An Unfinished Portrait / by David Sherwin


A pay telephone ringing in the midst of a crowded subway terminal. A woman in hospital scrubs, dark bags under her eyes like smudged blue paint. Young girl looking away from a red plastic BlackBerry into the blur of lights whipping past the window. Smell of nectarines, humid air, irises and gerbera daisies poking from a Trader Joe's paper bag.

This is history, and we are living it in perfume and thoughts of recent wreckage. Arthritic hands fidgeting with a laminated ID attached to a lanyard embossed with the GTE logo. Never-ending scrape and racket of train-track wheels against steel. Recorded red-black ringtone automated to sync with the closing doors. Balled-up newspapers dated Thursday and stuffed into the gaps between mustard-yellow vinyl seats.

Clammy cold handrail. This carpet has been inspected by 30. Baby is crying. Mother is crying too.


While walking through the National Portrait Gallery with my cousin, I began a game: Take a photograph of each portrait of an important figure in history, careful to crop out the face. Could the details that compose the substance of each painting tell the complete story of a person? And how many people could then fit that story? A thousand? A few dozen?

Take, for example, this doctor holding up a slide to be examined under a microscope. In this case, the face belongs to Charles R. Drew, an African American physician who organized the Blood Transfusion Association during World War II, became the medical director of the American Red Cross's blood-donor project, and considered today to be the "Father of the Blood Bank." He also resigned from the Red Cross when his organization ordered that non-Caucasian blood needed to be stored separately in their blood banks. All of this data could never have been encoded in Betsy Reyneau's portrait.


This pen is almost out of ink, so the lines it leaves on the Moleskine's smooth ivory page resembles the gouge of a tattoo gun. Such is the course with any kind of data;  the mechanisms by which any data is recorded always has a finite lifespan.

The gestures we utilize to record that data, however, are timeless. The handpointing at where we should be paying closest attention, as if we will always be schoolchildren.


Portraits are close kin to the world of commercial art: paid commissions for those figures whose role in history were meant to last beyond their lifespan. Spend a few hours looking at portraits across the whole of recorded history, and it's unlikely you'll find much evolution in their composition. The eyes speak: "There is a spirit within this body, exposed and alive in this focused gaze." The face then melts back, the crags and whiskers from each pore less important than the outline of jaw, chin, flaring nose, neck falling into a the depths of a black gabardine sweater that barely floats above a textured velvet backdrop rendered in oil.

Bring in the digital camera, add a few hundred years, and the tropes still hold. This picture may evoke a thousand words, but there a few million more that would begin to express what is flattened here upon the wall. So we are left with details.


Details are the delicate lace of stories, summed into human memory. "The design is in the details," said Charles Eames, but the space between the details are the design as well. We are biologically wired to forget the minutiae of the moments that tax us most, and recall the ideas that have led us through history to trudge through much pain and terror for a life that will be manifested through what could only be considered—in language—a set of circumstantial details.

In the tangible world, not the space between our ears, details are physical memory. We make stories out of those details in order to define and design our very lives. Every night, we re-experience those details in dreams… and upon waking, consider the logic of what defies description. In poetry, as in life, experience is objectified — a never-ending series of abstractions layered like paint upon the ever-present now.


Humans, when starved of details, begin to invent their own—with dramatic consequences. This portrait of John James Audobon, hunting dog and rifle at hand as he posed for his portrait by an unknown artist. "Although he would shoot the birds for sport, he also shot them in order to paint their features," says the New York Historical Society. Rewind a century, and you might have needed to kill for information that today, you can capture with a tiny device in the palm of your hand.


The businessman peers out into the snarl of traffic on Route 66. He bears a striking resemblance to a portrait I'd seen earlier in the day at the National Portrait Gallery: Manicured, silver-black beard, fine eyebrows with a little parabolic hiccup two-thirds of the way towards each ear, fine part of gray hair to my right, piercing blue eyes, creased black slacks overlapped by a Impressionist purple tie draped onto his right leg as he slouches back in his seat.

He looks straight at me and I look away, warding off his gaze by trying to capture as much detail as I can into my tiny notebook. He can't know what I'm writing from thirty feet away, and anyways, his stop is coming up soon. (There are only three left.) He turns his head back to the window, and I see it: the portrait of a forgotten man, only recognizable by the tiny black type next to the canvas or the bronze nameplate bolted into the picture frame.

His shiny black leather shoes glint under weak fluorescent lights. The automated voice calls out each station in the same unwavering tone. We have many miles to travel, fake leather padfolios clenched under sweaty armpits encased in 50/50 cotton-poly blend no-wrinkle formal pink shirts that rumple and collapse limply in the moist summer heat.


Confronted by the individuality of an unfinished portrait, still asleep, straining to be human.

Make the most of these days, for they will be remembered in vague particulars.

As artists and as designers, this is our sacrifice.