Robert and Joyce

I met Robert when he was an inmate in the Philadelphia House of Correction and I was Mennonite Chaplain. He was then transferred to the Phila. Industrial Correctional Center when it opened in 1986. He attended my Bible studies there. He asked me to bring some groceries, a Bible and a few other items to Joyce where she was living, Richard Allen Homes.

robertjoyceWhen the other inmates heard I was going there, they urged me not to go. They assured me it was far too dangerous for one such as me.

I went. I was shocked to find such deplorable conditions. Joyce was living on the couch in a tiny, bug & vermin infested apartment with an older woman who was dying of leukemia. Joyce was there illegally, but she exchanged care for the woman in lieu of rent of couch space. There was a waiting list to get into RAH. The entry hall had been firebombed and never cleaned up.

I dropped off the groceries. We had a short visit. As I was leaving, I saw that several cars in the parking lot had their windows smashed. Another car with its windows smashed out pulled in just then. The next thing I see is a group of tough guys sizing me up. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt; nothing to indicate that I was a minister of any kind. This was the kind of trouble the men at PICC had been worried about. Then, all at once, they all focused just above my head. Then I heard one of them mutter to the others, “Don’t mess with him. He’s a missionary man.” The tallest of them then said, “Have a nice day.” I replied with the same and proceded to my car, hoping to find it with windows intact. They were.

After Robert got out of jail, we had Joyce and him to our house for dinner. There were more grocery runs. Then word came that Joyce had died from AIDS and then word from the street a month later that Robert passed, as well. We knew them less than a year, but they left a mark on our hearts.

They were the first people we knew to die of AIDS. This was several years before World AIDS Day in 1991 and the red ribbon AIDS awareness campaign. I put a little anachronous AIDS ribbon earring in Joyce’s ear in the painting. Once again, these are not accurate likenesses, since we have no photographs, and it has been nearly 30 years. They are likenesses painted out of loving memory.

Ya Gotta Have Art!

art
“Art is the symbol of the two noblest human efforts: to construct and to refrain from destruction.” – Evelyn Waugh

My art has become an obsession. I now have four paths for my art, and it consumes most of my waking hours. This is probably an improvement over thinking about the current election cycle, no?

The first path is decorative; the faux finish subway tiles, including the cartoon characters, etc. The second path is painting portraits to illustrate my book: “Other People’s Children”. These are portraits of people whom I have known who society has labeled throwaways: the homeless, prisoners, etc. The third path is a challenge from my psychologist to explore the abstract. This is a tall order, as I believe in order to do abstract well, one must have a firm grasp on realism. You see my problem.

heidnikThe fourth is meta in that it goes beyond all of these to challenge my own stated belief in the universal pro-life position. I need to paint a portrait of serial killer Gary Heidnik that is done with love and respect, recognizing that he was born with all of the same potential and hope that I was. I was once in his presence and could feel evil emanating from him before I turned to see who it was. Yet, immediately I was struck by the fact he was still alive. There was still hope for change, still potential for good. He was still a fellow human being. We should never go down the rabbit hole to attempt to understand why he did what he did, yet there are those two words of Jesus of Nazaeth that keep calling me up short: “Condemn Not!”

It Must Be Spring!

My postcard from Edge of the Woods Native Plants arrived today announcing their “Nursery & Gardens Opening for the season on April 1st” immediately after I finished painting my giant rendition of a buttonwood bush blossom. Spring is in the air! I don’t get paid to advertise Edge of the Woods. It is one of my favorite places in the world! It is not so much a business as it is a mission to save the planet. It is a business as well, so please go, and buy good, healthy, native plants there.

buttonwoodblossomThis post is really supposed to be about my art. I purchased the buttonwood bush at Edge of the Woods a few years ago. It is in front of our house, the first floor front of which is painted red. This bush has these cool, one inch diameter blossoms. Our bush is hard against a native Virginia Rose. The two of them are covered with six or seven different kinds of bees throughout much of the summer. I painted this blossom on a 16″ diameter canvas. I painted the edge bright yellow, intending to leave it simple and frameless. I think it would make a nice Christmas decoration for the native plant enthusiast. This is as close to abstract as I have gotten with my painting so far.

Click on the image to view it larger. Look at it and tell me what it makes you think about or how it makes you feel. The doctor is in.

Angie

To say that Angie was not a pleasant person, is the kindest euphemism I can muster. Let me just say, when her body was found dead of murder, no one was surprised, and there was a long list of people with possible motive. Yet we considered it a joy to serve her a hot nutritious meal in the park, rain or shine, once a week for about fifteen years. I think she died around 2007.

