Every picture tells a story. Like this one, sketched several years ago: Martin Dietrich’07 sits in a state of perpetual cool, West Coast indifference, barely holding on to the truckstop aviator shades that, along with the collared cardigan, help accessorize the chameleon gaze. That gaze is shrouded by eyelids that seem to be seeing the first rays of the morning light—and it’s not because he’s an early riser. Angular wire-frame contours, and the flexible plasticity of the gesture, seem to counter the poker face that could break into a crooked smile at any moment.
That was just one of the senior portraits that I drew after an athlete’s final cross country season was over. The drawings act as a type of proof of purchase, a stamp of approval for a career of hard work and companionship. They also serve as demarcation lines; the boundary between undergraduate studies and the wide world of everything that comes after. For one frozen moment, the sitter is documented in the zenith of their youth.
Sometimes I draw with the simple and clean lines of naturalism, and other times with the frantic hyper-exaggeration of a caricature in flux. Either way, all the drawings are filed in a portfolio shell that acts as a scrapbook that, when reopened, conjures up a whole host of memories: where the subject was sitting, the progress of mark-making and the significance therein, and most importantly, the memories of the athlete outside of the static state of scribbled pencil lines and black ink.
The portraits are good for me. I fancy myself as a painter, but rarely paint. As an art teacher by day, a distance coach by afternoon, and an avid music, mileage, and concert collector at night, I often put painting on the back burner. When I do paint, I love the rush of the initial endless possibilities, the quick schematics of implied forms, the loose journey of thin and thick layered skeins of color and developing detailed and polished end results that exaggerate to the point of abstraction.
The problem is, I rarely get there. At one point in time, I had multiple 4-foot paintings that were all halfway done. I often thought it would be cool to have an art gallery show where all the work was unfinished. I think that is why I love running. I almost never skip runs and almost always finish them. It doesn’t matter if it takes 24 hours; it is part of my day-to-day ritual. The senior portraits are also like this—I have to get them done. There is no procrastinating. Closure is intrinsically built in. Done.
David Eckburg has been the Beloit College cross country coach for 17 years. He teaches art at South Beloit High School in South Beloit, Ill.