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My One and Only Time On Stage

February 6, 2015


First posted 3/7/12


So there I was, in a theater packed with a thousand people, all eyes riveted on me as I stepped out onto the stage. I felt weak as a blade of grass and could feel my heart beating in the middle of my forehead. My palms were wet and my shoes were filling with ass sweat. If I were wax I’d have melted away.


The stage was situated in a new multi-million dollar center being dedicated to the music director of one of the most prestigious colleges in the state. This gentleman, in addition to being responsible for his college’s musical excellence, also founded a nationally renowned jazz festival. He was being honored this evening, but he wasn’t in attendance; he’d passed away from cancer the year before.


So what was I doing there? I don’t sing or dance, and the only music I could play was half of Oh! Susanna on a harmonica. I was there because I’d been hired by the college’s faculty board to paint a portrait to honor the deceased. I’d entered a competition to paint the outgoing president of the college and didn’t get that job, so I was surprised when the Dean called to inform me that I’d been the unanimous choice to portray the late music director.


I couldn’t believe my luck; the president’s portrait would hang in the campus library crowded together with a dozen other paintings, whereas this portrait would hang on a wall by itself in the entry to the new music auditorium.


For reasons too complicated to explain, there were only two photographs available for me to work from. One was thirty years old and showed the man in robust health, while the other was snapped a few months before he died, his face ravaged by cancer. My task was to combine the two into a pleasing image that honored and celebrated the beloved educator.


The portrait needed to be finished and framed in time for the auditorium’s dedication scheduled in one month. I worked hard, knowing my painting would face the critical gaze of the college board, which included the school’s art director. When the painting was far enough along I met with the board to show them my progress. I’d been through this process before and knew the ropes: the art director would need to validate his opinion by finding something wrong with my painting, so I intentionally made a small mistake for him to find—in the subject’s eye.


Sure enough, the art director rose from his chair. He actually (I swear to God) held a thumb up to my portrait and said, “The left eye doesn’t track properly with the right.”


I pretended to study my canvas, and finally admitted, “You’re absolutely right. How could I have missed that?”


I’d brought my portable palette with me and I quickly painted out the white highlight in the left eye and repainted it a millimeter to the left, where the highlight belonged.


“Now it’s perfect,” the art director said, beaming.


Everyone was happy, except me when I was informed the Dean had decided to have me stand on the stage beside the draped portrait when it was unveiled at the ceremony. Back then, I was painfully shy and tried to get out of being dragged onstage, but the Dean insisted.


And that’s how I came to be standing on that stage. I was perspiring in an auditorium with a thousand people, faculty and students of the late music director who’d flown in from all over the world. The dead man’s family was present, I was told, including his eighty-year-old mother who’d been flown in from Florida. At that moment, it occurred to me that among all those people, I was the only one present who’d never laid eyes on the man I’d painted.


What if the painting didn’t look like the guy? What if I’d exposed too much of the cancer that had claimed him. A thousand doubts preyed on my mind, so much so that I barely noticed when the Dean finished his speech, mentioned my name and pulled away the cloth covering the portrait.


The silence was deafening. I fought the urge to run, not that I’d have gotten far since I couldn’t find my legs. Time seemed to fossilize. And then there was a shriek, more like a wail. The eighty-year-old mother was standing, and sobbing, and blowing kisses at me. The entire auditorium burst into applause. I’d succeeded. At a gathering after the unveiling I was clapped on the back by those who’d known the music director, and told I’d captured him perfectly.


The next morning when I stepped on the bathroom scale (I foolishly did such things back then) I discovered I’d lost nearly five pounds, no doubt from all that sweating. I decided then and there that painting portraits for a living wasn’t for me. I didn’t think my heart could take it.


Have you ever had an uncomfortable on-stage moment?