Angie loved to tease people. That is an understatement; it was more that she liked to torment people. She wanted to tease and provoke until blood was boiling. She positively delighted in making other people angry. She was proud of being a Native American “squaw”. She was always bundled up and totally covered, even when the weather didn’t call for it. She always had some scam going. She would give one of the volunteers some tea or some special lip balm. The next week they were informed they owed her $10 or more; and, by the way, she had the rest of their order now. She didn’t care whether she was picking on children or adults. She could be relentless.

One time I brought venison stew down to the Love Park from a roadkill deer that Alex Smerkanich had picked up while it was still twitching alongside of the 309. A coworker and I butchered it after work. I just left the ribs long. I roasted them and served them as an added bonus to those who wanted them. Many of the people were puzzled as to what kind of animal these bones came from. I let them know it was deer. They asked where it came from. I told them. Angie was off to the races! And she didn’t stop until she died. She was constantly after me about sweeping pigeons off the pavement, running down squirrels, etc., to put roadkill in the soup. It frustrated her that I never got angry with her over this.

angieOne night, the entire McGraw family, all eleven of them, came down in their short bus to help serve. They even brought along their three-legged Great Dane. After we were done serving, they got the dog out for a little social time and walk in the park. Angie saw this dog and exclaimed, “What happened to that poor dog’s leg?!” Sweet little Elisa McGraw, who had never uttered a word down there before, immediately replied, “We put it in the soup!” We were all surprised. It sure shut up Angie.

I have painted a terrible picture of Angie, but I recall tender moments, as well, and times when she apologized with tears and said thank you. It is hard to imagine what torments she must have suffered to have built such terrible defenses for her psyche. We all start life with great potential and aspiration. No one looks at a little baby and envisions a bitter, contentious, homeless lady leaving conflict in her wake. Who and what did this to her? Why did it happen to her and not to me? When we start to ask these questions, we are starting down the path of understanding what Paul of Tarsus was saying when he said we should each look at ourselves as the worst sinner ever. (1 Tim. 15) This puts Jesus words, “Judge not”, to the test. People do what they feel they need to do to cope. We rationalize our own behavior. At the time, in the moment, our behavior, no matter how bizarre or hurtful, always seems rational. And we’ve done some pretty stupid, bizarre and hurtful stuff in our lives, no? Everyone you see is fighting a great battle. They haven’t had the same advantages, perspectives and privileges as we have.

As ornery as Angie was, we still looked forward to seeing her as part of the mix on the nights we would serve. I still remember her gruff laugh. I didn’t mind being the butt of her jokes. I could play along, if it kept her from picking on someone else. I just wasn’t raised to throw people away. And people she was!

Let us be kind.

Pops

I never learned Pops’ name. Everyone just called him Pops. He was happier than any man had a right to be who was living homeless in the parks or under the bridges. I wondered if he was simple minded, truly spiritually disciplined, or  was just born happy. Scientists tell us that people’s happiness centers in their brains develop differently in the womb. At any rate, he took the lessons his mama taught him seriously! If he couldn’t say something nice, he wouldn’t say anything at all. He wasn’t homeless for being lazy. He was always busy. He had a big shopping cart. He used it to collect recyclables to turn in for cash.

He would go around to the renovation and demolition sites and ask for any of the metal they would part with. Many times the union men would have him go in and do some of the particularly dirty work, up in the vents, etc., in exchange for the metal and all the wire. They usually didn’t get much, if anything for the wire, unless it was stripped. Pops would recycle all the aluminum, steel, copper and tin. He would keep the wire. He also snagged cords from the blinds on these jobs. Pops would then painstakingly strip the used copper electrical wire. He would then wind it into crosses. He used the salvaged cord from the blinds to tie necklaces for them. He always wore one and had several more on his person. He was in the habit of giving these cross necklaces away. He would say, “Just trust Jesus” or “Jesus loves you” and offer you a cross. If you told him he had already given him one, no matter, please accept another.

Over the years, Pops offered me four crosses. I passed three of them onto others. Pops eventually did succumb to the dementia that comes with Alzheimer’s. He spent his last year or so living on the street in a large crate with a loving community of four other men living in adjacent shipping crates under a parking ramp bridge. These men looked after him with sensitivity and love rarely seen in nursing homes with all the amenities. They knew just how to deal with him when he was present and when he ‘went off’. It was tragic, yet also beautiful, to witness. Pops was reaping loving care in the roughest of circumstances from the most unlikely caregivers after sowing a lifetime of simple love and cheer.

