This is my latest painting, and it was by far the most challenging piece I have ever done. To understand why I must explain the reason that it was commissioned. An acquaintence of mine recently had a hideous experience – his best friend killed himself. A mere couple of days after the shock of this unfair loss (Matt was only 22) Tyson reached out to me and asked if it would be possible for me to do a soul portrait of Matt, to give to his mother and sister as some small but meaningful token of their extreme loss. Tyson had just lost his best friend, in the most painful way possible, and yet he wanted to do something to help his best friend’s mother. This deeply touched me. I obviously agreed straight away to do the piece. Tyson gave me some photos of Matt, but he was unable to talk about him much because the pain was still too raw. He simply asked me to paint what I saw inside him. I had a deadline. Feeling hopeless to help Matt’s family, Tyson wanted the painting asap so his mother had a beautiful reminder of her son that might in some small measure ease her pain.
For the next two weeks I put my every effort into this work. I became consumed by it. I stared at pictures of him for hours on end, trying to get a feel for who he was, and how to translate it onto the canvas without it being too dark. As I mixed my colours and shaped his form, I experienced many thundering emotions. This boy was a stranger to me. Yet I felt as though I was reaching into the confines of his soul. I was determined to represent the haunting beauty in him, and to do his memory justice. It was the most difficult soul portrait I have ever done. I was confronted with my own emotions – my identification with his despair, for I too have known what real darkness feels like, and what it is like to feel as though there is no way out. I was also plagued by overwhelming sadness. I know he was loved. So why was no-one able to reach him in those last fateful hours? I found myself wishing that I could have saved him, even though he was a total stranger to me. I also thought about his mother and put my intense sympathy for her in every stroke on the canvas; for I could not imagine a worse fate than to lose your child in this way. Every emotion I struggled through I put onto the canvas.
As is usual with a piece like this, the best part was to come when it was finally completed – the moment of revealing it. This is an emotive experience for me even when I don’t know the client, because I feel like I get to know them quite intimately just from doing the work. I get to see the emotion written on their face as something deeply personal is given to them in the form of my artwork. It is the best part of my work, seeing the reaction. But this piece was different because I know Tyson. I have love for him, so it was extra citical to me that he was happy with the piece, particularly given the sensitivity of the subject matter. His reaction, and that of his beautiful girlfriend, was a moment that will reside with me forever. Not many words were spoken, but the tears in his eyes, and his broken whisper of ‘It’s perfect’, said it all. I had to hold back the tears myself. I felt like I had in some tiny way helped the grieving process surrounding the people Matt had left behind. And I know how shit it is to be left behind, so nothing could have been more valuable to me at that time than feeling that I had made a difference.
Tyson and Lisa took the painting to Matt’s mother and sister that very night. They were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude. A part of their treasured son and brother will live on through something that I created – that is a gift for me as well as them. To me, it is the most meaningful and fulfilling art I will ever produce.
I hope that those Matt left behind will find the joy and beauty in the world again, after the fresh stab of grief has passed, and that they will hold onto all the exquisite memories they shared with him.
Rest In Peace Matt xxx