My ongoing quest to get better at portrait painting has just happened to coincide with an invite to a private Facebook group where one of my oldest friends shared images of our small East Texas elementary school’s fifth-grade yearbook – 1987.
I mostly use Facebook to post to my art and work pages, and to police my parents’ profiles so I can find unflattering pictures of myself and then gripe until they remove them. (Despite what you may have seen, my wedding ceremony was not held in The Upside Down.)
But I do find myself lurking in the yearbook group every so often, zooming in on the layouts, wondering how much of myself I still recognize there, and how many others might be doing the same.
Fifth grade was my first year back in public school after being in a private school for a few years. So, I think about that when I look at those photos, how unfamiliar everything was. Fifth grade was also spent sussing out what it might be like to be a grown up one day, many years in the future. The bridge year between Barbie Dolls and Calico Critters, and make-up (a little!), big jewelry (a lot!) and curly perms (a lot-a lot!) Even so, when I look at these photos, I don’t necessarily see kids playing dress up. Even though if you squint, many of us look simultaneously eleven and 35. It’s the shoulder pads, I think!
What I really see, both in photos and my memories is experimentation, presenting a hint of our future selves to the mirror, the camera and ultimately the world around us.
Feather barrettes? Sure! Plastic charm necklaces? Stack ’em up. Winged mullets or crimps and triangle curls? Gel, mousse or hairspray? Don’t make me choose! Cola-flavored lip gloss? Smear! And, yum! This was also around the time that my mom and her friends hit a crafting phase, sewing buttons, rags, googly eyes and whatever was around onto K-Mart sweatshirts and sending us out into the world to be bullied. (Oh, that one was just me? Ah.)
As I have aged, my memories of this time are increasingly hazy. Some of that is on purpose, but not really. Bad sweatshirts and new kid stresses aside, I liked my school and my classmates. And the cola lip gloss.
One memory that has stuck with me is of being in the cafeteria, and my friend singing a lunchtime rendition of “Eighties Ladies,” by K.T. Oslin. A departure from the usual —spicing up Top-40 hits with rude words — and uncharacteristically world-weary.
Someone must have been having a day.
Surely we couldn’t really relate to the lyrics, but she sang them with feeling and the rest of us hit the chorus. We couldn’t know then how quickly we’d put away our plastic charms, de-puff our chemical curls, remove our shoulder pads to take up a little less space. But we would do all of that, and in the blink of an eye. I can only speak for myself, but by sixth grade, the next year, I cared less about whether I liked my style, and more about whether or not boys did. A worthless shift in priorities, because they were too busy disliking me as a person to pay any attention to my style at all.
I suppose that’s a long-winded way to say that there is something about that time that I want to capture, the time between feeling pretty and actually caring too much about if you look pretty. Magical, in retrospect. The impossible dream. These are the first two portraits of a series of many. As with my other recent work, the actual images are of fictional people, maybe a few composites but nothing exact. Not everyone wants to be in paintings and that’s okay by me. I don’t want to be in paintings either, not even mine. But if a piece evokes a spark of recognition, then I wish you solidarity and a big ol’ East Texas hair flip from one 80s lady to another.