I have to say, though, to witness this in the USA in 2002, and to have no way to intervene to get him to a properly heated space with proper treatment, because we as a people lack the compassion to muster the political will to provide universal, easy to access healthcare as a basic human right, was heartbreaking.

Cross Pops made for me.
Cross Pops made for me.

When I was chrismated in 1999 in the Orthodox Church, my godfather, Alex Smerkanich, gave me a very nice, shiny, real gold cross, on a gold chain. I lost it, one dark winter night, while serving the homeless at 18th and Vine. So I had Pops cross blessed on the holy table at St. Philip’s and I started wearing that instead; in memory of Pops and for all my homeless brothers and sisters. When I started to tear out the wiring to rewire our house, I saved the old wire. I strip it and I make crosses like Pops did and give them away, for people to remember Pops and his simplicity; to remember all my homeless brothers and sisters; to work to end homelessness; to work for universal healthcare. It’s pro-life!

I painted Pops from memory. I made him younger than I ever saw him to reflect his childlike faith and unsinkable optimism. Yet I included his white hair and long white beard to reflect what a gift of wisdom this was. I made a small cross out of salvaged doorbell wire and fastened it to the canvas on the necklace.

Focal Corner / Steampunking My Bathroom 5

tiles_accentThere is an angled wall which conceals pipes and wires. It is right behind the toilet. It is at the opposite end from the bathroom door. I was trying to figure out how to treat this one foot surface with regard to the faux subway tile painting. I started out just continuing the normal pattern around with the two yellow rows. It looked awkward. Then it hit me. This is just paint. I don’t have to order or cut special tiles. I only need to measure, draw and paint! The first thing I decided was to move the clock onto this wall and paint it with Rustoleum’s “Hammered” galvanized look paint. It is just a $10 clock with a cheesy, faux wood frame. Next, I took the yellow and framed a large section over the toilet with 3″ x 6″ tiles and filled it in with blue and shrimp checkerboard 3″ x 3″ tiles. I hung the clock at an appropriate height on this wall. This freed up the spot where the clock had been for a cartoon tile portraying Woodstock.

A couple of the guys who work at the State Store have been following my progress. I ran into one of them at the grocery store and I told him about the cartoon characters I had added. He asked me if my bathroom would pass true steampunk muster; if Bruce Rosenbaum or Damien McNamara would approve. I replied, probably not. This is just a poor man’s version. Plus the faux, subway tiles, with the cartoon accents, are really more postmodern. So what we have here is Steampunk Postmodern Fusion. My grandchildren like it! It’s bright and cheery. It keeps me from playing on the freeway, as they used to say. Who knew this guy was so design literate? Kudos!

Sienna Mist radiator
Sienna Mist radiator

Next to the toilet is the radiator. I spray painted it with another of Rustoleum’s new paints: Sienna Mist. It was true to its name. The overspray left a fine coating over the entire floor of the bathroom and the lower two feet of the walls all around. Thankfully, most of it came off with just warm water, a rag and elbow grease. This photo doesn’t do it justice. It has a copper or bronze-like metallic sheen.

I’m into the home stretch now. I have to finish the subway tile lining here and there and four or five more cartoons. I have to paint the clawfeet of the tub and perhaps the tank and seat of the toilet. That’s right. I still have to fabricate and hang the copper tubing curtain rod for the window valance, and repaint the crates. No rest for the wicked.

Oscar

My fourth portrait is another one from memory. This time, I am reaching even further back into the dusty recesses of my brain; over 20 years back, to paint my friend, Oscar. My painting is now officially therapy. My doctor prescribed it after she noticed that my blood pressure went down 20 points in 4 minutes just talking about it.

I shared Oscar’s story more than 20 years ago in a TKJ newsletter shortly after he had died. Oscar was in his early 50s. It was 1992. I was 37. We were serving on the sidewalk on the City Hall side of JFK Plaza at that time, more commonly called the Love Park because of the world famous LOVE art in front of the fountain there. We would see Oscar on occasion. Every time he came, he made it a point to seek me out afterward to say how thankful he was for what we did. He would say how special that I am for doing this. I always deflected by saying something like, “I’m just doing what Jesus compels me to do. I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t do it. It is Jesus who loves you.” He would reply, “I don’t believe in any of that god stuff. I just know that you are really special and I am truly grateful. Thank you!”

