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Larger-Than-Life Charcoal Portraits | Artists Network

Mary Borgman’s portraits stem from chance encounters that grow into meaningful connections between the artist and her subjects.

Portrait of Merwin (Merf) Shaw (charcoal on Mylar, 47 x 45) by Mary Borgman

The charcoal portraits of Mary Borgman can overwhelm a viewer in several ways. First is their scale: They hang like grand medieval tapestries, with figures standing as tall as eight feet. There is also their texture. Borgman creates her portraits using charcoal on Mylar. The results are richly gestural, with distinct charcoal strokes and eraser marks animating figure and ground alike. And perhaps most powerful of all, the viewer is caught by the gazes of the models, who stare forcefully out of the picture. They seem to be examining us every bit as much as we’re examining them.

The human figure and the personality of individuals have long fascinated Borgman. “I like to look at people,” she says. “When I’m not drawing them, I’m actively staring at them.” This is true whether she knows a person or not. A few of Borgman’s subjects are longtime friends, but most are strangers she approaches on the street. When on the lookout for possible subjects, she watches for a casually dressed person who is “visually striking, with eyes that show experience and wisdom, distinct shadow shapes on their face, and laid-back body language.”

Portrait of Brent Haddock (charcoal on Mylar, 61 x 42) by Mary Borgman

Approaching Strangers

When Borgman sees someone who fits her criteria she engages in a bit of subtle reconnaissance. She follows the person for a few minutes and watching his or her motions, facial expressions and interactions with others. If she thinks she’s found a suitable model, she approaches the person and introduces herself. She asks if the man or woman will pose for a photo shoot and tells them what she pays — making sure to add that it is clothed modeling. “I trust my intuition when approaching strangers, and it has never failed me,” she says. “But walking up to someone you don’t know is not as easy as it sounds. It used to be that when a stranger turned around and looked me in the eye, I froze. Who knows what I’d say. So now I have rehearsed opening remarks.”

Borgman arranges to meet the subject at a café for an initial discussion, where she learns more about the person. “It’s fascinating to hear their stories,” she says. If all goes well, Borgman and her model decide on a shoot date, held at the artist’s house. “My assistant and I serve tea and cake and
we all just hang out and discuss travels, hobbies, family, et cetera,” she says. “It’s very laid back. When we all feel relaxed, we go shoot in another room that is all set up.” The artist takes around 100 photos, frequently changing the lighting.

Portrait of Shakira Wilson (charcoal on Mylar, 60 x 44) by Mary Borgman

A Folder of Possibilities

In the days after the shoot, Borgman examines each photograph. “Many of the shots look very much alike,” she says. “I evaluate the underlying value pattern, zoom in on the eyes and then choose the best one.” She titles the image with the time and date and drops it into a folder, repeating this process multiple times over several days, never looking in the folder to compare the images she’s selected. “When I finally look in the folder, I’m always amazed to see that I have saved the same photo over and over again, even though the ones taken right before and after it are almost, but not quite, identical.” Once she has settled on her reference photo, she spends a few days simply looking at it before she begins drawing.

Portrait of Tomiwa With Arms Crossed (charcoal on Mylar, 801⁄2 x 411⁄2) by Mary Borgman

Centered and Intense

There’s a pronounced pattern to many of Borgman’s compositions. Most are either a three-quarter portrait or a closely cropped bust showing the head, neck, and only a little of the shoulders and torso. In both these configurations the subject is generally centered, perhaps seen at a slight angle. The sitters stare straight out, making eye contact with the viewer.

“I try to honor the people I am drawing by centering them in the format and shooting from slightly below their eye level,” Borgman says. “Then I choose an expression that exudes intelligence, self-awareness and complexity. I try to convey their humanness. I want the viewer to feel this person might be someone interesting to know.”

The artist says that her subjects’ intense gazes “may also be related to the many years I communicated in sign language, which is based on sustained eye contact.”

Portrait of Kaveh Razani (charcoal on Mylar, 55 x 45) by Mary Borgman

The Tornado

During the first few days of drawing, Borgman’s marks are fast and sweeping — a friend of hers has described this part of the process as a “tornado.” The artist switches back and forth between charcoal and eraser as she draws. “I work from general to specific, except for the eyes,” she says. “I render the eyes just enough to see the expression, because what the eyes are communicating influences how I will proceed.

“Then I work with the image turned sideways,” she continues, “because it’s just values, movements, shapes, and marks to me until much later in the process, when the portrait emerges. Then I turn it right-side up. When I think the portrait finally looks like the person, things bother me. I may need to make slow, painstaking changes — marks as small as a sixteenth of an inch. Or I may need to tear into it and rework almost all of it. I never hesitate to ruin a drawing, even if I have been working on it for months, because if something bothers me, I can’t let it go.”

Mary Borgman at work on Portrait of Kaveh Razani. Photo by Jose Manuel Silva

Charcoal and Mylar

The artist loves the directness of drawing. “Drawing in charcoal is immediate,” she says. “There is no lag time; I don’t have to wait for anything to dry. Instead, I can see and act almost simultaneously.” Borgman works with synthetic charcoal, which she can manipulate to achieve varying levels of darkness and opacity. “I prefer synthetic charcoal because its slightly sepia tone complements warm skin tones,” she says. “It’s also messy, and I like that.”

Borgman draws on Mylar, which she first saw used with charcoal in the 1990s at an exhibition of work by Jim Dine. “I like the translucency of Mylar,” she says. She finds the combination of synthetic charcoal and Mylar to be particularly luminous, although she notes that this is often lost in reproductions. She also says that Mylar, like any surface, has its limitations. “If I want a really rich black, I have to put it down with force on the untouched surface, because once I have erased and reworked an area, that surface will not accept the same deep black again.”

Dignity and Power

Asked why she prefers working so large, Borgman says, “I think the large scale gives the portraits a certain presence. Standing up and drawing large feels more natural to me than sitting down and drawing small.” Having the image placed upright also allows her to constantly check her work by looking in a mirror hung on the opposite wall.

A rather grand conclusion to the process is achieved when Borgman invites the model to return to see the finished work. “They are sometimes stunned to silence at first, I guess because it’s so big,” she says. “Then they smile and often laugh. We take photos of the model standing in front of the portrait and send them the pictures. I’ve had shows in Chicago where models and their families travelled to attend the opening, and it was really fun to meet everyone.” It’s a fitting end for a process that evolves from a fleeting encounter into a sustained relationship between artist and model, all leading to portraits of uncommon dignity and power.

Borgman’s Advice for Artists

Cleaning Erasers: To clean her erasers, Borgman uses small-area sanding sponges she buys at the hardware store. “I leave the paper on and cover the rougher edge with masking tape,” she says. “Then I hold this covered side in my hand, exposing the fine-grit side. I don’t even have to look down to clean the eraser, so it doesn’t break my stride.”


About the Artist

After earning a B.F.A. in graphic communications from Washington University in St. Louis, Mary Borgman went on to earn a degree in sign language interpreting and work as a sign language interpreter for many years. She later turned to drawing and earned an M.A. and M.F.A. from Fontbonne University, in Clayton, Missouri. Borgman has shown her artwork in numerous venues, including the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, DC, in a 2012 exhibition. She is an instructor at Washington University in St. Louis.

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