Sunday, July 27, 2014

You Ought to Be in Pictures

About a month ago, passing by the Museum of Modern Art, Valerie noticed Mark Nilsson standing outside the MOMA Design Store offering portraits for a very reasonable sum.  Sample portraits hung at his table looked very interesting, so we decided to take Mark up on his offer.  At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, here are the finished products.  (Above are the models.)  Join us as we walk you through our latest adventure.

We didn't realize it, but Mark is something of a fixture in that spot.  Click here to read the New York Times article on him, and here to see a video made by the School of Visual Arts.

We booked a double-header appointment on July 24th.  Valerie went first.  Here she is, ready for her close-up.

We both wore black and tan straw Ignatius hats which we'd purchased last November at the Philadelphia Museum Craft Show. Valerie wore hers cocked over her left eye.

When he starts to paint, Mark instructs you to assume a consistent pose. Little did Valerie know that she'd have to maintain the position for nearly two hours.  Mark has contrived a fairly lightweight and collapsible business, all of which can be easily deconstructed and wheeled away on a hand truck, barely visible behind him.

Mark's intensity and focus are palpable. He blocks out distractions and focuses entirely on his work.  During Valerie's sitting, in the background, we could hear the American Museum of Folk Art (completed in only 2001) being jackhammered to death in preparation for MOMA's expansion.  At one point a firetruck came by, sirens wailing.  We almost never spoke, but when we did, we nearly always had to shout above the street din. Mark was able to work right through all of it.

Mark's focus is even more challenging since some passersby feel compelled not just to observe at a distance but to come right up next to the artist, stare down at the work-in-progress and proceed to pose questions to him and/or the model.  (The latter was unusual, he said)  Luckily, most were content to snap photos from the sidelines.

Voila the finished product!  Do we see some Lucien Freud influence?

The artist and his muse, post-opus.

Valerie's portrait took twice the estimated hour.  Mark felt there wouldn't be enough light to finish Jean's portrait, so we returned the next day, and Jean reprised her outfit, since we thought it would be fun to be painted in our nearly identical hats.  Here's the artist and Jean, seated in the folding chair, looking up.

It turned out to be very challenging for both of us to sit stock still for over ninety minutes with our chins up, but we managed.

Mark starts with a yellow 'canvas', and makes his first marks in red.  Here, the first stabs at Jean's hat.

The first outlines of Jean's face.  When Mark began doing this several years ago, his table was flat, and he had to hold the paper down while painting.  But paint has accumulated since then, and formed a natural frame that now holds the paper in place for him.

You can see he's painted the yellow background gray, and begins to adjust the color of the hat.

He adds a few shadows to outline Jean's cheek bones, and starts to adjust her skin color.  At this point, it looks like there's a bit of Francis Bacon in this portrait.

At one point, a large crowd had gathered around.

Jean's hair begins to take shape, and color, and shifted from Francis Baconesque to German Expressionist.  The dark spot on her eye was unintentional, and soon rectified.  Although he was usually poker-faced in concentration, every now and then we both noticed a look of surprise on his face.  Maybe this was one of those moments.

Glasses were the next to last detail to be added.  The sharp lines of the hat came last.  We're not sure, but we think it was our hats that prolonged our sitting.  We asked Mark in advance if he would agree to paint us with our hats, since the samples we saw were all hatless.  It turned out he enjoyed doing the hats.  Love the juxtaposition of the real and painted hats in this shot.

Voila! The second finished product.

The artist signs his work.  His shirt and pants are both covered with paint, since he uses them to wipe excess paint off his brushes.

Mark rescues cardboard boxes from the neighborhood for the finished portrait to be transported in while still wet.  When he finished Valerie's, he disappeared for a few minutes to find a box; when we arrived for Jean's sitting, he had a box all ready.  This box, it turned out, was a bit small, so the portrait didn't quite have room to lie flat.  Before we'd gone several blocks, the thickly applied acrylic had begun to shift with gravity.  So we made a stop at Valerie's place, nearby, put her portrait on a flat surface, and transferred Jean's portrait to Valerie's bigger box for the trip home.  Mark estimated it might take a week for the portraits to dry completely.

Mark also makes his own business cards.  On three separate visits, Valerie picked up three distinctly different cards, all of which look distinctly German expressionist.  The top one looks most like Mark (30 years from now).  All three are signed and numbered, and more than worthy of framing.

Regular readers will not be surprised that, at the end of the sittings, we walked across the street to The Modern, and had two fine cocktails (oh, and a bowl of gazpacho each).


  1. How wonderful of you to support a local artist! I don't know if I could sit still like that for 90 minutes without my face freezing into a grimace of some sort. - you did very well. Mark obviously is quite talented, but looking at the finished portraits, it seems to me that he's captured the future IF's, not the current. Cocktails are the perfect way to celebrate your portrait sittings (I'm sure the Queen and the President do the same).

  2. My goodness, but that was fun! Of course, I didn't have to sit there for that extended length of time. Thank you for your commitment to the arts! And I simply love both of those hats!
    jill in Ontario

  3. Loved reading about the process and admire the finished pieces. Mark's work is extraordinary, as are your hats!

  4. An excellent experience combining fashion, art, street performance and cocktails.

  5. These portraits are really very fine, but they don't capture either of your smiles which are your best feature. You always appear to be having so much fun. I wish I could hang out with you.