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I can't even imagine the stress of trying to capture a dead man's soul in a painting. I would have been so scared that his family would not like it! This just speaks to your artistic talent that his mother LOVED it! My most uncomfortable moment on stage? A "stroll" dance with several other teachers in a talent show at school. I felt like an idiot.
By: Terri@Coloring Outside the Lines on February 6, 2015
With only two pictures to go on, wow! The pressure. And to be the one to reveal it. I would've been a mess as well. Congratulations that you pulled it off. The first time I ever played my guitar on stage before an audience was nerve-racking. I heard every single mistake...
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on February 6, 2015
I've never been in that situation, but i could sure use the 5 pound weight loss. The purposeful flaw...genius.
By: Cranky on February 6, 2015
And if you don't stop these art related posts, I will have to stop following!
By: Cranky on February 6, 2015
wow, that's awesome - to be able to work off 2 very different photos from such a time span and interpolate his spirit. i'm very impressed.
By: TexWisGirl on February 6, 2015
Your talent knows no bounds. As for the case of nerves... you're human, aren't you?
By: Daniel LaFrance on February 6, 2015
Interesting diet hint--which I DON'T think I'll try!!
By: fishducky on February 6, 2015
Oh I want to see the painting now. Where must I go to get a picture?
By: Michael Offutt on February 6, 2015
My stage moments were scary and fun, I was a drama minor, so loved the stage. I do remember an awful time in grade school when I played the flute and did a terrible job. I find your story amazing. To have successfully captured the spirit of the person is a true talent. You should have continued to paint portraits!
By: Tabor on February 6, 2015
Major impressive Stephen to have captured the man you never met. I think you should have kept with the portraits also. You obviously had the talent for them. BTW, pretty clever manipulation of the art director. What you described on the stage is my worst nightmare.
By: Akansas Patti on February 6, 2015
That must have been tough, to capture both the well and ill man, but you obviously did. Now I know how to lose a few pounds.
By: LL Cool Joe on February 6, 2015
Yep, just had one, where I was up in front accepting an award. Not QUITE as momentous as yours, but I was still rather rattled... Cat
By: Cat on February 6, 2015
Stephen: I can't imagine having the talent you have to paint portraits. What an incredible feat you have shared here about that moment!
By: Michael Manning on February 6, 2015
You? Painfully shy? Strangely, introverts are often comfortable performing for others. I've never been uncomfortable onstage. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on February 6, 2015
All my stage moments have an increased level of tension but nothing in the extreme. Good story and a super painting.
By: red on February 6, 2015
I've always been somewhat comfortable on stage. Funny things usually pop into my head when I'm speaking, and the audience responds well. My most uncomfortable might have been when my high school coach patted me on the back as I went on stage at the awards assembly. She stuck a sign on my back. I had no idea what it said, but later found that she had written: Give me a pat on the back. I deserve it.
By: Val on February 6, 2015
Talk about being put on the spot! As you know, I don't paint people so you have my deepest admiration for this enviable talent. So glad it ended well.
By: Botanist on February 6, 2015
That's impressive for sure but I'm always impressed with your art. I would have hated being on stage also. I have had the opportunity a few time for different reasons and have refused.
By: Hilary on February 6, 2015
I've always hated being on stage---when I had to do that recent guest appearance on NBC, I was a nervous WRECK!!! I swear I had a nervous stomach ache for a week before the show. I'm happy to hear that your painting turned out so beautiful!!
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on February 6, 2015
Bravo. The mother's response must have moved you.
By: Tom Cochrun on February 6, 2015
It is that nervous edge which keeps you on top of your game as well as swimming in sweat! :)
By: John on February 7, 2015
They gave you ONE month and not even a decent photo to work from? What, the guy didn't have his pic taken in 30 years? And on top of that there's an evil art director? You should have stood on that stage and gotten an award for doing a superhero's job. You're amazing!
By: Lexa Cain on February 7, 2015
nope never been on stage. well, I guess every time an etched glass installation is done and the client sees the finished work (which they previously only saw as a drawing on paper), I suffer some nervousness. actually, I hate installations, not only because of the client but in case I did something wrong like mis-measure the space.
By: Ellen Abbott on February 7, 2015
oh my- I would have loved to see that portrait! I can't imagine how nervous you must have been- the teen years aren't exactly the years you want to be singled out! I was never singled out, but probably one of the most awkward times for me were when I was part of a dance group for several high school plays....with some of my friends we did the hula in one play and the can-can in another.... I was sure I was going to make a least I had others around me! Unlike you I at least had company! Cheers!
By: Kathe W. on February 7, 2015
Great story!! I have seen some of your work here on the blog so I knew you were talented. Obviously you were a huge success. I believe (now that I know more) that an artist is never really pleased with their work. They are extremely critical even when they are being praised by the people who commissioned them. This all is what I've been observing these last few months. IMO those artists have a gift of a keen eye and abiility to put feeling into their work. You rock!!
By: Bouncin Barb on February 7, 2015
Yes, i'm uncomfortable on stage. It gets worse as i get older.
By: mimi on February 7, 2015
That's an impressive tale. You're a talented chap, though, so I expect no less. Alas, even as an international superstar and legend in my own bathtime, performing on stage doesn't get any easier,
By: Mike@A Bit About Britain on February 7, 2015
Stephen, you're an amazing man and an amazing painter. I would love to see that portrait. As for performing, I totally blew my second grade role right at the performance. I'm not made for the stage either.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on February 8, 2015
Applause! Despite how nerve wrecking that way, I'm glad they insisted on giving you the accolades you deserve. I've spoken in front of hundreds of people - never near one-thousand. But I think past a few dozen, it's equally anxiety provoking.
By: Robyn Engel on February 8, 2015

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