In October of 1980, I was sketching the Sealtest ice cream sign on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee when a man came up and asked me to draw his portrait.
He struck a pose but jerked around from time to time to look up and down the street. Then he eyed me narrowly. “You’re not a cop, are you?”
I assured him I wasn’t. He asked me where he could get a Thompson.
“What’s a Thompson?” I asked.
“You know, a submachine gun. A tommie gun.”
“Why would you want that?” I asked.
“I’m going to jack a bank.”
He said his name was John Earl Dillinger and that he just got out of the pen. He told me that he had spent time in solitary confinement in San Quentin and that he had been married three times. He asked that I draw a mustache on him so that he wouldn’t be recognized.
I didn’t know how much of his story to believe. The original bank robber named John Dillinger died in 1934, and looked nothing like this guy. Tommie guns were obsolete, even back in 1980. I had the feeling that parts of his story may not have been what he told me, but his face told a story of its own.
Every portrait is an attempt both to study the mask and to see beyond the mask, because every subject is trying to project a persona— at least if they’re aware of being drawn.
In any event, my meeting with “John Dillinger” in Nashville was a prototype for Arthur Denison’s first encounter with Lee Crabb in Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.