Written Portraits

October is coming which means warm scarves, woolly jumpers, colourful leaves and Made in Roath are just around the corner! Although we’ve got an excellent poetry and literature programme planned, I am most excited to be organising another Written Portraits event for the upcoming festival.

Run for this first time at Solstice in June, this event offered a chance for passersby to sit down and have their portrait written. First, a photographer captured each person’s image in whatever way they felt most comfortable. Afterwards, writers Steven Kenward and Rebecca Roy spent 10 minutes writing a description of each participant and the ideas they inspired. The results were detailed, touching, insightful and, occasionally, even funny.

Of course, writing someone’s portrait is not the most natural thing in the world. So, Steve and Rebecca did a few trial runs with their own team first. These included the photographer Tereza Nekvasilova and ‘interviewer’ Mark Sexton, who chatted with participants while they had their portraits written. They also recruited Clare Charles who was doing some bread making nearby for the wonderful Roath Feast.

Here is what they came up with:


Tereza 1

She is well composed, her a fringe a neat accent swept back from her face. Her hair dyed, but not a colour that has been ill-chosen. As if she has corrected nature to what it ought to have been. The varnish on her toenails draws your eye (she’s wearing leather strap sandals, centurion style) – and it seems to match the light peach of her dress, perhaps purposefully.

A tattoo down the edge of her right foot, cursive, though you can’t read the text. Her camera, carried like an infant around her neck, now rests calmly in her lap – an almost obscene protuberance, its lens shuttered. At times she bobs her tattooed foot in time to Bob Marley and the Wailers, echoing around the peaked church hall. The other foot rolls its toes, rested on the coarse carpet. You wonder if she would rather be moving – flitting in and out of the background of this panorama; an empty church hall at 11am on a grey Saturday morning, open and ready for members of the public to come and make us busy.

She does not gaze head on, meeting us, her witnesses – instead purposefully studies the opposite wall, dances her foot some more, something restless creeping. Occasionally raises the camera and photographs us back, aiming a shot at my foot, in battered Docs, legs crossed as hers are – a little vengeful teasing in the act.

Tereza 2

A camera sits comfortably in Tereza’s lap, but I think it would feel heavy in mine. Tereza has alert eyes, darting around the room, commenting, in a way, on the ceiling, examining the light, scrutinising the composition of different scenes. I think sight is a good sense to explore this building with. I am overwhelmed by the smell of old wood – the ‘church smell’ as I know it. But Tereza is focussed on the images ready to be framed. From her Czech accent, I wonder if she doesn’t know this smell the same way as me.

She smiles easily when I look up to try and find details. This is useful for a photographer. She sits naturally, setting a standard for the others who will hopefully arrive and follow her. The shades of her hair, from chestnut to mahogany and golden strands illuminated in the light from the stained glass window, form an autumnal palette. The style is neat, but swift – well practised, but not overthought. A fringe sweeps from right to left, a small parting and a pony tail. There are enough loose strands to suggest confidence, not so many that would show disorder or disinterest.

Tereza’s right leg is folded precisely over the left, and they haven’t moved. But her foot taps along to the reggae playing in the background, swinging with the off-beat. She is committed to Mark’s questions, and out glances, but in tune with the building around us.

Mark WP

Mark 1

Something almost Dickensian, 19th century joviality, in his readiness to smile, a quick flit across his face. He holds a glass of water, tapping a finger against the rim, in slow, measured beats. The foot, a black leather, joins in with the occasional nod to the music.

You are drawn by the odd fabric of his trousers, a loose, crumpled material; the colour of jeans that have lived through many washing machine cycles. But the material looks less durable than that, more like linen.

As he sits for longer his smile steadies, moving in more natural tandem with this speech, a steady flow, as he discusses cameras with Tereza, how he took up photography as a young boy. Touching a hand to the bridge of his nose as he recalls a misplaced fact.

He gestures with his hands, fingers long and tapered. His nails are clean, trimmed. A light coat of fair hair dusting his forearms, though only one is on show, rested on the arm chair holding the glass. He raises the glass to drink, but doesn’t complete the thought – distracted by a turn in the conversation.

He talks about the ‘Venn-diagram’ of Cardiff, and makes the appropriate circular motions in the air – you follow the lines he draws, charmed by the carefree slump of his body, the soft over-use of his clothing – itself oddly punctuated by the creaky formality of his shoes, and silver watch peeking discretely from the pulled down sleeve.

