So there I was, in a theater packed with a thousand people, all eyes riveted on me as I stepped out onto the stage. I felt weak as a blade of grass and I could feel my heart beating in the middle of my forehead. My palms were wet and my shoes were filling with ass sweat. If I were wax I’d have melted away.
The stage was situated in a new multi-million dollar center being dedicated to the music director of one of the most prestigious colleges in the state. This gentleman, in addition to being responsible for his college’s musical excellence, also founded a nationally renowned jazz festival. He was being honored this evening, but he wasn’t in attendance; he’d passed away from cancer the year before.
So what was I doing there? I don’t sing or dance, and the only music I could play was half of Oh! Susanna on a harmonica. I was there because I’d been hired by the college’s faculty board to paint a portrait to honor the deceased. I’d entered a competition to paint the outgoing president of the college and didn’t get that job, so I was surprised when the Dean called to inform me that I’d been the unanimous choice selected to portray the late music director.
I couldn’t believe my luck; the president’s portrait would hang in the campus library crowded together with a dozen other paintings, whereas this portrait would hang on a wall by itself in the entry of the new music auditorium.
For reasons too complicated to explain there were only two photographs available for me to work from. One was thirty years old and showed the man in robust health, while the other was snapped a few months before he died, his face ravaged by cancer. My task was to combine the two into a pleasing image that honored and celebrated the beloved educator.
The portrait needed to be finished and framed in time for the auditorium’s dedication scheduled in one month. I worked hard, knowing my painting would face the critical gaze of the college board, which included the school’s art director. When the painting was far enough along I met with the board to show them my progress. I’d been through this process before and knew the ropes: the art director would need to validate his opinion by finding something wrong with my painting, so I intentionally made a small mistake for him to find in the subject’s eye.
Sure enough, the art director rose from his chair. He actually (I swear to God) held a thumb up to my portrait and said, “The left eye doesn’t track properly with the right.”
I pretended to study my canvas, and finally admitted, “You’re absolutely right. How could I have missed that?”
I’d brought my portable palette with me and I quickly painted out the white highlight in the left eye and repainted it a millimeter to the left, where the highlight belonged.
“Now it’s perfect,” the art director said, beaming.
Everyone was happy, except me when I was informed the Dean had decided to have me stand on the stage beside the draped portrait when it was unveiled at the ceremony. Back then I was painfully shy and tried to get out of being dragged onstage, but the Dean insisted.
And that’s how I came to be standing on that stage. I was perspiring in an auditorium with a thousand people, faculty and students of the late music director who’d flown in from all over the world. The dead man’s family was present, I was told, including his eighty-year-old mother who’d been flown in from Florida. At that moment it occurred to me that among all those people, I was the only one present who’d never laid eyes on the man I’d painted.
What if the painting didn’t look like the guy? What if I’d exposed too much of the cancer that had claimed him. A thousand doubts preyed on my mind, so much so that I barely noticed when the Dean finished his speech, mentioned my name and pulled away the cloth covering the portrait.
The silence was deafening. I fought the urge to run, not that I’d have gotten far since I couldn’t find my legs. Time seemed to fossilize. And then there was a shriek, more like a wail. The eighty-year-old mother was standing, and sobbing, and blowing kisses at me. The entire auditorium burst into applause. I’d succeeded. At a gathering after the unveiling I was clapped on the back by those who’d known the music director and told I’d captured him perfectly.
The next morning when I stepped on the bathroom scale (I foolishly did such things back then) I saw that I’d lost nearly five pounds, no doubt from all that sweating. I decided then and there that painting portraits for a living wasn’t for me. I didn’t think my heart could take it, not for a crummy few hundred bucks.
Have you ever had an uncomfortable on-stage moment?