Joe Coffey and I frequently meet at a café, he after a morning’s intense painting, moi after a sweaty workout. A few weeks ago Joe pulled coloured mugs and a camera from his backpack and asked whether I’d mind having him take a photo (mug shot?). That was the extent of my modelling. The now-completed work will be in Joe’s next show — priced at C$3,400, well beyond my pay scale and certainly not “my portrait.”
Seeing my features reflected in the painting draws attention to the abstract nature of perception. Yes, I recognize the fleshy hands, the lines across the forehead, and that uneven pair of ears. I remember Joe taking the shots and our conversations as his work progressed. Yet none of this was or is about “me.” Factually it’s about paint brushed on canvas once removed via digital transmission. The viewer’s eyes and brain assemble the pixels and, if they know me, might see “Peter’s face and hands.” A visitor to the gallery, unfamiliar with painter and model, might see “some old guy with a coffee mug.”
Or none of the above for someone with prosopagnosia. Face blindness is an uncommon neurological condition in which the brain’s face processor doesn’t function. With this condition, a person can see faces but can’t read their features as a cohesive unit and commit them to memory. In a book glowingly reviewed in The NYT Book Review (October 10), author Heather Sellers retraces her early years marked by “all the ingredients of a tough-childhood memoir: the schizophrenic mother, the alcoholic, cross-dressing father.” Sellers depicts a life where confusion was a normal state (how, as a single child living with two dysfunctional adults, would she know otherwise?), where she’d walk past her mother without recognizing her, and watch family movies without knowing that she was in them. She views prosopagnosia as a gift: “the ability to live with uncertainty, to be receptive to all that a person might turn out to be, literally and metaphorically.”
Sellers, H. (2010). You don’t look like anyone I know: a true story of family, face blindness, and forgiveness. New York: Riverhead Books.