Papa’s Got a Brand New Portrait

This is the story of how a commissioned portrait left our CEO thinking differently about the work we do.

Last week I had the rare privilege of commissioning a painting. Maybe that’s a common transaction for you. It is not for me. It all happened pretty quickly, actually; my friend Jon–maybe I should refer to him as Jonathan McAfee, which is the name he’s been building for himself around town–posted something on Facebook about how he was taking commissions for a few weeks in between show work. I read his post and my eyes kept moving to the lobby area of our office, right outside my office’s glass doors. A small space, a few high-backed chairs, a typewriter that once belonged to a lawyer you’d probably recognize from daytime television if you’ve lived in Indiana. A big, blank, green wall. The sort of space that calls for something to fill it. So I sent him a message.

A few minutes later, I had an email with some rates and sizes. I told him that Hemingway was something of a mascot for us (before you say anything, I already know that Papa is not the sort of person we should be rallying behind, yet here we are), and he sent me the same photo we feature on our Team page. I chose the 36” by 24” canvas. He got right to work… It all happened pretty quickly.

I suppose before I get too deep here I should take a step back and tell you about Jon’s style. I don’t know if I have words for it. He tapped me to make an attempt to describe it once for a show, so I’ll just borrow my own words:

His vibrant and abstract style reminds us that there’s more to cowboys than a hat or a gun, and that a raging storm lies beneath the face of even the most stoic leader. This series [The Tide Crashes] is color crashing against the rocks of Americana. It’s something that stops you dead in your tracks, draws you in, and kickstarts some part of your brain in a whole new way.

I’ve been drawn to Jon’s work since I first took a good look at it. I’m no critic. I don’t speak the tribal language of the art world, and while I do have a relatively extensive background in the visual arts, it’s not something I’ve engaged with in a decade or more. But there’s something about his style. The colors. The way those colors come together into a complete image, sometimes even an image that your brain was maybe once comfortable with viewing one certain way (his caricatures of people like JFK and The Beatles come to mind). Most recognizable to anyone in Indianapolis would be this piece, Girl with the Hipster Glasses, which was featured on billboards around the city:


The color. The mood. There’s something wonderful about it that I can’t quantify, but I know I like it, and now it stands out to me any time I catch even the quickest glimpse. So imagine my excitement when we together decided to take that well-known photo of Hemingway…

…A black and white photo, and let him interpret it with those eyes that see colors colliding in ways I still don’t understand. A week later, Jon made his way to the office to drop off his finished work:

I was speechless. Even more incoherent than I am in this blog post trying to find words for color. I knew this image. But I’d never seen it before. This was something so familiar to me that I’d never before seen in this light, and now it’s mine. It’s nobody else’s. I now understand why people would spend their hard-earned money on a commission. I fear the addictive quality of those first few moments, standing in the gaze of the painter, canvas still smelling of acrylic.

“So, things are going well, then?” Jon asked after an appropriate amount of time passed in silence while I examined Ernest’s familiar features.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Very well. We’ve been super busy, and we’re coming out of a big period of change for the company. Just learning about who we are and the kind of work we want to do, you know.”

Jon was smiling. “You’ve come a long way, man.”

“You, too,” I said. When we met, I was just getting Metonymy started. I didn’t yet know what Metonymy was, or what it would be. He was working for the Earth House Collective and painting. We met when a mutual friend suggested I talk to him about getting a writing group started at the Earth House (what would eventually become Indy WordLab).

We talked about how he found the courage to leave his job and pursue painting full time. I told him I respected him for that. I told him that the idea terrified me. He told me I’d done the same thing, really. Together we took a few minutes out of our busy days to reflect on just how far we’d each wandered from the places we were when we first met years ago. We shook hands, he left. I hung the painting and sat in my office alone, the rest of the team out on some meeting or another. Friends marvelled at the photo I posted on Facebook. One even gave me a call demanding more information about Jon’s work so he could get some of his own. We talked about art for a few minutes, about our shared love for Mike Altman’s work. For an hour or so that morning, I stopped for longer than I have in longer than I can remember and just looked at the colors around me. The green and purple in my Altman painting…

…The faded greys in the wartime poster I’ve got hanging up to inspire me in moments of doubt…

…The notes scrawled across my wall…

…Even my own reflection when my computer screen went black from inactivity.

If one interaction with Jon, the act of commissioning this one painting, could give me this kind of pause, I have to wonder if the work I’m doing is having the same impact on any level. When my team sits down with a client during the course of a Workshop and shows them everything we hear and feel about their story, do those clients walk away under the same spell I’ve been under since hanging Papa up in the office lobby? Do they think about their business in a new way, like I now see this familiar image in a new way? Fixate on words they’d never considered, as I fixate on the colors that make up Hemingway’s face?

We’d both come a long way, for sure. I could see it in these colors in my office, at the very least. Imagine the look on my face, four years ago, If I could give a tour of this office. But to come together with Jon again at this point, our individual careers following similar but different trajectories, I’m able to take stock of how I’ve taken my craft and turned it into something that can make me and the rest of the team here a living. It’s not as elegant as the commissioned work of a painter, maybe. We’re charting new(ish) territory here for creative writers, and that means on at least some level deferring dreams of getting published and winding up on the NYT Bestseller list. But something tells me there’s room for wonder in the work we do for our clients every single day nonetheless. There’s room for beauty here. And that will, of course, lead to the next thing, and then to the next, and maybe to that Bestseller list one day, too.

When my team sits down to show a client the result of one of our Workshops, that client should be seeing something familiar in a new light. They should delight in our interpretation the same way I’m delighting in Jon’s painting this very moment as I write. They should find playful words they’d never used expressing concepts they’d turned over in their minds countless times before. On at least some level, at some point in our relationship with every client, that’s what success should look like. Delight. The sheer enjoyment of a phrase like a portrait. Something beautiful brought into the business world. Ars gratia artis, or at least ars gratia negotii.

The thrill of a commission hanging on your wall.

Check out Jonathan McAfee’s website to see his work, find his shows, and read his words as he documents his transition into life as a full-time artist. Buy his art.

Comments are closed.