My trainer, Shawn, gave up the bodybuilding life — the training, the diets, the drugs, the shows — some years ago. To fill his free time, he has taken up painting.
He first painted when he was in school in the islands. He took an art course, and even went on a field trip to London, where he and his classmates composed a mural that was displayed in the Houses of Parliament. Life — work, children, immigration, bodybuilding — intervened and the skill slumbered. But he returned to it a year ago, since when it has filled his talk in the intervals between reps. He gets his paints and canvases from an art-supply store that he haunts for sales. He finds instruction in the online videos of established professionals, and by attending shows at which he speaks with artists whose work impresses him. I follow his progress via his smartphone. His first piece was an imagined island-beach scene. During the winter he asked me to photograph interesting snow-covered buildings upstate; the snowfall this year was not dramatic, and I was not diligent, but I took one shot he liked, of a marooned ladder propped against the side of a shed. Most of his paintings are copies of photographs of romantic African scenes — warriors at sunset, a spear fisherman about to launch. Then three months ago he got a commission — to copy a portrait of Sir John Beverley Robinson, 1st Baronet, a 19th-century Canadian jurist.
There is nothing romantic about this subject. Sir John sits on a dais, angled three quarters to the viewer’s right. His left hand fingers, as a jurist’s should, a stack of books; his right arm rests on the arm of his chair. He wears a robe fringed at the collar and cuffs in ermine. A coat of arms supported by a lion and a unicorn floats below him to the viewer’s left. Behind him hang folds of deep red cloth, dark as a summer storm; behind him to the viewer’s right is a gray wall with a closed door in it. The only highlights in the picture pick out his hands, his white fur fringe, a slice of the back of his chair, and his head. He wears his own hair, powdered or white with age, thankfully without a Brit-style wig (Jefferson compared that look to rats peeping through oakum).
Shawn set to work. Sir John’s right foot was puzzling; he appears to be wearing a pointed black toe slipper, like a mule. The hands were a challenge (the artist for Snuffy Smith, the cartoon hillbilly, once said he tried to keep Snuffy’s hands in his pockets as much as possible, so as not to have to draw them). Hardest of all were the skin tones of the face. Shawn mixed yellow, red, ochre, cadmium white, and black to get them right. That’s white people, I told him.
Meanwhile I researched Sir John. He sprang from one of the first families of Virginia, turned loyalist during the Revolution. At the end of the War of 1812 he prosecuted 18 traitors; eight were hanged, and their severed heads displayed on poles. After the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, he called for “some examples . . . in the way of capital punishments.” Canadians can get their freak on too if you push them. Gout claimed him in 1863.
One morning in the midst of a workout Shawn told me to look up at the television. Two play at all times in the gym; probably the only place without flat-screen TVs anymore is the inside of a Catholic confessional. There above our heads was the commissioner of his painting: a young black actress from Toronto, known for soap operas in her own country, appearing as a wife in a commercial. All Shawn knew was that she planned to give the painting to someone as a gift. Who? An interior designer? A relative of Sir John? It was the last remaining mystery.
Shawn finished his painting, then decided to scrap it. He had done his first version, like all his other paintings, in acrylics, but it came out looking flat — “cartoonish,” he put it. So he started a new canvas in oils. These looked richer, but took much longer to dry. Patching, patching, patching. The left arm was too long. The eyes had to move closer to the right ear. He scraped a hole in the canvas, had to repair it with gesso.
The final problem was how to get the finished job to Canada. Shawn thought of taking it by train to the border. I advised against it. Amtrak’s overhead racks and baggage compartments are made for luggage, not art; whatever route Shawn took, north to Plattsburgh or north and west to Buffalo, would be a long dull trip, and — considering where Toronto lies on the far side of Lake Ontario — no small trip for the purchaser to come fetch it. One of them, we decided, would have to suck it up and convey Sir John all the way by car.
What a strange panopticon the Internet is. There Shawn learned his craft, and found a commission and a subject. When was the last time anyone wanted an image of Sir John? He does not bulk large in the history of his country; he died before it was even a country. Yet here he now is, white, rested, and ready, with a trainer to portray him and an actress to buy him.
Painting is the late career move for so many. Churchill painted, Ike painted, W. paints. In painting, the void within touches the void without, leaving something new. Shawn has an old friend, whom I also know, another ex-bodybuilder. Now he is training again, though he is long past his prime and his doctors have advised against it. “You paint,” I said, “he doesn’t know what to do.” “Took you two minutes to figure that out,” Shawn answered.