Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Discerning Eye of Aileen Ortlip Shea

~Ted Murphy

“A portrait,” said Sargeant, “is a face where the mouth is never quite right." The ability to render on a two-dimensional surface a convincing replica of a face, such that others could recognize them, is a rare and underappreciated artistic gift in our culture. Portraits are paintings that must please the person of whom or for whom the painting is being done and also function as a work of art. Portrait painting remains today one of the few art forms still supported by the patron system. Typically a good portrait will over time transcend the subject matter of a specific person and become more timeless as it addresses aspects of the “ human condition”. Portraits move from being “someone” to meditation on human character, on mortality, on the fragile nature of what a life means.

When we look at Raphael’s portrait of "Baldassare Castiglione" we see it not only in terms of Raphael’s painting but also in terms of Castiglione’s writings. His gracious words on humanist conduct are left to us in the Book of the Courtier. Those large eyes seem wise, those hands gentle. What we know informs how we see. In the same manner, no one can look at Velázquez’s portrait of "Pope Innocent X" and not contemplate the energy and force of this man recorded in history. Most of the great portraits are of known people, yet even if we do not know the subject, a great portrait holds our attention by the manner in which a person looks out toward us. Great portraits point toward the mystery of the personality, the unknowable-ness of another. Consider the celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer. No one knows who she is, yet somehow we all feel we know her intimately. She seems so real, almost a presence to our memory. Vermeer captures that moment of seeing, that poetic point where the details serve some more enigmatic purpose. This is the thing we can never name; yet we all know what it is when we refer to it.

Portraits are also like biographies in literature. Portraits use a moment in time to speak to an implied history. The lines on a face become what Borges refers to as a map. A map which takes you to other places, times, persons and experiences. Who can say what stress is manifest upon the edge of a mouth except the bearer? Was it the work they were required to do or the relationships they felt they alone could manage? Our choices in life have some impact upon our features, and by a certain age we begin to have the faces we deserve. Married couples grow similar in appearance because of the practices of empathy. Everyday, over and over you make the face of your spouse as they relate their feelings and experiences. In time their pain becomes your pain, and their joy, your joy.

Portrait artists need a discerning eye. They learn to read the face and the posture for its telling quality. They learn how to make some small gesture become a sign for a greater purpose. The difference between a photograph portrait and a painted or sculpted portrait is one of method more than media. Most great photo portraits are one among many, sometimes thousands of similar but failed pictures. Take McCurdy’s famous Portrait of the Afghani refugee. Look at all those other photos, there are dozens, but only one has that “telling effect”. That effect has become an iconic image for the final quarter of the last century.

The painted portrait has nearly as many examples, yet they remain buried under layers of subtle adjustment and restarting. We have many curious accounts of Sergeant, Gainsborough, and Reynolds to compare on this process; how they seldom were the same from each artist. Great painters seldom make their pictures the same way, there are always last minute changes and adjustments. Sargeant required from his sitter a minimum of 150 hours for a portrait, which is essentially a month. Not many people have the resources to take a month of their life to sit for a portrait so it is little wonder that his paintings are of only the rich. He painted people who seem like they are from Henry James’ novels. Indeed, Sargent made several paintings and drawings of Henry James. The world in Sargent’s portraits has the feeling of a perfect summer day with no end. There is a suspension not only of time but also of obligation and concern. Sargent worked very hard to achieve this tone in his paintings.

By its very nature portrait painting is a conservative art form. Individuals who wish to leave a record of themselves among the things that define them largely fund the art of portrait painting. Look closely at their clothes, their posture, and their jewels. Consider the environment they inhabit. This is a material world of purpose. They are the ones the doors are opened for, the schools are named after, and the lifeboats are waiting for. Anyone who makes a living in the profession of portrait painting must learn how to work with the emotions and attitudes of these people. Some artists, such as Goya and Van Dyke, could occasionally reveal the rotten core beneath the pristine surface. It is difficult to know for sure whether this quality was entirely intentional in these paintings or whether it is just our knowledge of the fate of the subjects that invites us to speculate on the more social comment these pictures suggest.

