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Make a date with a composite sketch artist at Cheekwood

Win, Love or Draw



"His face was more angular than that. And not so long," I say. "The chin is too long."

"How much shorter should the chin be?" asks the man across from me, Phil Cicero. He scrubs away at the chin with his eraser, and as it disappears, the face — just a rough outline at this point — appears grotesque. I shudder. Is the room getting colder?

I scrutinize the skeleton of a drawing and try to remember. The eyes look right, but the chin is wrong. How can I explain how to fix the chin?

Cicero is a composite sketch artist in Nashville, and I'm describing a man to him. We've already had an in-depth conversation wherein I did my best to recall his height, weight, skin color, hair color, eye color, what he was wearing when I first saw him, and what his most prominent facial feature was. But I'm struggling with the chin.

I close my eyes. I can see it in my head, but I can't articulate it. I flip through the FBI identification book — pages and pages of photos of different shapes of heads, eyes, eyebrows, noses, chins, cheeks and cheekbones, ears, hair, facial hair, facial lines and foreheads — and find one that looks similar, but it still isn't his chin. Nobody's is.

Cicero's training enables him to create sketches of suspected criminals based upon descriptions from eyewitnesses, but the man we're drawing today is no fugitive. Although at the risk of sounding maudlin, I'd argue that this particular man committed a crime against my heart. We're drawing my first love.

Lest you think I'm a glutton for punishment, I'm participating in an interactive portion of Cheekwood's More Love, an exhibition of 45 works created by nearly 30 artists over the last two decades. More Love explores how contemporary artists address the subject of love and the way people express love through a diverse range of media including photography, sculpture, video, sound, choreographed events and participatory art projects.

We're sitting in the drawing room at Cheekwood Mansion on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and when we finish the sketch, it will be displayed alongside sketches of other first loves in a piece conceived by Rivane Neuenschwander, appropriately titled "First Love."

It's definitely a collaborative process. While Cicero is the artist, his ability to accurately portray my love depends heavily on my ability to clearly describe him. We go back and forth on the details of the chin, the nose, the cheekbones. I'm amazed at how difficult it is to describe someone who I can see so clearly — too clearly — in my mind. We're midway through what is easily a two-hour process, and Phil is explaining how strong memories are associated with strong emotions like trauma or love, which certainly aren't mutually exclusive.

"This is a way to use a strong memory," he says. "Everyone remembers their first love."

Of course we do. And in the modern age, it's not difficult to see what our first loves are up to. Even if you haven't seen yours since high school, you can easily find out who they married, how many kids they have, and if they got fat. You can stalk them on Facebook, see what they had for breakfast on Instagram, and find out how much they paid for their house on Zillow.

But to revisit the moment when you first met them — when you first fell in love — that kind of thing can't be found online. You stored that memory somewhere else, and unless you went all Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on your first love, you can probably access it rather quickly.

I notice that Cicero is careful not to "lead" me when I point to items in the FBI book, which is crucial when a witness is attempting to explain what a criminal looks like. When I describe my "criminal," I'm shocked at how easily the memory is conjured, and how sharp and real he looks, not at all withered by time. I'm channeling that moment when it hits you, before you can fight back with logic, life and all of the things that get in the way of love. Not all of the stuff that comes later: the feelings of hopelessness, heartbreak, misery and resignation when you finally accept that it's over.

I wanted to go back to before all of that happened. They say that hindsight is 20/20, but for me it was shaded by rose-colored glasses. At least for today. Too often we fall in love before we really know someone, and that man was almost mythological at this point, as was that brief period. I wanted to relive that.

Thinking about that time in my life brought up some emotions I wasn't prepared for, and this wasn't even that long ago. How would this experience affect a 90-year-old woman recalling a deceased husband she hadn't laid eyes on in 20 years? Would she feel sad when she described his face to a stranger? Would she remember the young man she fell in love with, or the old man she took care of? Would she feel as wistful or as ridiculous as I was feeling right now? Would she realize that she missed him so much that she couldn't even explain the way his left eyelid drooped ever so slightly more than his right?

Cicero snapped me out of my reverie by announcing that he was ready for the big reveal. While I braced myself, he cautioned that the sketch is not a portrait, per se, but more of a caricature displaying an individual's unique, identifiable features. But when he showed me the finished product, I was floored. Anyone could have picked him out of a lineup. In fact, the sketch looked so much like him that I declined to include it here. I've released him from the dark recesses of my mind where I'd imprisoned him for so many years, and that's enough. Frankly, the experience was overwhelming — too intimate, too exposed. He may be on display at Cheekwood for all to see, but nobody will know he was mine. Or that I was his.

If you want to revisit your first love, composite sketch artists will be on site at Cheekwood on select weekends in September and October. To schedule an appointment with a sketch artist, email with your name and contact information. Each appointment lasts approximately two hours, and the finished sketch will become part of the Neuenschwander exhibit.



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