Walt Whitman, 2021 Oil on linen 27 × 40 inches
Walt Whitman, 2021
Oil on linen 27 × 40 inches

I was listening to Leaves of Grass repeatedly, anything I could get by Walt Whitman or about Walt Whitman while painting this work. Obviously, he’s the great poet who wrote “I Sing the Body Electric” and other poems that helped to define American Poetry and vernacular spirit. And obviously, culturally speaking, he was out as a gay man. He was a pioneer politically in that he was a very popular, nationally or worldwide known figure who was very proud for who he is. He changed language, in terms of his poetry. Leaves of Grass, for me, with the My American Dream series, is similar, where he for decades worked on this anthology of poems. He would change and put in things, and edit, and so on… But also, poetry is really close to painting, because it’s about two or more things—in poetry’s case, words—put together that create new meaning. And so, all of that I’m thinking about, but then I’m looking into this old sepia-toned photo taken of him, which was his favorite, one he called his “Lear photo.” For the last anthology of Leaves of Grass, it had this frontispiece of him as a dapper young man, which he turned against in his old age. He wanted this image to create an etching for the frontispiece of the book. I thought I would honor him by choosing his favorite photo of him. But then in this fuzzy daguerreotype, there’s all this weird stuff that’s happening in his beard, and happening in his hair, and happening in the aura around him that I want to bring out—there’s tons of faces and forms and figures in there. I would start seeing them as a painter, but then I didn’t want to literally describe them, because that would be sort of cheesy, to have all these people crawling around his beard. I want, obviously, to give him his prominence, but also immortality.

His figure is kind of coming together. It’s concrete, it’s there, but also, it’s effervescent. His words are coming out of his mouth or his beard or his chest, or like little butterflies. They’re all combining to create the spell of

what he was doing to me when I was listening to the poetry! I listen to it like music. And then you just keep listening repetitively. Sometimes when I don’t get things, I’ll rewind it until I totally get it, over and over and over again. I was mesmerized and taken away, and then suddenly, the muse leaves you. At this point I was like, I can’t do anymore on it, if I do anything else I’ll mess it up, that it won’t be real. It won’t be a primal experience of being enchanted. Then I would be illustrating the thing. It would be redundant, or I would be fixing it in the taskmaster working mode rather than feeling the moment and keeping me alive.