Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Lisa Hsia and The Manifesta Portrait Series

This post comes from Lisa Hsia, the watercolor artist behind the portraits you may have seen hanging on Manifesta’s wall.

 When I tell people I’m doing portraits at a hair salon, they’re often unsure what I mean. “Wait, you do hair?” they ask. No, I say, I am useless with hair! “So the salon lets you use their space to do portraits?” Well, yes, I say, but I paint the salon’s clients.

What really happens is this: people come in for their haircuts, and then, if they’ve requested it beforehand, I’m there to paint their portrait. It takes about a couple of hours, and when it’s done, the portrait joins the others on the wall by the door. With each portrait, the gallery grows.

 Although each session plays out more or less the same way ― I greet the sitter and ask if they have any questions, do a preliminary pencil sketch, we take a break, I paint, we break, I paint, break, paint ― I find that every one is a fresh experience. Just as every person is unique, just as every day is unique, every session feels totally new. Different people bring a different energy, and I’m never the same either from day to day. I really think of the portraits as an exchange. We offer each other our presence and our conversation, and somehow, that back-and-forth makes it into the finished painting. 

There is a reason I don’t like painting from photos, and it is that a photo isn’t a person, it’s an image. If all I wanted was an image, I could turn to the internet or any magazine. But to have a person in front of me, with their particular thoughts, responses, gestures, and way of being ― that’s a whole entity that is a challenge and a joy to try to capture. There is a mystery about it, even to me. I painted one person who fidgeted, moved their head at unexpected moments, and talked a lot, and somehow their painting came out with a quality of focused stillness. I painted another person who had vibrant, lively energy, and their portrait came out soft and gentle. And yet everyone has said they like their portraits, so I think (I hope!) I’m able to see something about them that goes deeper than just what they’re projecting on the surface.

I said at ‘Festaval that while in my day-to-day life I am as appearance-conscious as anyone ― making snap judgments about whether someone looks “good” or their outfit looks put-together ― as an artist I see everyone as beautiful. And not just beautiful aesthetically, but interesting, worthy. I have never painted someone and not felt enthralled by their face and by who they are. And maybe that’s me letting down some kind of barrier, too.

I find it such a privilege to get to spend an hour or two with another person and really try to see them, and then translate that into marks I make on a blank piece of paper. To me it’s like magic, and when I watch people’s faces when they see their portraits, that seems to be how it feels to them too.

 Find Lisa’s artwork and other writings at

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this post! Local folks, I'd love to see you at the Oakland Museum tomorrow night (Friday the 29th) -- I'll be doing quick live portraits!