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Created: June 19, 2006
Latest Update: June 19, 2006
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/18/magazine/18tobacco.html. Original URL, consulted: June 19, 2006.
June 18, 2006
Facing Their Scars, and Finding Beauty
By ANDY NEWMAN
HOBOKEN, N.J., June 14 — Louise Benoit stepped gingerly into the studio. Before her hung paintings of a proud humanoid race whose limbs and features were sculpted into impossible positions and fantastic shapes.
Wild tattoos in no discernible pattern marked their faces. A gnarled knob appeared where the eye expected a hand. Eyelids and ears were partly erased. Hues of blue and green and gold swirled in the pinks and browns of their skin, skin that looked like a moonscape or a field of flame, like anything but the familiar textures of the human body.
"Wow," Ms. Benoit said, slowly. "Wow. Wow." She approached a 7-foot-wide portrait of two strangely beautiful young women. One looked as if her skin had been lifted away. The others' eyes looked in different directions; her nose drifted to one side.
The women in the painting were Ms. Benoit, 30, and her sister Rebecca. The likenesses, she said, were uncanny, and a bit unsettling.
"Sometimes you look at yourself in the mirror," she said, "and maybe subconsciously I make it look like it's not as bad. "But in the picture, when you see that, it's like, the reality."
But the reality is what it is, and that is why Ms. Benoit, a doctoral student in psychology who was severely burned in a house fire a decade ago, agreed to take part in an unusual art project. Ten teenagers and young adults, former patients at the Burn Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., posed for an artist who seeks to lift the stigma from those whom fire and scars and grafted skin have reshaped into aesthetic outcasts.
The painter, Doug Auld, 52, says that if people have a chance to gaze without voyeuristic guilt at the disfigured, they may be more likely to accept them as fellow human beings, rather than as grotesques to be gawked at or turned away from.
So go ahead and stare. This is what people with burns look like. There are thousands and thousands of them, and while many shut themselves away, plenty venture out to conduct their lives.
As Alvaro Llanos, who nearly died in a dormitory fire at Seton Hall University in 2000, said: "I'd rather people be staring at a painting than at me."
Ms. Benoit, who lost five relatives, her right leg, her left forearm and much of her face in the fire, wondered what a person without burns would make of the painting.
"Some people will look at it and say 'Ewww,' " she said. "Other people will look at it and see more than scars. Maybe some people will see both — see the scars but also see beyond that."
The portraits' roots go back 30 years, to when Mr. Auld was at an outdoor market and felt a quiet commotion sweep the crowd. A girl, perhaps 12 or 13, passed, rushed through by her mother.
"I wasn't prepared for it," Mr. Auld said. "She was literally melted — no ears, no nose, just holes. Slits for eyes. Her neck was like a long, drawn thing."
The girl looked up at Mr. Auld. He looked at her and found he could not speak. "I did what everybody else did. I turned my head away."
Mr. Auld went on to become a reasonably successful portrait painter. The burned girl haunted him. "I wanted to freeze-frame her," he said, "so that I could look, and process, and come out of it and say, 'Good morning.' "
In 2003, he suggested a portrait project to officials at Saint Barnabas. They were skeptical but eventually agreed. Now, said Chris Ruhren, director of burn services at the medical center, "when I look at these paintings, I think, 'Oh, my God, how beautiful.' We know the scarring process. We see how far they've come." The hospital is now studying how the portraits affect their subjects' self-images and psychological recovery.
The burn center's medical director, E. Hani Mansour, a reconstructive surgeon whose painstaking work is showcased in the paintings, pronounced them "splendid" if somewhat exaggerated.
"When you look at these people physically, they don't have this variegation of colors and scars," Dr. Mansour said. "But he did show the disfigurement, the anguish with these scars. I don't know if he will be able to sell them; they are so striking it's unbelievable."
Mr. Auld said he "pushed" the colors and patterns he saw in his subjects' flesh, both to strengthen the images and to make sure viewers realized they were looking at paintings, not photographs.
As for selling the portraits, collectively called "State of Grace," Mr. Auld hopes someone will buy and display the whole series. He certainly wants them seen by as many people as possible. "I'd like to think I can see all 10 kids on Oprah," he said. "Why not?"
Mr. Auld, sensitive to charges of exploitation, likens himself to a war correspondent who is "doing something vital for society, because society needs to see what's happening out there." At the same time, Mr. Auld said, "he's making a living. And he's making a name for himself."
The series can be seen online at dougauld.com. One of the paintings, "Shayla," is among 50 chosen in a nationwide competition to hang in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington at a show that opens next month.
"State of Grace" is not without precedent. In 2002, the National Portrait Gallery in London mounted a show, "Saving Faces," depicting patients who had undergone radical facial surgeries. Mr. Auld said he was inspired by the 19th-century painter Théodore Géricault's portraits of asylum inmates. (Mr. Llanos, the survivor of the Seton Hall fire, was himself the subject of a series in The Star-Ledger that won a Pulitzer Prize for photography.)
There is even a current photography show near Albany with striking parallels to Mr. Auld's work. Last year, an amateur photographer named Steve Lobel attended a conference of burn survivors in Baltimore. He asked if anyone would sit for portraits.
Soon dozens of people had lined up in the hotel lobby. The result is "Recognition Beyond Burned," showing at the Exposed Gallery of Art Photography in Delmar, N.Y., through Wednesday.
Dan Gropper, who lost both arms and legs and whose face bears the traces of more than a dozen surgeries, wears a huge grin in his photo. "I get a lot of 'Oh, poor Dan,' " said Mr. Gropper, who travels widely and has skydived. "I have a very good life."
Dyna Carlisle was so excited when she heard about the show that she drove down from the Adirondacks to insist on having her photo taken, too. "I want people to see us and know we're not freaks," she said.
Ms. Benoit's sister Rebecca Benoit, 20, joked recently with another of Mr. Auld's subjects, Jelani Jeffrey, about being at the forefront of a fashion trend.
"We were like, 'What if this thing blows up and everybody wants to get burned?" she said.
Mr. Jeffrey, 23, visited Mr. Auld's studio with the Benoits and Mr. Llanos to talk about the portraits. He said that while he would not wish his injuries on anyone — they include hands charred to nubs and an amputated leg — the burns were in some ways a blessing. They forced him to be honest.
"It doesn't allow you to lie to yourself the way other people are capable of doing," he said. "There's no way to hide it, no way to spin it around or put it off on someone else. Everybody has issues and flaws, and mine happen to be prevalent right from the door."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company