time of “shoot and pray you get what you need” and no digital screen on the camera so I couldn’t see what I was getting. She sat under a tree with her daughter cradled in her arms and I shot a bunch of photos. It felt a bit invasive. But I was determined to do this right. Just at that moment a man was walking his dog down the sidewalk near where we were…
“Something wrong with that baby?” he said.
I was speechless. The mom started sobbing. The man continued walking.
I felt icky. It was a blatant display of ignorance. But nothing could have made that situation better. I shot a few more photos and then we took the baby back into the care unit. She died two weeks later.
After the painting was framed and in their home for a while the mom called me. I visited and we chatted. She thanked me again for the painting and said how much it meant to them. She also mentioned that many people had asked why they wanted a painting of their daughter when they knew they didn’t have much time with her. She said that the painting represented not only just who their daughter was, but reminded them of all of the people that helped them through this path in their lives- the doctors, nurses, family, hospice nurses, support group members, church members, Make-A-Wish contacts and neighbors that supported them and gave them strength.
I did it about 23 years ago. I wish I could show you the painting. But I don’t have photos of my early work anymore. Or of my children as babies anymore either. That is the danger of the cloud. I was denied access by my ex-husband so I don’t have those images anymore.
After that I sought out the neonatal unit at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. I visited some families there and asked how I could start painting some of the terminal babies there for families. I even did a photo shoot and did a few paintings. But then I became pregnant with my second daughter and my health at the time prevented me from following through on more paintings. For awhile, with young babies I wasn’t painting at all. I know many women can relate. Many times over the years I have thought that I needed to start that path again. It is one of those things that keeps tapping me on the shoulder. My kids are all almost grown now, so maybe that will be my calling for when I am an empty-nester. Who knows.
Until then, I hug my kids tight.