Trina and her boyfriend pulled up to the front gate. I watched bewildered as they extracted a rather large canvas from the car. Once inside my house, she placed the painting down and let out a sigh.
I’ve been in the beauty/fashion/photo world a long time, so there’s not much that catches me off guard. But this did.
No one had ever brought a piece of artwork (of any size) to a lesson before.
So I was highly intrigued, especially because it was a rather scantly clad self-portrait.
What you’re about to read is the unexpected and deeply moving story behind what happened that day. She’s held much of this very privately her whole life — even from her close family.
Here we are a year later, and Trina has graciously granted me permission to publish her portraits and this micro memoir. Saying, “I pray someone reading will get the profound message I have tried to share with love and gratefulness, and to see into my heart.”
Trina is a gifted pastel artist from a small town in South Carolina. When she answers the phone, “hey darlin’!” her sweet Southern twang oozes with love like a little extra sugar in your cool, sweet tea on a hot summer day.
She and I are related though marriage, but I didn’t meet her until a few years ago, so even though our interactions were always pleasant at family gatherings, she was in many ways a stranger.
Last year, her daughter-in-law (my cousin Ingrid) wanted to gift her a Healthy Makeup Lesson for her 72nd birthday.
Having also noticed Trina avoiding the camera and never smiling in photos, Ingrid asked if I’d take her portrait after our lesson thinking a lovely image would make an amazing gift not just for Trina, but for the whole family too.
The Beauty Muse
A few days prior, I sent a message to help get Trina energetically prepared:
“Start thinking of your personal beauty inspiration — what I call your Beauty Muse. She can be one specific woman (like an actress you always admired) or a collection of qualities of many different women from any time period. We won’t turn you into a caricature of that person.
It’s really about tapping into what style and energetic characteristics appeal to you most. We’ll explore how to bring you into more alignment with those inner qualities and expressing them through outer image.”
I’ll admit Trina’s reply confused me:
“I have some ideas. Some are from a full-body, self-portrait about my feelings, which I painted in my thirties. I would like to fast forward to now, at 72 and somehow show the same person, but with more wisdom, strength, etc. I will either bring it with me or send to you in a text.”
I assumed I’d soon get a picture of this self-portrait on my phone. Nope.
As you already know, she showed up to our appointment with her original artwork in hand.
The Unexpected Request
Fully impressed by this commitment to the Beauty Muse process, I wanted to know all about what the painting meant, and the energy she felt from it.
Trina started out innocuously enough, repeating the words,“wisdom” and “strength.” Of course, I said I’d love to capture that for her – and could she tell me a bit more…
She quickly added one very specific request I instantly knew would seriously disappoint my cousin:
“Do not ask me to smile in the photos.”
It reminded me of a similar time when a model I was photographing made the same request. You can read about it here “Stop Telling Me to Smile: Redefining Expectations.”
I didn’t want to press her too much, but I shared how looking too serious (especially after 40) almost always translates on camera as anger. So even the tiniest bit of a smile helps.
She didn’t waiver in her insistence for no smiles.
Then the deep history – held in for a lifetime – came pouring forth. It was something I wasn’t prepared for… and yet felt honored that she felt safe enough to open up about.
Her story in her words
[trigger warning: physical abuse described]
I brought the self-portrait of me sitting in my church, with black high heels, a see-through dress symbolizing my inherent feelings as a sensual woman, who was repressed and shamed.
I was showing my inner spirit of wanting it to escape the bitterness I felt for the strict upbringing I endured during childhood.
My gaze out the window shows my silent hopes for an escape quickly into adulthood.
I wanted to leave my small town, my father’s relentless abuse, and the Baptist church. In those days, it was very easy to see that they were against everything I cared about. They blackballed Jews, blacks, anyone who was different…like the kid who wanted to join the church, but her father had a liquor store. The poor family wasn’t allowed to join either. It was like a small town club. That is what I rebelled against.
At 5 years old I would be made to sit with tears rolling down my hot sun scorched cheeks waiting until my father said, “You ruin every picture. What is wrong with you, dummy?”
Ernest Hemingway once said he could write a book in six words.
My father: “g-ddamn you stupid female!!! SMILE!!!!!”
This is my story, minus years of being physically abused; beaten until I could not move.
Always the same place: on my bed with a rolled up leather belt.
Crying until I had no more tears, but left with only a promise that I would never hurt my children, and that I was worth more, because I never gave up.
Once I shaved my legs without my father’s approval and got the beating of my life. Can you imagine? On my freshly, proudly clean shaven legs. I had belt marks so bad I could not go to school for a week.
The emotional scars have remained for a long, long time.
Bad or good, it made no difference. I was a very young girl that had to grow up fast and fast I did.
I was always trying to get my dad’s, any man, and my own approval.
I became a portrait artist and could catch the true personality of the subject as I watched and listened intently with every fiber of my being…a slight upturning of the lip, a faraway glance ever so dark, or dreamy. I had a keen sense of insincerity with the fake smiles people put on. I finally could read faces, body language and in turn…heal myself.
Honestly, it was really hard to move from hearing her pain around having her picture taken, and jump straight into a makeup lesson and portrait session.
But it was the gift she came to me to receive. So we dove in together.
Three hours flew by and suddenly her boyfriend was back to escort her to a birthday dinner.
On the way out, she told me she knew this would be her last portrait ever.
Thinking about how to truly honor her as a woman and an artist, to create a work of beauty as a keepsake, I realized a portrait that felt like a painting from the past; with a soft glow of lighting in a simple setting, in which the somewhat idealized subject draws the viewer in with an intense, direct gaze was exact approach to take.
She agreed, and chose two images that I worked on with a photo retoucher in Italy to find a balance between the art and the realness of Trina.
Then we entrusted an incredible, local print shop Pushdot Studio to memorialize the images in physical, tangible form them as fine art prints.
Soon after receiving the final images in hand, Trina wrote me the best note I could have ever received after such an important, intimate experience:
“I am honored and overwhelmed at the love you have all shown me. You do look for inner beauty as well the nuances of the life I have lived.
You are an amazing woman and photographer. I love what you have done and I love you.
This portrait was the crowning glory of a life well lived, regardless of the beginning. I felt wise and beautiful.
And at the age of 73, I have finally allowed my life to shine for a long awaited gift of sweet release.
I am now smiling from within and my smile shows through my eyes, because I know I have the wisdom to overcome.
Now, I have a story to tell…one with a happy ending.”
Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts.
Artwork by Trina Boozer. Portraits of Trina (Makeup, Hair and Photography) by Kristen Arnett. Artwork and photos are copyrighted and may not be used for any purpose without prior written permission by their creators.