I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while who asked me where my hat was. I stammered, “what hat?” He said, “c’mon, you always wear a hat!”

It is true that I sometimes wear hats; the sun can be murderous on bald heads. I was struck, however, that his experience with me was as someone who always wore hats. His single story for me was that I am the hat guy. In reality I rarely wear a hat. It is also true as a professional artist, I have to wear many hats. So which story is true? The danger of expecting others to conform to a single story we might have about them negates a myriad of possible realties. So many of us assign a single story to illegal immigrants, Christians, anti Vax-ers, haters, Liberals, welfare queens, young women seeking an abortion, etc. The list of archetypes we can name is endless. They are all shorthand for the single story. It is not just laziness; the single story we have for people we assume we know, and for those we’ve never even met, is nothing less than a reflection of our own fears and prejudices.

Quick Sketch Artist

As many of you know, I am a trained actor. Part of my training was the study of how to build a character. A character is an invention based on the given circumstances in the script, that is to say, everything we know about the character, his background and the context of the story in which he plays a part. All this is magically combined with our own emotional responses, based on our own story and and experiences. A character that has depth is the result of a beautiful mix of these multifaceted elements, alive in the simple reality of the moment. To say my character can only behave in certain ways can be quite limiting, leading to one-dimensional characters. I once did a directing workshop with George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He asked me to repeat the scene I was working on, while jumping up and down. I said, “I don’t think my character would ever do that.” He simply said, “just try it.” Needless to say, the scene was much more free, compelling and real. The character came to life because I was more present. I realized then and throughout the rest of my training that a character is not some combination of behaviors, a list of dos and don’ts. The best characters don’t have a single story or set of behaviors. The behaviors and emotions of a character are inspired by the given circumstances but are as I learned, unlimited in scope. And that’s just a made up person.

With real, living, breathing human beings the truth about who they are is exponentially more complicated. The truth about what motivates another human being requires curiosity and inquiry. And even then, when we think we know someone, we come to realize we can never really know the whole truth about them, not even our own spouse, perhaps not even ourselves. Assigning a single story to people we know is a tremendous disservice. I ask my kids every day to tell me who they are today. I try not to cast them in a single story. For instance, my kids can be very stubborn, or generous or unlucky, depending on their mood. These attributes change from moment to moment in each of us. And this is especially true for kids, who are growing and evolving by the minute. I see them trying on different hats; frankly, it is difficult to keep track of who they are in any given moment. And I guess that is the point. I don’t know anyone who wants to be pigeonholed by a single story. And quite frankly, I don’t ever want to feel I know someone so completely as to cast them in a single story. I encourage the people I care about to be free to reinvent themselves every day. I want to be someone who encourages others to grow and evolve. God knows the planet needs to evolve. We can start the process within our own circle of influence.

Not a Walk in the Park by NETI

Not a Walk in the Park by NETI

Sadly, I see so many people who feel the need to identify themselves by their likes and dislikes. Some people like the Stones, some the Beatles. Some like chocolate, some vanilla. Some people like the Tigers, some the Cubs. Let’s not even get into identity politics. I think it is sad when people cut themselves off from a more catholic set of tastes values and viewpoints. I identify as a liberal, defined by Webster as one who is “willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” I’m an artist and I make a point of not having a favorite or least favorite color. My palette is limitless, or at least that is my hope. That’s also how I want to approach my entire life. The reality is we will never know how limited, how prejudiced we really are, because we are blinded by our subjectivity. I accept this as part of the human condition and do my best to push the envelope of what is possible, as much as I am able — each according to his ability.

Dr John Vena

Dr. John Vena

As a portrait artist, my goal is to capture the essence of my subject, without limiting him/her/it to any one identity. I want people to look into the eyes of my portraits and see themselves. There are universal truths in all of us. Our stories may be different but we share our connection with the rest of humanity. That is what I want my portraits to capture. We are the same, yet different. I think one thing that characterizes my portraits is that my subjects are present, that there is more going on than meets the eye. My job is to find and express what is amazing and beautiful in everyone I paint.

And as to the single story of the young women seeking an abortion, try to imagine the stories of those who must face the awful choice of terminating a pregnancy. Most really want a baby, but sometimes it is not viable or endangers the mother’s life. Some pregnancies are the result of rape or an abusive relationship or extreme poverty. And yes, to some, abortion may appear to be only a minor inconvenience. But we don’t, in fact, can’t know the whole story, the myriad of complicated circumstances in each case. Do we really want the government to make that decision for these women, without regard to any of the above? Suffice it to say, I don’t want to be saddled with your single story about me any more than you want to be saddled with my single story for you. “To each his own,” as my father used to wisely say. He also used to say he wanted be to be the guy wearing the white hat. I have since found myself wearing many hats, but only on occasion.

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