You pull your gaze away from the performance of his hands – working up to the face, which has cleared a little more, condensation wiped clean from a window. The downward hill of his nose is a smooth, neat slope – perfect, you think, for rolling down barrels.

Mark 2

Mark has a balanced face, and is ready to hold my gaze. His stubble looks less than a week old. He has only soft creases in his forehead, but they become deeper and clearer as he speaks – his eyebrows raise readily, and as he turns to the side, his eyelashes catch the sun from the window behind. His nose is a sharp, straight plane from the side – face on it divides his face evenly.

As he talks on, I see his left hand matches the lively movements of his face. The right hand holds the water on the arm of the chair, close to the heel of the shoe on his folded left leg. The shoes seem to clash with his linen trousers – this makes me feel some kindship. I think it is not a mistake to me. It seems to be a choice of comfort.

His daughter has come in to the conversation twice maybe three times. Each time he mentions her he brings out a different smile to the one he greeted me with. The greeting smile is the same as the one he uses when we talk about mutual friends. It’s a short, but sincere smile for me. But his smile extends for his daughter – a smile in to the cheeks, causing small creases there and at the corner of his eyes. This ties in with all he has said about his efforts to capture people looking how they truly look – trying to get a subject to relax – I wonder if there are triggers, topics, images in our minds that work better than an hour of conversation.

Claire WP

Clare 1

She wears running shoes, and a teal plastic watch. Her voice has the slight quality of running water, though when she laughs – and does, quickly into her conversation with Mark, with assured self-effacement – some grit enters it, some earthiness.

She wears no make-up. Her pale, fanned eyelashes catch the church light, become almost translucent. Her smile is broad, and exhibits her teeth. She resounds with health and good humour, everything about her immediately disarming.

Her hair reminds me of one of the characters off the Moomins; her bob runs down very straight, a little spiked at the end.

She wears a gold chain around her neck, a slight extravagance beneath a cotton shirt dress, starred with a snowflake pattern. Her legs are bare from the knee down, dotted with some marks – perhaps from shaving. Or cycling.

She looks like a cyclist – looks like she enjoys the freedom.

Clare 2

I think I have met Clare before. At the least I have seen her and – who knows – on a Facebook photo with a friend, at another of these events/festivals. The community crosses and mixes, the way it is supposed to.

She seems at home being interviewed. She seems at home in herself. She wearing trainers, leggings, and a dress with straps, practical for bread-making – but smart enough to show that an effort has been made. She also has a bright blue watch (matching her trainers) on her left wrist which is attended to with subtle glances. Finally, a necklace hangs loosely, dangling underneath her collar.

She takes a call ———– other were ??? relinquished from the duty. There is a mischievous eagerness to laugh – not nervous, keen, perhaps. Her eyes arch upwards, a neat arch, and her lips mirror this, separating in to a thin smile.

After practicing some portraits and settling into a rhythm, Tereza, Steve, Rebecca and Mark took on the general public. Here are a few of the portraits taken and written on the day, including Catherine, Julie and Richard, Sarah, and Rebecca:


Catherine 1

Her jacket is military style, the dress a wild menagerie of colours, purple butterflies dancing along the hem. Two paint-strokes of legs covered in the grey sheen of her tights, end in royal blue velvet wedges. Her face pivots around her square rimmed frames and thick Heidi plaits – her hair combed and tamed, though the tails ends curl forcefully.

The light falls onto her chin, the plane of her forehead. She considers by tilting her chin up, lets her eyes wander in rainbow arcs over her head, strokes her pen in a thoughtful dream.

She’s just deactivated her Facebook account, clicks the pen twice with a declarative ‘I think it’s shit.’ She speaks with her hands, places her notebook on the ground, adjusts the open curtains of her jacket.

She’s colourful and lilting, but with an accompanying bluntness – in appearance and self. Wears a choker of light gauze, which seems redolent of her entirely, as she blithely talks about the potential story she wants to write about necrophilia one day.
Towards the end of the interview she leaves her shoes on the floor, placed neatly side by side, and tucks her legs beneath her on the chair.
She has no problem taking up space, making it her own. She has disappeared the hardback chair. She sits quite at home.

