Portraits, Chairs and Barney’s Heart

I went through a period of calling every picture I made a portrait. This attitude reflected a paucity as well as a plenitude. It began with the consideration that a portrait says more about the artist than the sitter—so let’s call all portraits self-portraits. By that logic, I thought, all paintings were self-portraits, since they always say more about the artist than the sitter.

These hasty assumptions were part of a thought experiment. I was nineteen and felt like I could never really know another person, maybe not even myself. Phrases like “innermost self” and “search your heart” troubled me because when I did so I reached a point of pure absence.

“Suspect”—This pencil sketch and the following works were made at the time.

“Suspect”—This pencil sketch and the following works were made at the time.

Rather, it felt like a hole. I’d go so far in my interior investigation and always come up to a hole letting me back out into the world again. Was there no “innermost self”?

This portrait in watercolor and pencil was based on a girl I knew, but any distinguishing features seemed to have been scribbled or written over.

This portrait in watercolor and pencil was based on a girl I knew, but any distinguishing features seemed to have been scribbled or written over.

It seemed to me then that the only things I could really know were physical things. I was never a very scientific thinker, but it didn’t take long to decide that physical things were as elusive to the grasping mind as people and the self were. Ultimately I could not know why I/my body and a table, the floor or a knife should begin and end with absolute boundaries flush against one another. Why isn’t it all just one thing? In other words, I touched a sense of the sacred or of cosmic unity in the form of profound doubt. Perhaps I should add that this was shortly after losing faith in the Christian God.

struck by lightningI experienced a moment of destabilization in which either madness or magical thinking became a possibility. Objects became luminous and alive. Chairs held a particular fascination because, mundane like shoes, they always suggest a human occupant. I drew lots of chairs, always calling these drawings portraits. A drawing of two chairs with their backs to each other was a portrait of my doubt: human via the absence of humanity and the inability to know anything for certain. Sometimes they were stylizations like this one:

ChairsOther times they were agitated, as if this were a nervous attempt to evoke motion in static objects, to force a human connection through expression. At the very least it came out of my feeling that my responses to the world were somehow more real to me than the world itself. No doubt I needed to get out of myself, but I had further to go….

My drawings got looser

Man in a Hat, pastel

Man in a Hat, pastel

and looser until I experienced a strange return to childhood with the lucidity of an adult:

chopperHere are three examples of my poetry from this time. Barney’s Heart refers to Barney Clark, the first person to be successfully fitted with an artificial heart. Too Strong to Dream, too Weak to Fly is constructed around a sales slip with words by Whitman, Kafka and James Thurber.

Barney’s Heart


a)    camera   —   cloud
record player   —   laughter

b)    photograph   —   snowflake
record   —   memory


a)    jug   —   river
fork   —   school

b)    clock   —   caress
pencil   —   dream


a)    diamond   —   shirt
elephant   —   cartoon

b)    snake   —   curse
mother   —   television


toy truck
grocery store
lawn mower

The Ghost

Bob ‘n Susan got married.
There’s a new puppy in the old house
wrapped in somebody’s too-large flannel shirt.
The sound of a voice was,
if you’re that tired why don’t you
lie on the floor?

It’s dirty
and it’s also green
but not like grass.
There is chaos here.
I am never where I’m
but I would be.

Too Strong to Dream, Too Weak to Fly

QTY. 1/ possibly more

All merchandise returned for credit, refund, or exchange must be in new and resalable condition, in original cartons with original packing, accessories, guarantees and instructions, and must be accompanied by this sales slip; everything begins with lucid indifference.

ORGANIC (or – gan ́ ik)
1. Of, pertaining to, or of the nature of animals and plants. 2. The little one sleeps in its cradle, I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand. 3. The lady by the doorsteps over there, who had up to now been contemplating her shoes, which were quite visible under her tightly drawn skirt, now looked at him. She did so indifferently, and she was perhaps, in any case, only looking at the falling rain in front of him or at the small nameplates of firms that were fixed to the door over his head.

H    14521

The instructor, noticing my activity, came back from an adjoining desk, a smile on his lips and his eyebrows high in hope. He looked at my cell drawing. “What’s that!” he demanded, with a hint of a squeal in his voice. “That’s what I saw,” I said…. “That’s your eye!” he shouted. “You’ve fixed the lens so that it reflects! You’ve drawn your eye!”

Mark Kerstetter

C   U   S   T   O   M   E   R            C   O   P   Y



This entry was posted in drawing, personal essay, poem and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Portraits, Chairs and Barney’s Heart

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I love the trajectory you trace here, a coming into yourself, it somehow seems. This struck me particularly (no doubt because I spent the day with Wallace Stevens, writing a long essay for a ModPo discussion thread that no one is likely to read):

    “At the very least it came out of my feeling that my responses to the world were somehow more real to me than the world itself.”

    Here’s what that made me think of, from WS:

    “words of the world are the life of the world.”

    And perhaps most of all this:

    The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain

    There it was, word for word,
    The poem that took the place of a mountain.

    He breathed its oxygen,
    Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

    It reminded him how he had needed
    A place to go to in his own direction,

    How he had recomposed the pines,
    Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

    For the outlook that would be right,
    Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

    The exact rock where his inexactnesses
    Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

    Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
    Recognize his unique and solitary home.

    Enjoy Zorn tomorrow!

    • I’m afraid my juvenilia doesn’t fare well next to Stevens’ mature work. The life of the poetry in my mind had barely begun. This is one of my favorite Stevens poems. But I like to read it next to The Planet on the Table, where he writes:

      His self and the sun were one
      And his poems, although makings of his self,
      Were no less makings of the sun.

      …Of the planet of which they were part.

  2. It is no surprise to me dear Mark that your self introspection began and ends with such great mastery of thought…. but can say that my own journey, while not nearly as philosophical, was somehow on the same road… A friend suggested that I get away, alone, to find myself, to explore myself and become one with the complexities of what I believe life is. And naturally, me being John, I replied “What?”

    It was probably my own inability to see through my haze of hormones but to me at the time life was about ass and being alone for a weekend at that juncture did not seem as though it could cure any ills that I may or may not have been suffering at the time. While alone one can only think about ass and not partake of its particular reverie of enjoyment. The whole idea seemed to be completely inneficient since undeniably I would be thinking about ass anyway, but only at the same time denying myself the possibility of killing two birds with one stone.

    Forty years later I can now see the true wisdom and philosophy behind shoes and chairs that beg human occupation… That is so deep….. and so much cooler than falling completely submissive to hormones. I still don’t wish to be alone but not for chasing ass: rather for enjoying the wonderful depth of friends like you! Bravo!

    PS: Love your drawn interpretation of adulthood…. Matches mine exactly!

  3. angela says:

    Mark ~ I’ve been meaning to revisit this with a thoughtful comment for two days, but late nights have kept me. Please know that when I first saw this post, I was in awe with the maturity of your portraits at such a young age. You would have truly fit in so well with the Beats, traveling cross country or tearing up the village. Then again, if I recall, perhaps you have done a bit of both. You know I think much of your self education and even more of your perspective as an artist. I do hope you continue to share more of your portraits as you see fit. Okay, after witchinghour and must be up soon — will visit again to read Sue’s comment and your reply — are you retaking ModPo too, btw?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.