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Faces of our diverse characters

SOMETIMES only an artist can see what's really going on. People walk in and out of our lives daily as we enter and exit theirs. Some are fixtures in our existential being, so much a part of our prosaic experiences that we rarely stop to think about them. Some we know personally. Others, courtesy of their media and community profiles, we just think we do.

The Canberra artist Barbara van der Linden has cast a wide net in her project Faces of Canberra to capture people from the mainstream and the fringes - those she believes help comprise a diverse and unique Canberra character.

I've been dropping a few coins in the wooden box rattled by the Salvation Army guy in Civic for as long as I can remember now. He's always had a kind word - about the weather or the density of the shopping crowds - especially for my kids. But I've never known who he was. Now, thanks to Barbara, I do.

The Salvos Man is Alan Jessop, a modest and unassuming bloke who dedicates his life to others. Barbara's portrait captured perfectly his open, kind face and resolute posture. But mostly, I think, the eyes have it. They are eyes that betray a deep understanding of humanity, for all its frailty, while hinting at weariness - and deep compassion.

Meanwhile, a short hop away, one of the most enigmatic faces in Canberra is found at the intersection of Northbourne Avenue and Antill Street.

If Scrubby hasn't washed your windscreen, then you haven't really lived here. Yes, the windscreen guy - Scrubby. Well, now, thanks to Barbara, he too has a name and a more public identity - Iain Stokes.

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The portrait of Stokes is to my mind one of the most remarkable in the 25 or so that Barbara has painted in her Centenary of Canberra project. The face is handsome in an almost ageless way, but weathered due to Scrubby's year-round vigil at the lights (I've always marvelled at his amazing timing; where mere mortals would flinch under pressure, he can begin work on a windscreen just as the amber is approaching, squeegee it off and pocket a gold coin as the lights flicker to green). The blue eyes hint at resolve and experience. You look at that portrait and you want to know more.

And soon we will.

A book of the pictures will be published to coincide with the launch on May 9 at M16 Art Space in Griffith of an exhibition of Barbara's portraits. The book will include a first-person biography of each subject.

Barbara tells me Scrubby has had an extraordinary and - for those who might look past him at the traffic lights - intriguing life.

And so it goes, too, with Laura Grande, whose joie de vivre you'd bottle if you could. Generations of us Canberra orphans have fantasised about putting Laura on a full-time retainer as a surrogate special aunt, such has been her propensity to read the weariness in our eyes as we sit at her Manuka cafe - then whip our screaming progeny away for a lap or two of the Lawns or … we don't care. If ever we wanted a moment to ourselves when we had babies in tow, we'd head to Grande's and they'd be gone for ''a pasta'' - a measurement of time, sans infants, at Laura's.

Anyway, there she is, on the wall and in the book - another of the faces of Barbara van der Linden's Canberra.

There are many others too - the well known, the lesser known and even, perhaps, the far less worthy. Which I'll address in a moment.

There's Mal Meninga, who had his portrait unveiled, appropriately, at a Raiders game not so long ago. And then there's that bloke to whom my daughter will always refer as ''that weather guy'' - Mark Carmody. (Mark, said daughter is relieved you've returned home from your Grown-Up Gap Year trip and wants to know when you'll be back on TV.) That weather guy, appropriately, had his unveiled at the rose garden of Old Parliament House.

Then there's Tim the Yowie Man, Sandra Moffatt and Franco Calabria, hairdresser to Canberra's glitterati and not so-glitterati for … well, not quite forever.

And Jon Stanhope.

Stanhope has moved on, temporarily, from Canberra to become president - err, sorry, administrator - of Christmas and Cocos Islands. But love him or loathe him, he is somebody who irrevocably changed the Australian Capital Territory.

To my mind he's worthy of a portrait simply for having stared down the other states and territories - and the federal government - by exposing John Howard's draconian anti-terror legislation a few years ago.

That, and for appearing umpteen times on everyone's favourite radio slot - Chief Minister Talk Back on 666 with another Canberra legend, Alex Sloan. Anyone who's ready to argue his corner on big-picture stuff like a Bill of Rights and the ACT Prison but instead patiently endures only questions from Narked Off of Nicholls on the pothole outside his home and Angry of Ainslie on recycling, deserves to be hung in the Louvre.

Now finally, and with some coyness and embarrassment, to the less worthy - yours truly.

Posing for Barbara van der Linden was a bit like an extended stay on the shrink's chaise longue. She is a fabulous extractor of information, courtesy of her skill at listening and forcing you to fill the silent expanse.

She called me a few weeks ago now and said, ''It's finished - come look.'' There I am, with my dog, the war memorial and Mount Ainslie behind me.

Viewing your own portrait is not like looking in the mirror. Thankfully. Maybe. It is a view of you through someone else's eyes. It's an intimidating process involving profound emotional honesty and intimacy.

I like the portrait - not that that should or does matter to the artist. My friends who viewed it at a private unveiling a few weeks ago insisted it captured the best - and worst - of me. The bastards!

Barbara is nothing but honest. ''I'd never have my portrait done,'' she asserted, comfortingly, at my unveiling.

And then, looking at the finished painting, she asked: ''Do you have short legs?''

I replied: ''Not that anyone's ever said before.''

''Well, good,'' she said. ''Because it's too late to make them any longer.''

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