This is not a self-portrait. I took an painting class at Middlebury back in the 80s, and was working on a series of small paintings of benches around campus. I was on my second or third sitting at this location, when I arrived to find some other painter had hijacked my perch. Initially irritated by the intrusion, decided to sit back a few yards and paint her into my composition. Since I also had my hair in a short brown pony-tail and was wearing a blue sweatshirt, I was pleased by how much she looked like me. In a way, the painting became a self-portrait. The fact that the figure is “not me” reveals something invisible about me: my ambivalence about myself as an artist. I’ve always had technical skills—the ability to paint what I see—but I’ve never felt like I had a burning, original artistic vision. I’ve never felt “good enough” to call myself an artist. Yet when I dip my brush into paint, I feel a sensation similar to what Elizabeth Bishop describes in her poem “At the Fishhouses“:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
Immersing yourself in a creative act gives you a bone-aching sensation; it pulls you into a deep, mysterious core of knowledge, rooted in history yet fleeting as time.