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Sunday Story

Sitting Still: Pondering the past while modeling for a Highland Park art class

"Feeling these artists’ eyes on me reminds me of a time when I thought I Was Not Enough"

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Highland Park -- Two bright lights shine on my face as I sit in a green armchair. My elbows are propped up on wooden chair arms, and my empty hands rest on my thighs. I lean against the straight chair back. I breathe. And blink. And sit in stillness. You wouldn’t know it, but I’m hard at work. It’s a late Friday afternoon and I’m modeling for local artist Margaret Garcia and a weekly portrait painting class at her Highland Park studio.

My eyes want to dart around this wonderfully cluttered studio; Margaret is famous for her vibrant and bold colors and how she transforms everyday scenes into studies of beauty.

The artists are quiet as they paint, but there’s music in the room. A speaker hums with old time rock and roll, R&B, jazz classics and more. I stifle the urge to tap my toes or sway.

All Eyes on Me

Margaret and two students are intent at their easels, looking up to study my face, move their brushes slowly, focus back on me, then their easel. A student shuts one eye and sticks up her thumb toward me to measure some distance ratio in my face. Wow, I think. I thought painters only did that in cartoons.

I never sat as a model before and didn’t realize there would be this constant staring. What was I thinking? I never liked being the center of attention. Especially as a kid. Back then, I observed the action from the sidelines, wishing I could feel comfortable BEING the action. Growing up, I learned how to stand in front of people, be on a stage, talk to crowds. Still, feeling these artists’ eyes on me reminds me of a time when I thought I Was Not Enough.

I exhale and resettle as horns honk and tires screech on Figueroa Street. The curtains are pulled shut and shafts of afternoon sun illuminate dust specs floating in and out of shadows.

Memories Emerge From the Stillness

Then … I’m back in time with different sets of eyes.

I’m called to the blackboard in grade school to work out a math problem. I can’t escape the eyes. I’m sure they are looking at my wrinkled blouse, bad pixie haircut, and socks held up with rubber bands. I want to tell them that my mom has no time to iron. It’s just her and me in the upstairs apartment; she’s a waitress and leaves early. The kitchen is empty when I get up, so I spread peanut butter on bread for lunch and daydream about big families with sisters to play with and brothers to wrestle.

But I don’t say any of that. I pick up the chalk and try not to throw up.

Sitting now in the green studio chair, I sigh for that scared little girl who wanted so hard to fit in, but who spent days slipping through the cracks.

In my stillness, I feel that familiar loneliness as a fast-beating heart and a heavy rock wedged in my upper gut.

The image of the scared little girl is right before me and I do the only thing I can: Bring her close. Together we sit in silent stillness, clasping hands and absorbing into each other: Until she sees my eyes and finally smiles.

Sitting still

Margaret Garcia ponders a brush stroke as I sit still and ponder my past.

Back to the Present

“Do you need a break?” Margaret asks.

The question startles me back into the room. A break? Am I tired?

I nod, get up and stretch my arms overhead.

I glimpse Margaret’s easel - a woman scanning the distance with a tired but dogged determination. I look at those eyes – my eyes – and I blush. And I’m filled with reverence.

Seeing Beyond the Surface

I thought they were just going to paint my face, not my past. How do artists know emotions and histories from just eyes, nose and a mouth? What stories do our faces tell every day?

“You got enough energy to stay longer?” Margaret asks as she sips tea.

“Sure,” I tell them. I sit down and repose myself. It’s darker outside. I exhale. And find that stillness again.

Sunday Story showcases first-person essays as well as fiction by residents. We welcome submissions, but stories must be set in one of the neighborhoods we cover.

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