I painted a portrait that stares back at me every morning. It is a portent, if a painting can be a warning. My younger daughter at 12.
The day I photographed my daughter for a series of portraits she was pissed off. She didn’t want to wear the costume I had assembled. She didn’t want to put on the ballet slippers, one white, one black. She didn’t want to wear her shoulder-length hair in a low ponytail. She didn’t want to imitate the Edgar Degas’s sculpture, “The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years” at all—to keep her feet in a resting fourth position. She wasn’t interested in the early photographer’s method of grabbing light by facing the tall studio windows, letting in another grimy day’s worth of exhaust floating above the exposed heating pipes that made as much noise as heat as they cycled steam throughout our loft building. It was a favor. And I, her mother, appreciated the favor.
At fourteen Emma’s big sister was better suited to be the model for Degas’s wax sculpture. She would have been the natural choice. But Kate had left. Left me and moved into her father’s home. I didn’t know it that day, the day I took those photographs of Emma to use as the basis for a series of portraits that I would paint for an exhibit and call it, “Original Mold.” That day marked the beginning of three years without her. “You have lost Kate.” Four words mailed to me on a blank note card, stiff cream-colored paper, undersized envelope, my name and address pecked out in their father’s calculated cursive on the envelope. Emma was standing in, doing her hurt mom a favor, knowing, as all painters’ kids instinctively know, that having an art project in front of her mother would take some of the focus off her.
The “Original Mold” series explored the idea of “doubling”—of adding a copy to an original. Each canvas also held space for a portrait of Maria van Goethem, the model for Degas’s sculpture, beside a portrait of Emma. But as I painted Maria, I realized I was painting Kate’s portrait inside the guise of someone else. My gaze (a mother’s gaze) interrogated my subject, perhaps too harshly. With each new portrait of the sculpture I projected onto Kate what I imagined her mindset to be at that moment: selfish, narcissistic, materialistic. Stances she had chosen, and I could accentuate, using Maria as her proxy. Emma, confused herself, was left to defend her sister’s decision to leave our shared home. What I succeeded in painting was a series of contemporary bereavement paintings—a portrait of my own loss.
Twenty years later it’s Emma who stares back at me in the one remaining painting from that series. Now a mother herself, she watches me as Degas’ model looks up and away—she’s not Kate anymore. It’s Emma who finds my eye from any corner of this room. It’s Emma’s voice, still captured in the moment of that painting, muffled, the way children’s noises at play sound distant, stifled under glass. Emma confronts me daily with a tween’s all-knowing “Duhhh, Mom.” As if she had predicted a future reconciliation, as if she knew Kate would return.
I leave her locked gaze and leave for my studio to print portraits from a century ago. I’m calling this series “More is Always More” based on the P.T. Barnum quote. I transfer prints of old photos of the showman’s Side Show exhibitors: The Muse Brothers, the Bunker Brothers, Annie Jones, The Bearded Lady.
I decide to transfer a few of my own photos with this technique, which involves a commercial cleaning product, Citrasolv, and an inkjet printer. A portrait of my grandmother decades before she was that, dressed in a man’s suit and a too big Stetson hat; she makes a randy fellow, her arm around her best friend Bernice. Bernice is elegant in an ankle-length day dress and picture hat. Their gazes touch. The transfer is absorbed into the thin rice paper and makes the image fuzzy, damp-looking even when its dry and it does what I’m always trying to do with art, with writing—to look inside the fog of something to make out the contours. Find what’s resonating and fill it in. Now the new monoprint of “Ethel and Bernice” (my aunt titled it that in her round longhand, in the corner of the original photo) dries on the studio windowpane. Beside the smitten couple another imprint flutters on waves of heat rising up from the radiator, a transfer made from a stock publicity picture of the Muse Brothers, Willie and George, in matching wool short-pant suits, tight button-down shirts, bow ties, an explosion of white dreadlocks cascading down from the top of each man’s head—gnarled as tree vines. That hair, their white skin and light eye color inspired P.T. Barnum to bill them, ‘my Monsters from Mars!’ African-American brothers with albinism, they were kidnapped when they were kids working on a tobacco field, near Roanoke, Virginia, not an hour’s drive from the bench where my grandmother and her best friend were making eyes at each other under a maple tree.
The Muse Brothers weren’t twins. In all of the promotional photos I’ve found of them, when it’s just the two of them and not their manager wrapping his arms around his human bounty (or included in a group photo where Barnum surrounds himself with his so-called menagerie), the brothers lean into each other as if they are magnetized, sharing a force field. Kidnapped when they were 9 and 6 respectively, their matching costumes are always one size too small, tight jackets pulled over short sleeves, turning their growing hands into lobster pincers, drawn down, not touching yet feeling for the assurance of the other. My monoprints reverse their images, the rice paper so thin I can examine both sides of their posing. George finds the camera easily but in every photo Willie’s expression maintains a confused grimace. It’s obvious they’ve been directed into a twin-like stance, side by side, cycling through tacky matching outfits. But there is nothing to see here; they are not twins, not “Ambassadors from Mars,” not “Eko and Iko the sheep-headed cannibals from Ecuador,” as they were billed on rotation. They were African-American men born the color of the oppressor in the Jim Crow South. I develop a relationship with their repeated images; the earnestness of their portraits reads, to me, as always being meant for the mantle in the home of their missing mother.
