The subjects of Mary Borgman’s larger-than-life charcoal portraits at Ann Nathan almost leap off the Mylar: her marks are forceful, and small details–like a cocked head–make each subject psychologically distinct. Formerly an interpreter for the deaf, Borgman has long been interested in physical expressions. Beginning at 18, she worked four summers at camps for disabled children. “Each kid had such odd quirks,” she says. “I enjoyed figuring them out to know how to comfort and please them. One boy I could calm down only by flipping playing cards against his scalp. I was learning the same skills that I later used in my portraits, how to be sensitive to little cues in body language and subtleties of facial expression.” She’s been fascinated by American Sign Language since she first observed it as a girl: “It’s visual and kinetic. You express with your whole body in a way that I can’t do with words.” Though she’d been drawing since early childhood, after graduating with a degree in graphic communication she married and stopped drawing, working at various jobs before enrolling in a two-year program in deaf communications.

Working in that field, Borgman says, “I became the personality and speaking style of the person I was translating, cold or warm or quiet or loud, in the way I spoke or signed. Once when I signed for a schizophrenic in a courtroom, by the end I was exhausted.” Illness ended her career in 1989, after five years as an interpreter. It became more and more difficult to move her arms, “then it became so painful that I couldn’t move my wrists,” she says. “I couldn’t cut my own food, and I had to sit with pillows under my arms or the weight of them was too painful.” Briefly, she could barely move at all. After two years, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Physical therapy helped, but she was depressed because she’d had to quit the job she loved: “My whole social life had been deaf people and interpreters. I couldn’t speak to my friends anymore, because I couldn’t sign.” Encouraged to take a drawing class in 1995, she first worked with paper on the floor because she couldn’t lift her arms, though soon she was able to draw upright for a few seconds at a time. Working in this way, she did a portrait based on a photo she took and won first prize in an art competition in Saint Louis, where she lives. Today the disease is under control, but she still tires easily.

Most of Borgman’s drawings are of attractive young men. “I’ve never been to a lecture where someone asks an older male artist why he’s painting these gorgeous young women,” she says. “A lot of women artists say, ‘I paint women because I am a woman.’ I say, ‘I’m a straight woman and would rather look at a guy than a woman.'” Half her subjects are close friends, and half are strangers: “I look every day, everywhere I go. I can’t say what it is that makes me think someone’s beautiful, but I know it when I see it, and I only see it maybe three or four times a year.” She requests a studio photo session and usually takes about 100 shots while an assistant moves the lights. “I’m trying to capture very specific shapes, shadows on the face and neck, verticals and horizontals and diagonals and shapes against shapes, as well as a deep interior intensity in the model.” Each drawing is based on a single photo.

Borgman photographed the subject of Portrait of Tomiwa Alabi, a Nigerian man she spotted through a Starbucks window, from floor level because she thought he had a regal quality, then realized his hair reminded her of a crown. She wanted to portray the subject of Portrait of David Uy, a nursing student she met at Borders, “fiercely,” but used small strokes blended delicately to convey his gentleness. She “stalked” her subject in Nati Zohar (Standing), a clerk at Whole Foods, for a month before approaching him. “He’s very laid-back, but the way he holds one hand half clenched shows a little tension. I tried to line everything up, from his nose to the hemp rope hanging from his waist, to show his sturdy centeredness.”

Mary Borgman

When: Through 5/27

Where: Ann Nathan, 212 W. Superior

Info: 312-664-6622