Catherine 2

Catherine removes her shoes and places them together facing outward, blue velvet. Her feet are, at first, folded beneath her, almost a yoga kneel, and her palms lay in her lap. Then her legs shift. First to her left, then hanging off the chair, almost ready to swing. It takes some work to get comfortable, but once she’s started, it seems she shouldn’t accept an incomplete resting position. Her shoes are slipped back on, and her feet fix on the floor.
Grey tights lead up to a multicoloured dress – fuchsia, peach, red, green, blue, patterns and montages of shapes. A pendant with a portrait hangs from her neck in the space between the collar of her navy jacket. Her plaits rest on either side of her neck and two separate, loose plaits framer her face. They are soft and casual, cascading over the firm, fixed black rims of her glasses.

Her mouth is the most mobile part of her – despite the high amount of movement in her body. Catherine has wide smiles, tight smiles, smiles that show two teeth and others which show them all. Her eyes are quite steady, though. If I couldn’t see the mouth smiling, I may think she was at the tipping point of a tense moment – on the verge of an epiphany.
As time passes, she has moved upright, become calmer. She nods with a slow laughter, then her eyes widen for the first time when Mark agrees with a sentiment she shares. Now, talking again, she circles her fingers, then spots the arm rest. Then a few adjustments of the skirt of the dress.

There are red bands around Catherine’s plaits, which I have only just noticed.

From nowhere, necrophilia enters the conversation and she folds her legs beneath her again.

Her mouth matches the tipping point in her eyes when she talks of her hope to get published the book in which select poems got placed (?) She looks down at the gesture of selection and I think she sees the work she has written and dismissed, every word of it.

Julie and Richard WP

Julie and Richard 1

There is a faint dusting of hair over her knee, crossed coolly. On her sandals metal plating – a little gesture to warfare. I feel like she could be into imaginative fiction, as she tells us about her Creative Writing MA.

Very slender fingers, resting peaceably – she has the folded grace of someone who is taller than most, and comfortable with it.

There’s an electric cloud of wisps above her hair, which is plaited and tied neatly at the nape of her neck. She wears a floral dress, with a neckline that suggests she is a smart shopper, shaped neatly against her chest.

As she speaks she touches the back of her head, fixing the detailed adjustment there.

He stares at an anonymous patch of carpet, rubs the underside of his legs, fixes the white trainer sock of the foot resting on one knee. His t-shirt, duck egg blue, boasts the Adam West-era Batman logo. It is a neat pigeon holing, a careful advertisement.

When he talks about London, its too many people, he paws at the air, laughs nervously at imaginary hordes. Then again, when speaking of the future, clutches his hands back in a B-movie damsel pose and gargles a playful scream.

Both use their hands colourfully, her with more of a relaxed energy.

They lean in a diagonal – their bodies perpetuated along the same line. They do not touch, but wait carefully for each other to speak. They fall in turns.

When Marks cracks a joke, they laugh at the same time, and bodies exhaling, the reality of their engagement flashes across both their faces.

Julie and Richard 2

I am trying to figure out, immediately, if Julie and Richard are a couple. I’m looking for tells. Then I stop myself and wonder if this is too invasive, too judgmental. The things I look for are proximity – I wonder if it will become clear with a touch, or a glance.

Julie talks first, though she may have been asked first, and Richard joins in a few minutes later. He talks steadily, and with precision, even when he speeds up. His hair is short, as if he cuts it all off when necessary and ignores it otherwise.

They are both dressed for summer, optimistically. Julie has a dress of three colours, and is patient to let Richard tell his stories.

Richard’s sense of cadence suggests a comfort with public speaking. He gestures at the right time to underscore.

They met in Cardiff, and got engaged. I hadn’t noticed the ring until it had been risen to match the comment. Now it’s hard for me to stop looking at. Once the declaration has been made, the intimacy increases. A touch at the wrist, and a gentle stroke behind Richard’s ear. I suppose we had to give permission for it to happen.

Her hair is tied loosely and dangles over her right shoulder, revealing the left side of her neck. Her shoulders yield to slender arms, which rest on her legs. I can see her height even when she is seat. They both have bare legs.

Richard wears shorts and slouches back in the chair, with his legs folded up in front of him. He rests his forearm on the arm rest of Julie’s chair. They confirm answers between them, with a glance and a nod.

