What is Presence? Five Examples.

“Every figure has presence. You can barely have any standing object which doesn’t.”
Barbara Hepworth

Dorothy Parker once compared Hemingway to the Grand Canyon.1 Indeed, there is something about Hemingway. Something in his writing, his journals. He was the kind of man who climbed stairs to write and was captivated by bullfights. But what was he like?

In her inimitable style, Parker responds: He was grand. Hemingway had presence. Presence is strongly felt and broadly defined.

Modernist British sculptor Barbara Hepworth saw presence in every physical thing.2 Maya Angelou saw presence as something to learn and perfect. I define presence thus: To the question “What does it feel like to stand next to this person?” presence answers, “It feels grand.”

“Two Turning Forms” and other work by Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Sidney Lumet on Katherine Hepburn

Director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) recalls the first time he met Katherine Hepburn:3

When we first met, on Long Day’s Journey into Night… I stepped through the doors of what seemed to me a fifty-foot living room. She stood at the opposite end of the room and started toward me. We’d covered about half the distance when she said, ‘When do you want to start rehearsal?’ (No ‘Hello’ or ‘How do you do?’) ‘September nineteenth,’ I said. ‘I can’t start till the twenty-sixth,’ she said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because then,’ she said, ‘you’d know more about the script than I would.’

Michael Peppiatt on Francis Bacon

Peppiatt, a journalist and writer, became Francis Bacon’s key biographer in the 1960s.4

A small man is sitting just behind me on a stool by the bar, talking in an exaggeratedly posh, camp voice and waving his cigarette holder about. He is oddly dressed, in a stained sweater and ancient trousers, with his head nestling in the upturned collar of a grubby shearling jacket. I don’t remember seeing him come in, but now he looks as if he has always been there, as if he were the pub’s mascot, addressing his running commentary to the whole room rather than anyone in particular. I recognize him right away … I edge closer … and blurt out my request for an introduction.

“Two Turning Forms” by Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Stephen Fry on Emma Thompson

Fry and Thompson became friends and co-performers in the well-known comedic troupe, The Footlights, during their Cambridge University days. Fry on his classmate:5

She seemed, like Athene, to have arrived in the world fully armed. Her voice, her movement, her clarity, ease, poise, wit…well, you had to be there… This girl was really something. Medium height with a perfect English complexion, she was gravely beautiful, extraordinarily funny and commandingly assured by beyond her years. Her name, the programme told me, was Emma Thompson.

Maya Angelou on her mother

In Letter to My Daughter,6 Angelou writes about her mother helping her give birth.

She crawled up on the delivery table with me and had me bend my legs. She put her shoulder against my knee and told me dirty stories. When the pains came she told me the punch line of the stories, and as I laughed, she told me, ‘Bear down.’ When the baby started coming, my little mother jumped off the table, and seeing him emerge she shouted, ‘Here he comes and he had black hair.’ … When the baby was delivered, my mother caught him. She and the other nurses cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket, and she brought him to me. ‘Here, my baby, here’s your beautiful baby.

Douglas Adams on the Rwandan Mountain Gorilla

In 1988, Douglas Adams, beloved creator of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, joined zoologist Mark Carwardine on an excursion around the world to find endangered species.7 Their encounter with a Rwandan mountain gorilla bears mention.

The feeling I had looking at my first silverback gorilla in the world was vertiginous. It was as if there was something I was meant to do, some reaction that was expected of me, and I didn’t know what it was or how to do it. My modern mind was simply saying, ‘Run away!’ but all I could do was stand, trembling, and stare. The right moment for something seemed to slip away and fall into an unbridgeable gulf between us, and the gorilla, meanwhile, seemed to notice that we had been busy photographing its dung and merely stalked off in to the undergrowth.

“Idol” by Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What is presence? Whatever it is, it is not embellished or fancy. It isn’t persona.

Presence is real, surprising, and generous.

Theater star Anna Deavere Smith wrote a wonderfully enlightening book called Letters to a Young Artist encouraging young artists to find their strength and nurture that of others. She defines presence perfectly:8 “Presence means you hold your own space, control the space around you, and sometimes welcome others into it.”

As Deavere Smith abounds with presence, she shall have the last word:

I saw a man in New York City in the late seventies kissing trees on a regular basis. Of course, such an action is bound to attract attention, but presence is not merely the attraction of attention. When he kissed a tree, it took my breath away. He was an older man with white hair. It was his level of commitment that gave him presence.