Did anyone watch the fifth episode of Extraordinary Portraits (BBC 1) on the 18th July? It’s a series that takes an ‘ordinary’ person – someone who would never have the means to commission a portrait – and introduces them to an artist who hears their story and then paints their portrait. The sitter for the 18th July’s programme was Jamie Dalgoutte, who had been in the care system since he was a small child and is now nearly thirty. He told the artist, Ross Muir, that he had been in fourteen placements by the time he was five years old – and then had a consistent foster family through the rest of his childhood. But he had issues with his identity – felt that his life was predetermined by virtue of being a child in care and that ‘people lose who they really are’ in the care system. When he was asked about what he wanted from the experience of having his portrait painted, it was to have something ‘unique’ come out of it.
Ross Muir, the artist, is not unlike Jamie – not only because they are both Scots but also because Ross had a difficult journey through his earlier life; he had been a heroin addict and had only been able to leave addiction behind when someone gave him some art materials and he painted an ‘alternative’ portrait of Van Gogh that went viral when posted online. He is now a well-known and highly regarded artist whose work commands very high prices. He told the programme presenter that art had ‘lit his fire’ and given him back his humanity. Jamie, on the other hand, is finding his humanity by helping others who have been through the care system and are in need of someone who ‘gets it’. His partner, Naeve, and his Labrador, Olivia, are both accompanying him on that journey, both essential companions. Through them he realises that ‘tomorrow is possible’ and that he can also help others contemplate their tomorrows with greater hope.
We watched as Ross positioned Jamie for his portrait and placed a spiky pot plant in his hands. I wondered at the significance of that plant (mother-in-law’s tongue? Or a snake plant? – wasn’t quite sure which one it was) and wondered too how Jamie felt about holding it. I thought he might have felt more comfortable holding his dog’s lead – or a smart phone. Numerous photos were taken and then Jamie departed.
Fast forward a few months. Jamie arrives with Naeve at Ross’s studio. You see him quite apprehensive, standing at a distance from the easel on which his shrouded portrait sits. There is the presenter equivalent of a trumpet fanfare and the cover is removed from the portrait. We see Jamie – instantly recognisable – but he has a golden halo around his head and the plant suddenly reminds me of the lilies that the Virgin Mary or the saints sometimes hold. I recalled a particular icon of Saint Peter in the National Gallery that I first saw years ago.
The message? I leave it up to you to work out your own message from this really powerful image. Ross Muir told Jamie that the plant was in a Japanese kintsugi pot; such pots are broken pots that are repaired with epoxy mixed with pure gold because the flaw is seen as a unique piece of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty. What I observed was Jamie seeing himself in a new light, visibly moved – as I was – by what Ross Muir had seen in him – a thread of pure gold. The power of intersubjectivity in action, through art! I imagine Jamie Dalgoutte will walk taller now and realise he has more to give those clients that he works with than he ever realised.
And I suppose the rest of us are left with the challenge of how we can give every traumatised, degraded child that we care for the gift of seeing themselves as we sometimes envision them. An extraordinary portrait is what each one needs.
Martha and Rachel