Without a doubt, one of my favourite things about going to poetry readings is the chance to hear the stories behind the poet’s work. Like being granted access to an artist’s studio, or a theatre during rehearsal, the space at a poetry reading all at once becomes filled with the energy of creative potential and vulnerability, bringing with it an atmosphere that is both highly charged and deeply intimate. You are being invited to bear witness to the creative process from its often humble beginnings to its final, highly-wrought form. In the spirit of such events, this is for you: the story behind ‘The Facepainter’, a poem of mine recently published in ‘One’ (http://one.jacarpress.com/).
This is me. The facepainter. On the right. A job I more or less fell into during my time at Trinity College Dublin, it was a great way to earn a lot of cash around the holidays. More than that, it was a job that let me be creative and have fun. I was soon to learn that few jobs afford the same opportunities.
“With steady hands… twirls the brushes into warts, and wounds, and hearts.”
It was fairly routine work in its way. We worked in four-hour sessions- beyond that your eyes, arms, and back just needed to rest. At the very beginning, bedecked in seasonal costume or default vaudeville, you might catch your breath between faces, but within fifteen minutes, as your handiwork made its way through the shopping centre and into the world, you would see people physically change direction, make a call and alter other plans, and join the rapidly-forming queue. After that, it was head down, brushes up and complete bodily stillness as you worked your magic.
“She studies them like a love-struck parent- curves and contours, age, ancestry.”
I must have painted a thousand faces, and yet there are just a few children I remember vividly. The boy, for example, who wanted to be green. Just green. Not a pea. Or a dinosaur. Or a head of lettuce. He didn’t feel the need to justify his greeness. Green was just fine, thank you. His grandfather had no objection of course, given that he would be dropping him home to his mother an hour later, and not spending the next two days trying to draw the pigment out of his skin. Or the boy who was desperate for a butterfly, and whose father I had to fool into accepting a blue and green ‘dragonfly’ with ‘reflector panels’ because no son of his was going around with ‘a glittery butterfly on his face’. Or the little girl who, upon seeing my version of Heath Ledger’s Joker on the little boy in front of her, promptly burst into tears wailing, “But I just want to be a princess!” Those cheeks had a lot of glitter on them by the time she left.
Young children are often criticized for being unruly or impatient but I have witnessed children as young as two queue for hours for the ten minutes it takes for them to be transformed into princesses, rabbits, vampires, dogs, and superheroes.
Why? To those children we were magical. We could turn them into anything, anyone (except horses. Or other people, like Ben Ten or Dora the Explorer). Without exception, the child being painted would sit perfectly still, while behind them you could see a peacock tail of faces fanning out. And those children watched every brushstroke, every sweep of the sponge, and counted every dash of glitter.
The job had its perils too. After a particularly well-attended, badly-managed event I had just enough time to change out of my costume, hustle-run Grafton Street and dive-bomb into a seat reserved in true primary-school fashion. The lecturer arrived moments later. A kindly, silver-fox of a man, he must have stared at me for six seconds before I figured out the cause of his undivided attention- the student in the third row dressed in a big woolly jumper, a big woolly hat, looking up at him with an appropriately serious and engaged expression… beneath a fully-fledged witch’s face, warts and all. To give him his due, he simply carried on.
I loved working as a facepainter because with every face I painted, I relived the palpable excitement and nervousness I felt myself as a child; queueing, squeezing my mother’s hand, confiding my choice with the absolute certainty of youth. I loved it because it was magic.
“The smile of pure innocent love that pours across each face
as they clamber from the plastic seat and wave goodbye.”