The Gardener as Laborer and Artist’s Model


At the National Portrait Gallery, where I visited the new Obama portraits, it’s not ALL presidents and other known faces on view there. In fact, the “Sweat of their Face” exhibit is just the opposite; it “combines art and social history with representations of American laborers across genres and centuries of art.”

Among portraits of laborers – a riveter, a migrant worker, a “sandwich artist” at Subway – there’s this statue of “The Gardener (Melissa with Bob Marley Shirt).”

Now as the subject of portraiture I love Melissa, but she raises some questions.

First, to my eyes she looks more like a home gardener than a “laborer” at gardening, someone paid to do it for others. And the possible misuse of the term “Gardener” to identify a paid laborer is an example of wildly different interpretations of the term.

For example, when my nongardening friends see me calling myself  “Gardener Susan” they wonder why I’d identify myself as a poorly paid worker – or a very uncool hobbyist. I can’t even wrap my head around seeing “gardener” as a term to avoid. Is there a better word for someone who grows plants? Seriously, I’m interested.

Then there’s what the exhibit curator tells us about Melissa, that she’s “enjoying a moment of rest, to which anyone can relate.” Really? With her skyward gaze and unhappy expression it looks like she’s thinking “God, when will this be over?”

The curator goes on to say that “At the same time, Melissa is very clearly portrayed as an individual and as someone who should be respected.”

Sure. After all, the sculpture is a life cast of an actual neighbor of the artist.

Several other workers in the exhibit can be seen in this article.


  1. I agree, she doesn’t look at all happy to be gardening. When I rest in the garden, I’m lying down on the path looking at the sky!

  2. This is a very typical work by these artists, both of whom I’ve long admired. Most of their portraiture is in this style–the facial expressions are often just a little cartoonish in a good way. I wouldn’t read too much into it–although the curator who wrote this sure did!

    Fashion Moda–blast from the past when I lived in NYC in the 80s!

  3. I agree she’s hoping for rain. Or thinking “Lord, you know I don’t condone violence, but could you please smite that damned Canada thistle!” Feel free to fill in whichever weed(s) drive you to exasperation 🙂

    It says much when people think first of poorly paid workers when they hear “gardener”.

  4. Perhaps the reason her clothes and shoes are so clean is because she has yet begun to tackle spring gardening. The look on her lovely face is the one I get each spring season when I look at the devastation in my yard after the winter and realize how much work there is to be done. And it will all be done by me alone, the gardener. Give this lady just a few weeks and her arms will be covered with scratches and rashes and her outfit will bear the stains of mud that will never come out.

    On another note, the yard laborer is an unseen and unforgotten part of our workforce-one that thousands of people depend on to create the gardens they can show off. I see them each spring in our neighborhoods, toiling away. And I imagine the majority of them are very unpaid with few if any benefits.

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