Kevin Atherton ‘Scraperboard’ Portrait

Reflection on meeting with Kevin Atherton to share his portrait. 

The last time we met was here to see, at the Royal College of GP’s to share Susie’s WOWI exhibition 5 weeks ago.  Prior to that we had met at Kevin’s performance of ‘in two minds’, at IKON Gallery 8 weeks ago. This after many years of only being in contact through our social media feeds.

Since we met, ate and caught up I worked on a portrait of Kevin, inspired by his comment on one of my portraits with a darkened background, that I might be ‘reinventing scraperboard’. Although used by artists, scraperboard is a memory from childhood where white is scraped out of black to create images.  

The process of the portrait making is documented elsewhere. On final completion of the print I tentatively messaged Kevin on Facebook:

Hi, Are you around next Thursday afternoon? I have made a print following your constructive comment that I might be reinventing ‘scraper board’ which I’d like to share / give you if you would like it. I am in London then and could bring it down.that I might be reinventing ‘scraper board’ w I’d like to share / give you 

An immediate message came back.   

Hi Jonnie, That would be wonderful, the morning would be best for me. I could meet you at Euston or RCGP (Susie’s show). Best, Kevin

The meeting was in place. No going back. The edition of 4 prints were numbered, stamped and signed. No1 was covered with tissue paper and rolled into cardboard tube for transport to London.

Thursday 14thMarch 2019.  I looked around the RCGP Café and gallery, Kevin in signatory black Stetson and overcoat walks towards me. ‘Hi’.  Susie: “You got me too.”

We talked for 20 mins over coffees and lemonade, catching up and the form at  Cheltnam.  We talked about the benefits of reconnections, perspectives from our older stand points. Retirement – stepping back, not stepping down. New possibilities, free from employment locations. Potential new home. A pub, for the man of 40 year sobriety.

Its always good to talk, but this conversation is premised of the invitation to share an artwork and we are aware of this looming moment. Anticipation rising, anxiety rising.

I called a halt and asked Kevin: “Do you want to see your portrait?”  Kevin: “Yes lets go”.

“Before we reveal and to put it in context: when we shared the Indian, post show dinner you let it beknown you had devoted yourself to study for a Phd, understand the process and told me I must be clear about my methodology. You enquired what I was doing in the phd and I showed you some portraits including ‘Nav’ against the dark background with white highlights.  You suggested I might have “reinvented scraperboard”.  I didn’t quite know how to take it compliment, or put down.  But later I thought this could be an inspired starting point for a portrait I wanted to make from the smart phone photograph I had quietly taken as Kevin sat opposite me and spoke during the evening.”

As I reached for the tube and print it was the first time I had experienced Kevin a tad anxious. Matching my own. “Are you ok to see it here in public?

“Yeah come on then.”

I took roll in hand and pulled the print with its protective tissue from its cardboard tube: “Yeah its big.” I spun the paper to hold the top and unfurl towards Kevin, the subject, who could reveal it as he opened towards himself. The portrait could be seen underneath the tissue cloudy paper.

“Wow look at this.”  Kevin held the bottom as I pulled the tissue away to reveal the portrait in its reality/ materiality. Kevin was ‘blown away’, kind of speechless in admiration of his image, at scale and the rendition/interpretation I had made following his ‘scaperboard’ remark.

Susie smiled and stood up to take pictures of the moment of sharing. Thanks. 

Kevin pointing to his face: “This is just right, the jowls.”

“It’s a bit of a Shankly Half time team talk: ‘Get out there and score.’”  

Jt: “You are animated. As you are when you converse.  The hand is in movement. Your body is a part of the communication and the portrait, not simply a support for your head. You are fully committed to your subject”

Holding up the portrait in the Cafe.

Susie: “The energy in the arm highlights. The darkness of the polo. The one you wear for the performance now and did 40 years ago when it was first performed at the Serpertine.”

I explained the background techniques powder/water and liquid/sponge sweeping, but detailed marks.  It’s not meant to be a fully detailed portrait but a dramatic image, commensurate with your 100% commitment. It was delicate a background that had to be enhanced by graphite drawing after the first test proofs. Not as robust as scraperboard, and much more tonal.

“These Finger prints” – that’s authentic. “The highlight of the eyelid is just enough to describe it.”

“I’m honoured. Is it an edition?”  “Yes of 4, You have no 1.”

I asked, would you mind signing a consent form? He responded: “Do they make you get this signed?”

jT: “The university research have strict ethics directives and request any participants consent to participate in research. But because of my methodology I’ve developed a retrospective participant consent. For this moment after the work has been made to my satisfaction, but will only be kept alive if you accept it and consent to it being made public. Otherwise I will destroy all traces of the portrait from photograph to drawings and completed print.”

“I’ll sign anything. This is so good.” “It’s going to be framed.  A thin black frame with white card border. Not too much, let it stand on its own.  Its going above the pub fire-place.”

“I love it. The background is a part of it. Its not just drawing or printmaking though.  There are conceptual underpinnings, and in your methodology. Phone, drawing, print, sharing.”

I agreed and reiterated how pleased I was that Kevin appreciated it. More than that I think. Great also that Susie was there to witness the moment: The background, the texture is textile like. And the  black polo is ‘black’. The polo he had worn for the performance, in 1978…. And the night of the portrait in 2019.

We rolled it back up with pride and enjoyment. I formally presented it to Kevin.

And he formally accepted. 

We talked more about reflections and people we might reconnect with when we sit down together again. Talked Retirement. But we artists are driven to keep on going, not settling down.

“Steping back, not stepping down. And in your case, as he taps the card roll. Stepping UP. I’ve got to go and put on my bets.”

Hugs all round. Kevin sits down to put his bets on and I head off into the city, to find a quiet space to write down my recollections of this warm and important experience. 

Later on Kevin’s Facebook :

This is a record of the sharing of a portrait. Not a robust piece of research. More a case study that may contribute to formal research

Kevin Atherton Signed Consent form.

scraperboard.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scratchboard