A Portrait of Faustina Agolley
By Tamara Armstrong
Acrylic on Canvas
100cm (H) x 150cm (Width)
On spotting Faustina...
Faustina’s announcement read: "As black as my skin, as Chinese as my blood, and as Australian and British are my nationalities, I'm also a proud Gay Woman. Most importantly though, I'm a happy human being."
Accompanying the words was an image of Faustina sitting beside this giant rainbow birthday cake that had sparkly flames, like mini fireworks streaming out the top of it. Her face in the photo just radiated sheer joy. It was one of those images you instantly see and just cannot help but smile. The image was shared on instagram and Twitter by quite a few people I followed and I just felt so overwhelmingly happy for her.
On asking Faustina...
I called her later that week and talking with her was easy. Faustina has a way of making you feel relaxed and on an even playing field, she is an incredible listener and a very deep thinker. She has an amazing way with words and I remember thinking ‘Whoa! This lady is super intelligent!’ We ended up chatting for over an hour, I told her about my practice and what it is I seek to portray through my work and she told me the incredible story about how she came to work with Oprah, a life long goal she had actively pursued and feared might never be possible, only to have it virtually be placed in her hands soon after she almost gave up. I was so moved and inspired by this story and how things really do come around full circle and often when you least expect it.
On meeting Faustina...
My ideas for the portrait were not previously formed, but I knew I wanted it to be bold, joyful and colourful. I also had to face the reality that I would not know how this portrait would ultimately turn out because when you are attempting to capture someone else’s essence, you just can’t if you project too much of your own preconceived ideas onto the work. That block of time that Faustina and I spent together was really valuable both for my artwork and for all of the insights she shared with me about the lessons life has taught her thus far. Our conversations helped me see great value in my own approach to my life and in a way I hadn’t previously recognised. I felt equally safe and respected by her to open up about my life and the experiences that have changed and shaped me. All in all, I knew we had forged a friendship if nothing else, but my motivation to paint her in a way that truly reflected this day and my experience of her was taken to a totally different and unexpected level.
Ideas came to me and for whatever reason I kept fighting them. I knew this portrait was going to be a surprise, but I had no idea how much it would challenge me - and before I even put paint to canvas. I narrowed down my ideas to just a handful and wrote out pros and cons for each. I tried to turn my head off and just dive in, by starting on a blank canvas despite feeling really conflicted and not quite right. As I started putting paint on the canvas, I noticed that it literally felt as though the canvas was rejecting me. The paint was not flowing and I felt at war with the brush, the paint and the canvas. It was a first for me and super strange to even write about it now. It doesn’t seem possible that a canvas could reject you, but that’s the only way I can explain how I felt.
I ran away from the painting after less than an hour in and I went back to the drawing board. I was totally grasping for an idea without knowing what I wanted exactly. I told Faustina I was struggling and she offered to Skype with me in case it helped to chat while seeing her face. It totally helped, and I asked her more questions and shared my doubts and fears about the work with her. She kept me calm and redirected my fear and we talked about loads of inspiring creative people and their greatest lessons and most profound experiences that occurred when making their art. It was just what I needed to hear and our chat gave me a window of openness to return to the painting I had started.
I tried to push on, but I just knew the painting wasn’t right. So I called up my framer and ordered a whole new canvas in a totally different size and layout. I felt certain this would be right, despite not fitting a traditional portrait layout. I sketched out a new idea and pulled together some photographs from our sitting. I ran them past my husband Matt that night and he helped me see what I was fighting from the start. He went for the idea that spoke the most to him, despite knowing it was not in any way what a traditional portrait might be defined as. This was what I had initially been drawn to myself, but I let my rational brain talk me out of it and I doubted my gut instinct.
With new eyes and a promise to myself to just trust the process, I launched myself at the fresh canvas. It was still challenging me and that nasty doubtful voice in my head wouldn’t shut up, but at least this canvas wasn’t rejecting me the way the first one seemed to.
The best way I can explain the two months of painting this work is to liken it to a tug of war! The harder I tried to ‘fix’ it and take control, the more it was resisting to be changed. I ended up painting Faustina’s entire face five, six or seven times over. I lost count! I spent days forcing myself to stay with it and push through and not run away, but I just felt as though I was painting around in circles, completely unable to get her face right. It didn’t look like her. The expression on her face was so sad and scared and everytime I saw the sadness, I too felt more scared.
See for yourself in these progress shots below. I didn't want anyone to see these, because I knew how wrong they were. I kept them though, because I hoped I'd finally get it right and when I did I thought it would be easier to look at these photos and remember the challenge I faced with getting that emotion right. Goes to show you really can't hide how you're feeling, when you present at the canvas with a brush in your hand!
A few days later, with just under a month to go - I completely hit panic stations and it came seemingly out of nowhere. I called my Mum crying and panicked and asked is she could spend a day with my daughter so that I could have a bonus day to paint. She said yes after trying to talk sense to me - and Matt, who was fairly concerned at this stage, also told me to calm down, relax and just go and paint for the rest of the afternoon. I sat in my studio as calmly as I could and thought about past occasions and techniques that had helped me see my work with clarity. I thought about all the things I’ve told my students to try when they have faced doubt with their work. I then held my iphone in front of the image with the camera setting on, using my left arm and looked only at the work on the screen, while I painted it with the reference image to my right. Because I’m right handed I had both arms up for four hours straight, taking a few breaks to stretch and then, miraculously I was able to clear my head and for THE FIRST TIME I could actually see Faustina’s face forming on my canvas.
The light at the end of - what felt like a never-ending tunnel!
I’ve learnt a great deal about myself from painting this one portrait, lessons and hurdles that I thought I had already conquered. It just goes to show how easily we can let our minds complicate something that is at is essence, obvious. A friend pointed out to me during a very timely conversation; that when we try to ‘let something go’, we are still investing energy into the act and ‘trying’ to achieve something that can be quite difficult and confronting. Whereas when you just ‘let it be’ you don’t have to ‘try’ or give energy to it. You just acknowledge it for what it is and leave it at that. Let it do its thing, and carry on doing yours.
Faustina also reminded me of this, with different words, different stories and perfect examples. I could not have been surrounded by more kindness, acceptance and support during these months – from Faustina, my family and the friends who happened to check in throughout the process. I was 100% safe, loved and supported while creating this work. The torture I experienced came from within, but in the end it didn’t defeat me and I’m really proud of myself for that. If not annoyed for letting it come so close.
When I showed the finished work to Faustina I was relieved and elated, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried she wouldn't like it - or worse if she just couldn’t see herself in it. Her reply on seeing the work made me cry. She adores it and she went onto explain why. She congratulated me on getting through it and thanked me for sharing the ups and downs along the way. I cried tears of relief. This work is so special for that reason, it may not speak to anyone else in the way it now speaks to me and to Faustina and to the times that have occurred during its creation – I never worried about other people not liking it, I just worried that I couldn’t get it right or even worse that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. I wanted it to resonate with Faustina, I wanted to honour all of the things she had shared with me about her life and to do that I had to surrender any hint of a preconceived idea I may have had about her.
When I look at the work now I see the joy, but mostly I see surprise. I see strength and courage, but careful consideration and a touch of caution. This is Faustina's vulnerability and how I experienced her. This is also my vulnerability and a new phase of growth has certainly resulted.