Richard Perry/The New York Times
Louise Benoit, left, and her sister Rebecca, who were badly burned in a house fire that killed five relatives, with portraits by an artist in Hoboken, N.J.

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Richard Perry/The New York Times
Doug Auld, the artist.

view article on NY Times site.

Facing Their Scars, and Finding Beauty

Published: June 18, 2006

HOBOKEN, N.J., June 14 — Louise Benoit stepped gingerly into the studio. Before her hung paintings of a proud humanoid race whose limbs and features were sculpted into impossible positions and fantastic shapes.

Wild tattoos in no discernible pattern marked their faces. A gnarled knob appeared where the eye expected a hand. Eyelids and ears were partly erased. Hues of blue and green and gold swirled in the pinks and browns of their skin, skin that looked like a moonscape or a field of flame, like anything but the familiar textures of the human body.

"Wow," Ms. Benoit said, slowly. "Wow. Wow." She approached a 7-foot-wide portrait of two strangely beautiful young women. One looked as if her skin had been lifted away. The others' eyes looked in different directions; her nose drifted to one side.

The women in the painting were Ms. Benoit, 30, and her sister Rebecca. The likenesses, she said, were uncanny, and a bit unsettling.

"Sometimes you look at yourself in the mirror," she said, "and maybe subconsciously I make it look like it's not as bad.

"But in the picture, when you see that, it's like, the reality."

But the reality is what it is, and that is why Ms. Benoit, a doctoral student in psychology who was severely burned in a house fire a decade ago, agreed to take part in an unusual art project. Ten teenagers and young adults, former patients at the Burn Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., posed for an artist who seeks to lift the stigma from those whom fire and scars and grafted skin have reshaped into aesthetic outcasts.

The painter, Doug Auld, 52, says that if people have a chance to gaze without voyeuristic guilt at the disfigured, they may be more likely to accept them as fellow human beings, rather than as grotesques to be gawked at or turned away from.

So go ahead and stare. This is what people with burns look like. There are thousands and thousands of them, and while many shut themselves away, plenty venture out to conduct their lives.

As Alvaro Llanos, who nearly died in a dormitory fire at Seton Hall University in 2000, said: "I'd rather people be staring at a painting than at me."

Ms. Benoit, who lost five relatives, her right leg, her left forearm and much of her face in the fire, wondered what a person without burns would make of the painting.

"Some people will look at it and say 'Ewww,' " she said. "Other people will look at it and see more than scars. Maybe some people will see both — see the scars but also see beyond that."

The portraits' roots go back 30 years, to when Mr. Auld was at an outdoor market and felt a quiet commotion sweep the crowd. A girl, perhaps 12 or 13, passed, rushed through by her mother.

"I wasn't prepared for it," Mr. Auld said. "She was literally melted — no ears, no nose, just holes. Slits for eyes. Her neck was like a long, drawn thing."

The girl looked up at Mr. Auld. He looked at her and found he could not speak. "I did what everybody else did. I turned my head away."