Face Focus: reading between the lines

The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart. – Thomas Sowell
Pope Francis Rob Ford Pope Francis                                                                                           Rob Ford

Match the words to the Faces:

scornful    warm    aggressive   COMFORTABLE   irritable     engaged   trusting   FRUSTRATED     angry     optimistic suspicious  thoughtful  RISKY   kind   superficial  arrogant   open   confrontational   sympathetic  humble  IMPUDENT  FORGIVING   cocky    STRESSED   empathetic   contemptuous   DIGNIFIED  unhappy   sad    GIVING      happy    dissatisfied  CONSCIENTIOUS     EASY   closed    sociable   demanding    PEACEFUL     argumentative   loving    anxious
The two above need no introduction – the guy on the left having been recently ordained as “the most talked about person of 2013” while the fellow on the right does his best to catch up.  Whereas the old chap in white can seemingly do no wrong, the big bloke with the frown is doing all the wrong he can.  One is adored, his every nod seeding inspiration while the other, if not at times loathed, is at best, a source of sad entertainment, his every bungle lampooned.  The internet creates the famous and the infamous – as news and word of mouth always have – and where reputation precedes us, judgments are made:  culturally, socially, personally … and efficiently.  Character is defined often by actions, deeds or misdeeds, with all that is spoken, with words gifted or spewed.  … But do faces, two-dimensional and static, tell us anything at all?
Years ago, while a student, I was a docent at a museum, leading kids through an exhibition of portraits circa 1800s. Ornately and heavily framed, faces, young and old, gazed out from the past, clothed in their finery of high collared ruffles, lace and jewels.  These were formal portraits, their subjects mostly rigidly serious, without an obvious range of personal expression – no gleaming white smiles or contortions of anger — and, yet, children honed in on their nuances.
Which of these people would you choose as your uncle or aunt? I’d ask.
Who might you like as a sister, brother, friend? 
Who would you like to spend an afternoon with?
Who would you not want to meet?  
Invariably, in choosing an uncle or aunt, the kids gathered around the large portrait of an old crag of a man, bushy-browed and at first sight, severe, until one noticed the almost imperceptible sparkle in his eye, his gnarled hands draped serenely on his knee, his shoulders slouched in relaxation.  Children have an ability, it seems, for penetrating beyond the pose, for discerning a smile within a face of sadness, for sensing the gentle beneath the mask of decorum.  Be it the twist of an eyebrow or the subtle turn of a mouth, the lines which hold an eye or those that furrow a brow, the positioning of an arm or the angle of a head – all these little things speak of a subject as open or closed, thoughtful, angry, kind, mean, warm or disagreeable and, in the end, inviting or not.  And thus, the children chose each their own  ‘person,’ someone who intrigued them with the slightest of welcomes, sparking their imaginations to spend a little more time –  and they each knew, as well, very clearly, with whom they did not want to spend any time at all.  Can you tell me why? I’d ask.  And in the telling of why, there came always a story.
This is what I love about faces, the stories they hold.  A facial expression is both a fleeting moment trapped and a tale of all the past that face has lived.   Faces enthrall me and often, in meeting new people, their appearance takes precedence over the words they speak, thus, I rarely remember what was said nor even their names, for I was looking in their eyes, at their brows, at their lips, at the gesture of a hand as it rose to their hair.
A good friend, Pieter, with whom I’ve travelled extensively over the years, is also afflicted with this condition of face-mesmerization.  On our journeys we’d find ourselves in some new city or town, standing on a corner, a crinkled, coffee-stained map unfolded, wondering where we were, pondering which street – cluttered with the unfamiliar – might lead to the plaza, the cathedral, the restaurant, the museum, the park or the beach.  Often, a stranger would come to our aid, gesticulating directions, pointing here and there, and at the end of it, I’d ask Pieter…  So, what did that man say? 
His eyes popping, Pieter shrugged.  What? he said. What?  How should I know?  You know I don’t listen to what people are saying!  I’m too busy counting the freckles on their nose!
Generally, we got to where we were going but it was often a circuitous route.
Cadiz Cadiz, Spain
In Cadiz we wandered in circles our first day, down one street then another, searching  for addresses that didn’t exist, seeking a place to settle that winter.  With only the most general of maps and a sheet of newspaper apartment ads, numerous faces directed us – a finely dressed elderly man with a red onion nose, a middle-aged woman with a voice of dried leaves, a girl with eyebrows that spread widely like wings and, among others, a portly fellow who had no time to spare, his impatience flashing behind thick bottle glasses …  And so we trudged over the cobblestones of narrow, twisted alleys, up steps and down, through private crumbling courtyards crowded with broken flower pots, and stepped out again, back into the street or plaza where we’d begun.   Déjà vu — it’s a lovely and weird experience, but tiring.  Then, finding a bench and a coffee or water we shook our heads and wondered at the faces we’d seen.
Pieter:  Did you see that woman’s eyes?
Me:  HmmmA lot of pain there.  And that voice.   …What about that big mad man with the glasses?
Pieter:  Well, he just pointed anywhere, just to get rid of us!  I didn’t trust him.  Those crazy eyes.  He was having a bad life.
Me:  That young woman with the eyebrows was hypnotizing.
Pieter:  Yes, she was.  She was kind.  But she didn’t know the streets any better than us.  She just wanted to please, so she pointed us down that creepy street.
Ah well, perhaps had we been listening to their directions rather than looking at their faces, we may have found where we were going much sooner than we did.  And, yet, I imagine myself in some convoluted dream wherein the streets twist and wind like the lines of a face, and I see  two people nearby of whom I might ask directions:  an old fellow in white with a friendly suggestion of a smile and a guy, big or small, with a frown as deep as a cave.  Who would I ask?  Whom would I trust?  Well … the guy with the frown may know the ins and outs of the dark alleys better than most, and although I don’t want to be pointed toward the clouds, upward and beyond – heaven being a journey I’m not prepared for – I guess it would come down to:   who would I want to be with for a moment or more?  Whose face would I rather see unfold?  And given a choice of only these two, whose story would I rather hear?   … Basically, who would I rather walk the streets with for a moment, be it five minutes or an hour, be it an hour or a day?
I know which face I’d choose, as I’m sure you do, too – for whatever our reasons.  Deciding on one or the other is rarely a case of black and white.  Within each and every one of us, there are, if we look, various shades between the two.  Of course, we all feel more comfortable with one thing or another, with one person versus another … such is the way we choose our friends.  And so, like the kids in the museum, with so little to go on but the nuances with which we connect, we each favour and align with what fits us best.  So, ok, for myself, I’d opt for the smile over the frown – it’s easier, you see, to walk calmly through the unknown that life presents us than to battle our way – often alone – through a boulevard of broken dreams.
Green Day:  BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS – dedicated to Rob Ford and all those others who have forgotten, or who perhaps have never known, the grace of a smilehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-jFWOhQ61w SMILE:  A POWERFUL TOOL:   http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201207/smile-powerful-tool Proven: Pope Francis has conquered the Internet:    http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20755286,00.html BBC – Reading Faces: Face Value:   http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/emotions/faceperception1.shtml Harvard Business Review – Anthony K. Jjan:   http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/06/becoming-a-better-judge-of-peo/

About JT Winik

A Canadian visual artist whose figurative paintings are psychological explorations of isolation, interpersonal relationships, gender analysis and female sexuality.
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