P.T. Barnum famously exhibited real twins, the original “Siamese Twins” as Eng and Chang Bunker were billed. Two other sons transported from their mother’s home in Taiwan, beside a river where she raised ducks. Another set of brothers pinched by a wrangler. “Siamese,” an exotic title to promote their act, at the turn of the 20th century, quickly pivoting into lingo to describe conjoined twins. I’ve transferred many of their portraits over to rice paper too, and in the transfer the reversed images display the dominance demonstrated by Eng. Exhibited since they were children, the bone that joined them was stretched by their athleticism as young boys, allowing them to be able to stand side by side. I follow them through decades of pictures documenting the slow sequence of the men’s heads listing off to each side, deviating further apart with age. Until Chang views everything off kilter, framed by the armature his brother provides. Chang looks consistently confused, and simultaneously grounded in the presence of the brother, who gives a half smile to the glass eye of the camera. Eng, perpetually aware that the unseen viewer was not looking into his eyes but had been permissioned to examine the exposed sternum that binds them. Eng’s scrutiny is protective. He is Ethel to his brother’s Bernice.
“Then I’m done.” That’s what Eng said when Chang started to die from a cerebral blood clot. “Then I’m done.” Sixty-two years old, the brothers sat near the warmth of their fireplace. Chang’s stroke three years before this night had left him frozen on the side nearest his brother. To help him maneuver, Eng carried a leather strap to fold behind the knee of Chang’s stiff leg. They walked to their wide bed, built to accommodate conjugal visits from one of their wives, Sara or Adelaide. Between them they had twenty-one children. Pulled from their first family, together they made a new one. Sometime in that night Eng woke up alone. For the first time. The only time, and he knew his life was over.
Xiphopagous twins, they were attached at the sternum by a flexible circular band of flesh and cartilage. A plaster death cast, still on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, shows the structure, arched as the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, about five inches thick and nine inches long. Nine inches. The space between them. As the blood pooled in Chang’s body, it stopped on Eng’s side. Their arms encircled, as they had been every day and every night. The doctor performing the autopsy concluded Eng had died of shock.
An idea—I take a quick photo of the painting of Emma and apply my transfer process, watching as the delicate likeness soaks into the porous paper. Magic. The order of the double-portrait is now mirrored, Emma is on the left and the surrogate for her sister sits shoulder height on the right. Reversed, the painting’s resemblance to Emma as a young girl is less obvious, the jeer of her facial gesture more apparent. I am a detective hungry for visual clues. With the numbing of time I provide a new narrative with my intervention; I took a risk by twinning Emma. At the pinnacle of her most vulnerable state I challenged her to stay, to live with her mother and stick to the visitation agreement. On that day I asked her to pose for me as favor but in fact, the photos from that shoot were a prophesy. The Muse brothers in their adolescent clown vests, the Bunkers playing dress-up for the camera, all eyes fixed on that conjoinment slipping between the crescent openings cut out of each shirt, and Emma, dressed in a make-shift ballerina costume—standing near the bogus image of her phantom sister. My process has shown me now what I couldn’t see then. The original next to the mold that could not embody the copy.
An epilogue. 1637. Lazarus Collerodo, a man born in Genoa, Italy was presented to the English Court. Charles I maintained a dour expression as this fair-skinned man of average height strutted towards him to face the throne. His wide girth was accentuated by a great magenta traveling cloak thrown over his chest like a wave. He stopped just a few feet from the King, arching his body into an awkward, shallow bow, that while not sweeping, was appropriately deferential. He removed his broadbrimmed hat with the gesture, then he looked up to catch the monarch’s eye— to wait for their eyes to lock before standing straight and throwing back his cape to reveal his brother, John Baptista. Attached at his brother’s ribs, John Baptista spent his life hanging upside down, his enlarged head was twice the size of his brother’s, his eyes perpetually closed, the red rim of his mouth fixed in a toothy grimace, encircled by a thin, blond beard. The rest of his body was small and confused in its presentation. The King grimaced through his fascination. Was this appendage alive? This question was Lazarus’s cue to pinch his brother, who yelped with small feral sounds. The king questioned the boundaries of personhood—“Had they one soul or two?”
Duston Spear has artwork in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn, Metropolitan and Weatherspoon Museums. She has received awards from The New York State Council for the Arts, Creative Time, and Art Matters. Her artist’s books and papers are housed in the University of North Carolina’s Special Collections.