Last November, Matt Held was slogging through a serious case of painter’s block. He and his wife, Joelle, had just had their second child, Astrid, and he had left his job as a “postwar art” handler at Christies to be a stay-at-home dad.
“Everything was going wrong, I was in this total upheaval,” Mr. Held, 37, told The Observer last week at his apartment in Windsor Terrace, a quiet Brooklyn neighborhood southwest of Prospect Park. In his closet-size studio off the living room, a small model of a human skeleton sat in the window, overlooking the suburban-feeling street. “I couldn’t paint to save my life,” he said. He stroked his left arm, which is imprinted with tattoos—a naked, pinup-style woman clutching an anchor on one side and a stack of toy building blocks spelling out his 5-year-old son’s name, Otto, on the other.
But then, on Thanksgiving weekend, his wife updated her Facebook profile picture. She posed in an “angry face”—pursed lips, brunet hair in tangles, a finger jabbing at the viewer—and snapped a shot using iPhoto, a software program on Apple’s MacBook that takes photo-booth-like pictures with a tiny lens on the top edge of the laptop screen. Using the photo as a reference, Mr. Held painted her portrait with oil on canvas.
Something clicked. The painter’s block was gone.
Mr. Held scoured his Facebook network for more inspiring portraits, and within two weeks he had painted five of his friends’ profile pictures. In late December, Mrs. Held, an assistant at a private-equity firm, created a Facebook group called “I’ll have my Facebook portrait painted by Matt Held,” which now has about 1,500 members from which Mr. Held can choose. He has created 30 Facebook portraits so far, all for free, in exchange for permission to use the portraits as he likes. He has painted friends—including fathers from Otto’s local school and one maudlin-looking fellow enveloped in a pair of giant headphones—and strangers, too, like Peter Downes, deputy director at the Brooklyn Museum. In his portrait, he’s grinning in a elaborately decorated shirt. Mr. Held will be speaking at the Brooklyn Museum’s exclusive 1stfans event on March 7.
“I make no qualms about doing this for networking,” Mr. Held admitted. His goal is to finish 200 portraits by 2010.
Whatever his practical concerns, Mr. Held can wax poetic on his chosen vocation as well. “Throughout history, artists have always, consciously or unconsciously, made statements that are representative of their time,” he wrote on his blog, portraitpainted.blogspot.com, where he and his wife chronicle the project. “The Internet and technology in general have made so many more things accessible to the general public that used to be limited to people who existed in higher economic classes. Considering I bend towards socialism, this project allows me to embrace the idea that everyone should be painted and memorialized.”
Painted portraiture, made famous during the Renaissance, used to be reserved for the elite, Mr. Held explained, back in his Brooklyn apartment. “That lasted all the way up to the invention of the camera. Still, it was expensive to get your photo taken, up until the snapshot camera was invented.”
Digital media, from iPhone snaps to professional photos taken on fancy digital cameras, not only made portraiture cheap, it has also revived the art form, he said. And, sure, Facebook has something to do with that, by providing a space for people to play with the whole concept of a portrait. “Everyone and their mother can literally take hundreds of pictures of just a slight turn of your face and you can put it up and people can view it,” he said.
But modern, online “portraiture” is fluid. Most of us are constantly tweaking our Internet personalities—changing up our favorite bands and books, scripting eloquent “status updates” and switching profile pictures according to our mood. But in every detail, there’s a little more of our selves revealed. Adding or deleting Lolita from a list of favorite books, or becoming a fan of Rahm Emanuel, tells a little bit more of our story. And the various photos posted by us or others—from the awkward karaoke shot to the elementary school yearbook photos, with ’80s laser lights in the background—reveals even more.
Mr. Held considers all these other online “selves” before he starts painting. He browses his subjects’ Facebook pages—checking out their occupation and where they live, as well as looking through their photo albums, to cobble together, as best he can, a sense of who people really are. He chooses which profile picture he likes best—he favors “quirky” shots, he says; props, like a giant wine glass or ice cream cone, help, too. In a way, he has the ability to immortalize a person’s personality in a time when it is ever-changing.