• Calvin Lai

A San Francisco Portrait Painter Preserves Life Through Art

I don’t hear what she hears. I don’t hear the music she claims that has been going on for the past eleven days. The incessant drumming and chanting that Buddhist monks and nuns perform once someone dies. For her it begins and ends at odd hours. It wakes her up in the early morning, starts and stops throughout the day, and keeps her up late into the night. When she first told me about it I didn’t know what to think. I assumed that perhaps she was mishearing the stereo next door or a passing car. But here, in my parent’s house, I’m trying to hear what she hears, and I can’t. I open the window every time the faintest noise bubbles up within the quiet evening. I close my eyes and strain my ears, praying that perhaps I will hear something, anything that could be mistaken for bells, drums, and chanting… but I don’t, and I’m left standing next to an open window feeling the cold night air fill my head with dark thoughts and a swelling sadness.

My mother has lived a full life, raised four sons, and took care of a two-story house in a Los Angeles suburb. This was far from where she began. Originally born in Canton, China, my mother escaped to Hong Kong before the Communist takeover. Eventually, she moved to Canada and later to the United States to marry my father. She was a full time wife and mother, and it was often an up and down journey as she held together a household split between two cultures. This bumpy road led her to where she is now; late 70s, moving slow, dealing with a string of ailments and conditions that range from the minor to severe, and trying hard to understand what goes on around her. The physical problems have been expected, but the mental shutting down has been heartbreaking. It’s not just old age that causes my mother’s condition, but the main contributor to her daily confusion is the fact that she’s lost a lot of her hearing. She can barely understand anything anyone says to her. So she’s constantly in a world that seems foggy and isolated. This one fact leads me to wonder, how does she hear the music floating in from the outside, especially when she can’t hear whenever I ask her how she’s doing?

Commission Portrait Artist Preserving Life

As a San Francisco portrait painter, I’ve noticed that there are a whole variety of reasons for why someone would want a piece done of themselves or their loved ones. Personally, the one that seems the most touching is when I’m asked to paint someone who’s passed away or who’s close to passing away. With each of these I’ve felt a deeper and more emotional connection than with other commissioned portrait paintings I’ve done. So painting people that have entered, or are about to enter, the next phase is not unfamiliar for a commission portrait artist like me.

The first posthumous portrait I did was for a friend of mine. Their father, who I knew, passed away fairly young. I was touched to be asked to create the center piece that would be displayed at the memorial. I had been working as a San Francisco portrait painter for only a couple of years, so I had some experience under my belt. But this project seemed different. I was not only being asked to encapsulate a person’s being, but I was being asked to preserve the life of the deceased beyond the grave. It gave the project a deeper meaning, and I wanted to make sure that the energy of the piece was just as accurate as the proportions. These “after death” and “close to death” paintings hold a nobleness to them. They are done for the purpose of extending the essence of the subject. It is a conscious act that benefits the ones who will not be able to touch the painting themselves, even though they are the reason why the painting exists. A commission portrait artist is in all actuality always extending the life of the subject they paint. Every piece is a continuation of someone’s character. But it’s easy to take this fact for granted, and my years as a San Francisco portrait painter, though wonderful and rewarding, have diluted the grand implications that portraiture contains. But when death comes into the picture there is a extra dimension of meaning. That’s when I feel that painting has power to it. It is a physical manifestation of another person’s soul.

Being here, at my parent’s place, the home where I grew up, I’m filled with the need to preserve my mother’s soul. I don’t want her being to fade away before I get a chance to let it go. Though I am riddled with the fear and pain of eventual loss, I also know that I am in the unique position of being able to save a little part of her even after she’s gone.

A Personal Project

They say in Chinese culture that it’s bad luck to talk about things of a negative nature like illness, misfortune, and death. They say that to talk about things like this you actually bring it closer to you. I can’t say that I’m not superstitious, but I’m too much of a realist to push away the fact that someday, maybe sooner than later, my mother will pass away. I can see it hanging on a blurry horizon not so far off. The signs are the physical and mental wear and tear she’s been going through. And now the bells and chanting have gotten me worried…

I’m close with my mother. She’s an artist too. She’s the reason why I am the painter I am today. So it only makes sense that I’ll be doing a painting of my mother. Everything that I’ve learned as a San Francisco portrait painter will be utilized. All my knowledge as a commission portrait artist will be employed. Because I want my mother to live beyond the grave. Though I celebrate the fact that she is still living, and I can still share moments with her, I’m getting ready. I’m looking for the right canvas. I’m making sure that I have a good reference photo. One that shows her sweetness and girlish excitement, but also one that shows her long journey from the streets of China to the suburbs of LA. I don’t hear what she hears, but I can still feel the chanting, the drumming, and the bells, and I’m getting my paints and brushes ready to give my mother the extra life she deserves.


© 2017 by Calvin Lai