The great portraits remain among history's most celebrated objects. These works transcend the subject and become signs or symbols of our deeper poetic ideals. Whether this be the iconic “Mona Lisa”, the enigmatic “ Girl with the Pearl Earring” or the emotionally charged “Laughing Cavalier”, these works stand for a world of feeling and knowing. They hold a moment in time by their very unchanging perfection and persuade us to return and contemplate them. Portrait painting becomes a form of art, not merely a subject.

It is into this tradition that Aileen Shea was born and nurtured as a painter. Both her parents were painters. They met at the academy of fine arts in Pennsylvania. Willard Ortlip studied with William Merrit Chase, Child Hanson and Thomas Eakins. Willard Ortlips established a powerful line of American paintings into Houghton’s artistic tradition. Willard and Aimee maintained a studio household. During financially challenging times they successfully painted portraits and landscapes, still life and subject illustrations. At one point they rented a house among the Palisades on the Hudson. This house was called “The Castle”. It was an old stone mansion with an open veranda once used as the meeting place for New York elite, many among the entertainment world. The veranda functioned as a dance floor. It is a curious thing to speculate on the link of Houghton to Charlie Chaplin. Imagine the Ortlips renting a house in which Keaton, Chaplin and Pickford danced the night into morning.

Aileen was reared in a world of picture making. The smell of oil paint was a familiar smell. Aileen was the first of the Ortlips children to find her way into the art academy. She quickly established herself as a gifted portrait and figure painter. She was awarded a student Pulitzer prize (yes, at that time the prize also went to artists) this prize enabled her to study in France and Spain.

Aileen followed her parent’s trajectory of portrait painting. Her lively brushwork combines the escaping edge of form. If you look closely at great portraits you seldom see a hard or precise edge. Even among Inges best-known works there is a fascicle modeling of edge so that the intermediate values and tone move as light across an arching surface. Without these tone changes a form looks flat and geometric. The human face really has no edge in this sense. Aileen uses cool middle values to achieve this effect, and is a master of reflected color. Look at the color of the eye wall in her portraits, the region between the eye and the down plane of the glabella, how it becomes for Aileen an occasion to sneak in a pale blue, violet or perhaps a green- green like the foam of the sea.

Experienced portrait artists know we impose upon the subject qualities that exploit what is hardly there to the untrained eye. Aileen refers to the catch light of the eye as a kind of painter’s desert. She patiently waits for the opportunity to add these life-giving strokes for the illumination of the painting. For her it can be a satisfying moment when the eye takes on a reflected light both in the hot catch point and the subtler half moon reflected light that curls under the pupil directly opposite the catch light.

She follows this through in all the features, the fugitive color of the lip, and the temperature change of flesh from cheek to chin. Aileen loves color and celebrates its vibrancy throughout the flesh. She has equal joy in her treatment of hair. For Aileen hair becomes a field of slow, low light reflection. Few people seem so aware of the green necessary to make red hair come alive. Like Degas, she knows shadows are colors and never negative holes in the form. Whether she is painting a wealthy donor or a peasant girl from the mountains of Spain or the shores of Liberia, Aileen is capable of an informed, telling mark.

Now in her mid-nineties, Aileen holds her brush in a manner reminiscent of the late works of Renoir. Legend has it that servants delicately strapped Renior’s brushes to his hand, (too old and afflicted with arthritis to be capable of holding his brush) he would then swipe at his last paintings using what strength he possessed in his hand and wrist to reveal his final marks. For this reason Aileen some times prefers pastels to paint. The color is immediately in her reach. Her pastels are often no more than blunt chunks of the sticks they once were. She keeps them in piles in her pastel box, sorting through them like a button collection looking for just the right lavender or warm red ochre. I marvel that she is still producing works of beauty and riches. No painter turns out a success at every venture. Aileen struggles like all artists to work beyond the likeness toward a work of dignity and distinction as well as mystery.

The skin of Aileen's hands seems almost transparent now, yet her eyes are remarkably young. She is still a dignified, beautiful woman. The years have only magnified these qualities in her. It is an injustice that we require artists to be famous before we acknowledge their significance. Such an expectation is driven by money, not quality. Everyone who owns a work by Aileen Ortlip Shea cherishes that work. I can think of few honors more meaningful to an artist then to have works valued by posterity. All of us who are painters understand that it is this grand tradition that we are so fortunate to participate in. The magisterial grace of Aileen Ortlip Shea deepens this tradition and inspires generations in her wake.