They both smile for most of the interview, and there are marks in the cheeks that match each other. They seem as if they smile a lot when they are together. I wonder if they’d smile being interviewed alone. As Julie talks, Richard strokes, or itches, his knee cap, and taps his foot intermittently. Julie watches Richard when he talks, occasionally casting her eyes over at us, writing. She blinks slowly, considered, casting her eyes up and down Richard, but is polite and giving with her gaze, letting it return to the interviewer only a second or two too late.

Sarah WP

Sarah 1

Sarah’s roped her hair back, twisted it under the band into a makeshift bun. Crosses her fingers in a concertina, two gold rings meeting.

She wears a white cotton shirt, is readily opened up to summer – has donned sandals, and painted her nails in metallic varnish. Her skin is already touched with a light tan, and she wears denim shorts trimmed at the knee.

She laughs quick and wide, mouth resting with her teeth showing. Has little shadows under the eye, stops mid-interview, voice pitched up in a cry, ‘Reuben! No!’ Maintains fierce eye contact across the church until a gurgling laugh and diminutive stampede of feet resumes behind our backs.

In her left ear she has two piercings, perhaps a throwback to her younger self. Wears no make-up, has freckles blushed across her cheeks.

She has a long, smooth neck, and as she speaks you can see the muscles working there.

She speaks easily, but as the interview progresses eyes dart more and more to her son, chasing imaginary butterflies around the church. She is distracted less when ploughing forward with an original thought.

She has shaved her legs very close, no trace of hair to be seen.

The sleeve of her shirt has been crumpled and sticks out at an angle from her shoulder – the bare skin it reveals dances in and out of sight, as she shifts in her seat.

Sarah 2

Sarah has inner joy, her frequent smile flickers across her face, as the airiness of her clothes and iridescent painted toenails speak of summer. She identifies herself as a sister, as a mother and in both, she is bold, strong. It sounds out through her enunciated choice of words, playfully teasing her brother and her eyes, which often look over to her son.

Yet, she is not only those things. Here is a woman who alludes, through folded arms, yet assertive tone of voice- many layers of self. She shares the interviewer’s wonder of child development. Her concern for open-mindedness in her son is clear.

She seeks to create a balance, yet contentedly admits the child will eventually become his own person, with his own world-views. She has an admirable sense of acceptance, her identity beams, but does not overthrow that of others.

Rebecca WP

Rebecca 1

Her wrists follow on with absolute correctness from her arms –cream and straight, tailored close to the bone.

Her bare face has wide cheeks coloured just a little with pink, the spoiling tint of a brush dipped in a glass of water.

Strips of blonde hair fall down to the back of her neck, brush there.

Much about her matches – black trousers, two long streaks, twinned with her French sailor’s top, monochrome stripes, a neat neckline resting against her chest.

A gold band of a ring pairs well with the minimalist black leather strap of her watch. Her necklace is silver, two small discrete discs.

What stands out is the nail polish on her feet, a sharp peach. I wonder if she applied it some days ago; whether she put on sandals this morning, as the weather begins to turn towards baking, and surprised herself.

Her face is young, her age difficult to read in it – her voice, when her nephew chases up to her, pitches suddenly high and sweet, a sudden bell chime – ‘hey monkey!’

She mentions a husband. You glance back to the ring, watch the play of her hand, curving as she speaks.

Rebecca 2

There is a girlish charm to Becca, enhanced by her fair hair & slight figure. She approaches the interview with an endearing unaffectedness, yet her artistic endeavours in the arts hint at a multi-faceted personality. Whilst conversing, Becca often mentions her church, which feels like a hub, a central point. Does she find solace and solidarity within faith?

The well-worn flip-flops on her feet seem to embrace the warmth of the days, the sand and the sea. Does Becca like the seaside?

In the figure of Aunt, she has a strong sense of cultural importance that she should share the things she cherished when growing up. Is this nostalgia for Becca’s own childhood?”

This is just a small selection of what was produced on the day – all thoughtful and full of life thanks to the kind participants and the talented Written Portraits team. 

If you like what you’ve seen and read please visit us in October to have your portrait written! Or, better yet, come along and try writing a few yourself. The more writers we get the more varied and detailed portraits we’ll have.

Written Portraits will be running from 11am-2pm on Saturday, October 17th during the ROADBLOCK at Made in Roath 2015. We hope to display both the photographs and written work as part of an exhibition during the 2016 Solstice Festival.

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