An Article About a Film About a Conversation About a Drawing of a Photograph
Billy Pappas isn't much interested in promoting the movie he is here to ostensibly promote. "I think it's a well-crafted film," he says of the new documentary Waiting for Hockney during a recent conversation at a Mount Vernon coffeehouse. "And beyond that, it's not that important to me. What's important is that I show my portrait to the world. . . . It's all about the work."
So don't ask Pappas about plans or goals for the film--whether it will come out on DVD, what the likelihood of a theatrical release is. He doesn't care. Well, actually he does care, if the film's success gets the word out about him and his art, and helps him find patrons.
Waiting for Hockney, which screens at this year's Maryland Film Festival, follows Pappas as he intently and intensely pursues his dream of showing his work, a mind-bogglingly detailed super-photorealistic pencil drawing of Marilyn Monroe, to David Hockney, the British-born painter who earlier this decade caused a stir by theorizing that Old Masters' techniques were helped out in part by primitive camera technology. The drawing, based on a photograph by Richard Avedon, took Pappas about eight years to complete, starting in 1994, at his home on the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore, and is a bit smaller than life size. Though you can't tell from the movie, it is so detailed that stray facial hairs and eyelid creases are as well-delineated as everything else in the drawing. And the entire background is shaded such that the only place the white of the paper comes through is as individual strands of hair.
Waiting for Hockney's director, Julie Checkoway, first came across Pappas in 2002. She was then working for various National Public Radio shows and contacted Gary Vikan, executive director of the Walters Art Museum and a well-known Elvis Presley aficionado, about a possible story about the King. But Vikan would have none of it. The only story he was interested in telling at the time was that of Pappas.
"I met Julie Checkoway totally by chance. She came to me with Elvis on the mind, but I said no: Billy," Vikan remembers during a recent phone interview. "I met Billy about 10 years ago . . . and he started showing me the picture every few months or years. And I thought it was a story for This American Life or something like that."
"After we met, [Checkoway] saw it was a story too large and too visual for radio," says Pappas, who grew up north of Baltimore, attended Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, and graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1990. "She got the idea for a film very quickly, and soon after she was following me around."
At that time, in 2003-'04, Pappas had already completed his drawing of Monroe, and so the filmmaker had to seek another way into the story. And she found it in the artist's desire to meet and show his work to Hockney, an idea that Vikan had put in his head.
"Hockney spoke here in 2001 or somewhere around then at the Baltimore Museum of Art . . . and he was creating quite a fervor at the time, with his ideas about camera obscura and camera lucida," Vikan recalls. "And I got to meet him at the cocktail party afterward and just thought then that he had to speak to Billy. Both of them, more than anyone else I know, think about how people look and see."
Checkoway contacted the writer and educator Lawrence Weschler, a friend of Hockney's, and Pappas finally gained his desired audience in late October 2004. In Waiting for Hockney, the first third of the film brings us to this point in a race car-fast, almost caperlike fashion, with a team of quirky guys--Vikan; Larry Link, a local character and architect, Pappas' original patron, who loaned the artist a monthly stipend during the years he worked on "Marilyn"; Brother René Sterner, Pappas' high-school principal; and Weschler--all working and bumbling to make Pappas' dream come true.
Asked whether Hockney's speed reflects reality, Pappas says it's hard for him to tell. "Versus my technique, which is so slow, everything else moves pretty quickly," he says.
While it wouldn't be fair to reveal exactly how the meeting with Hockney turns out, both Pappas and Vikan say they were satisfied. "Billy really wanted to talk to someone who really thinks about this stuff a lot," Vikan says. "And he did."
"I wish the film crew had been able to record inside David Hockney's house," Pappas says, noting that the Los Angeles-based artist wouldn't let them do so. "It was five hours long, a wonderful discussion about art history, art technique. Mr. Hockney pointed out things on my drawing he hadn't seen before."
And this is when Pappas becomes most animated. While reserved when discussing the film, his eyes light up when discussing his own work or art in general. "Have you ever had surgery?" he jokes while opening up his bag and taking out his tools. He straps on jeweler's glasses and further employs a magnifying glass to demonstrate how he works. According to the film, often he spent a day on an area the size of a newspaper period.
Pappas' drawing is sort of anti-illustration. (And unfortunately it doesn't reproduce very well on screen, though a closer look at the coffeehouse, thanks to close-up computer scans, makes it clear how impressive it is; the drawing itself will be on display at the Maryland Film Festival.) While most drawers are always trying to lower the number of lines they use and express something of their personality, Pappas does just the opposite. "I need to put in two dimensions what we see when we scrutinize, when we look really look at each other," he says. "I want to give humanity a nudge of how we see. . . . That's impossible to do with regular illustration or photography or anything else. If I do it, then no one can deny it."
Neither Vikan nor the film itself make a claim for Pappas as a great artist, but they do make clear what makes him, his work, and his story so fascinating. "What drew me to it is the story itself," Vikan says of "Marilyn." "What he did was animate the photograph. It was a chain that started with a real person, then Richard Avedon took a picture of her, then it was printed in a magazine, then Billy looked at it, then there was Billy's model--that's not Marilyn's hair in the drawing, you can't see that kind of detail in a photograph--then he drew it all on a piece of paper. It's Marilyn. It's not Marilyn. It's quite unnerving."
Similarly, it must be supremely weird to be the subject of a documentary, on the precipice of release, and to now be an artist promoting a creation that is not his own. Pappas, seeking to keep control over his own identity, wants to make clear that the moviemaking process did not affect him or his life.
"It didn't affect my process or view of where it is I'm going," he says. "All it really did is hasten my planned meeting with David Hockney."
His mission now is not to make the movie a success but himself.
"I have to keep showing my portrait to interested parties and continue to try and find a patron so I can do another drawing," Pappas says. "And maybe this movie can help me do that."
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