“I’ve been doing this seven to eight years now. I’m originally from Xian, where I’d studied art. Yes, this is what we artists do when we come to New York; it’s the only job available to us, and you can’t do it anywhere else, not even California, no, because they don’t let you work at night. We make nearly a hundred dollars a day. Summer’s the best, but right now it’s still too cold for people to sit for us. Yes, it’s easy to get this job—you just pay for a license. Can you turn your head to the side, please? So you were born here in New York? But your Chinese is pretty good. Did your parents speak to you in Chinese when you were growing up? Can you read, write? Too bad. My daughter’s the same. She’s twenty-one. What do you mean I don’t look it? I have an eighteen-year-old son, too. He goes to high school on Long Island. Barely speaks Chinese himself. You’re how old?”
Last Thursday evening I stepped out of the Times Square subway station and there they were, the Chinese sidewalk artists. I’d always wanted to talk to them, to find out if this style of art, caricature and personal-name portraits, was to their liking and whether, having studied seriously at various prestigious art academies in China, they still continued with their passions in private or in a shared studio with easel, paints, and decades-old brushes. I wondered especially whether they considered one version of their art to be true and the other one false. The New York Times had profiled their work and the death of one artist after a portrait dispute. In 2000, a portrait cost twenty dollars; in November 2008, it was ten to fifteen. Last Thursday, portraits were being sold for five dollars each. As I crossed 42nd Street to reach a friend, passing these artists and their colorful stands, a sudden, very clear idea formed: I would have my affordable, kitschy caricature portrait done by as many of them as possible. And because it turns out that I’m coherent enough in Chinese to hold a basic conversation, I would interview them all.
I picked a stall manned by two women and a man. One woman worked on my portrait while the other alternately chatted with me and gestured to potential customers, and their male friend leaned gloomily against a bright building. They all kept telling me to smile more and to turn my head to the left. My Chinese, which had started out strong when I’d sat down, was losing its flavor by the tenth question, but nobody seemed to mind. Then a group of teens walked by, intrigued. I told them, “These artists are good. I’d watched them for a while before choosing them. Here, have a seat.” They did—two girls sat for the male artist, while mine, by now done with me, took in a boy. The chatty artist was setting up her own chair and notepad.
Then another colleague, this one from Shanghai, stopped by to say good night. She asked me to guess how old she was.
“Forty-five,” I said.
She laughed. “Nearing sixty. Do I really look so young?”
“It’s your smooth complexion. And your eyes. You have very young eyes. Where do you do your portraits?”
“Over there,” she said, gesturing vaguely west.
“Next time I’m around, may I stop by your stand?”
“But you just got your portrait done.”
“I’d like to see how you would do it. As you can see in this portrait, I’m a gal about town. Perhaps you might have a different fate in mind for me?”
“Oh yes, I do.”