Oscar
Oscar

At times, we would talk about history or philosophy or the arts. He was well educated. He had had a good paying job at one point. I don’t know if I ever learned how he ended up on the street. He had used cocaine and had suffered a couple of heart attacks as a result. He is among the most civilized people I have ever known, with a twinkle in the eye and a Bohemian side.

Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead, FL, in August of 1992. Church groups were sending clothing and supplies down to the more than 100,000 families whose homes had been destroyed. Word got out that people were having a hard time surviving because it was it slow process to get any cash to buy necessities. So people started tucking cash into the pockets of clothing to short circuit that process, and get money into people’s hands quickly. Several bags of men’s clothing did not fit onto a truck bound for Homestead, so they got re-directed to The King’s Jubilee. They told me about the potential money in the pockets. Between working full-time, leading a Bible study at Graterford prison that afternoon while Bethann made the soup, coordinating with the Pottstown and SC serving sites, somehow searching pockets got missed.

When we gave away the clothing that night, it was a free for all, like always. There was one garment no one seemed to want. It was a corduroy sportcoat with suede elbow patches. Oscar grabbed it and put it on. It fit. It was warm. He said, “I’m not proud. It’s warm. It’s clean.” The others laughed and called him professor. Who knows? Perhaps, that’s what he had been. He disappeared for a couple weeks. When he came back, he told me what happened. Later that night, he checked the pockets of the sportcoat and found a $50 bill. He told me that he wished he could say he did something productive or constructive with it. Alas, he said, he had a good meal at a fancy restaurant and went on a week long bender. He said, “I’m sorry. But it’s been a long time since I had such a good time and could forget about all of this. Thank you. Can you forgive me?”

I told him there was nothing to forgive. He found the money. It was his to do with what he wanted. If he got some relief, well, who am I to judge? (I am weeping as I type this.) His eyes welled up and he thanked me again with a hug. The next time he thanked me for serving all the guys on the street. He said, “I thank God for you, Cranford.” My eyes welled up with tears.

I don’t know if he had found faith, or if he was just being gracious and kind to please me. It was the last time I saw Oscar. He died of a heart attack at 53. I attempted to paint this from memory. It is a poor likeness. The beret and the neck scarf are there. The beard, long, full hair, and brown eyes are there. I tried to convey both his thoughtfulness and the mischief, with the intent stare, the tilt of the head, and the slight smile.

I need to start selling these paintings. We live in a small house. I need to keep painting. I will need more paint. My contact info. is at the bottom of the page to make an offer.  This one is 20″ x 16″. Thanks.

Playing in the Intersection

This post is cross-filed in three categories, because my painting has now crossed the line. Perhaps I should say, I am not coloring inside the lines? It has gone beyond a matter of the technical, “If You Can Read, You Can Cook …” concept, yet encompasses that. My primary care physician has now prescribed my painting as art therapy as part of my heart healing and stroke prevention plan, so it is part of “My Healthcare Journey”. Most importantly to me, and why any of this is happening is that my subjects fall into the third category: “Other People’s Children”.

“Other People’s Children” is a totally different approach to pro-life. It looks at adults whom the world has thrown away and sees the absolute beauty and value the world missed. The term “pro-life” has been hijacked by the anti-abotion mob, who are anything but. I celebrate my friends, true loved ones, whom the so-called “pro-life” crowd cast aside as ‘takers’ because of their disabilities, gender, color or economic standing. I am painting their portraits to go along with their stories. Some are from my weak memory. I have very few photos.

rosalie I tried to capture the essence of Rosalie, a woman I met in the Women’s Detention Facility in 1985. We became lifelong friends. She was irrepressible. She attached herself to me immediately. We were both about 30, just a month apart in age, worlds apart in backgrounds. She died of leukemia on the street in 2008, when we were about 53. This is just a poor cartoon representing her. It really looks nothing like her aside from the freckles, frizzy red hair and big smile,  but does capture some of the emotional impact of her coming toward me for the first time in the House of Corrections.

I miss her.

alexThe next portrait is of Alex Bejleri or “Alex the Albanian”, my dear friend. We have known him since I started to serve on the street in 1988. We helped him learn English so he could get his citizenship. He walked over 5 miles in the snow to visit me in the hospital when I was ill. He calls me when I can’t make it to the street. He no longer needs our service, but he loves my soup. He prays for me and for my family daily. He still believes what they told him on Radio Free Europe, even though he has spent most of the last 28 years in Philadelphia, living on the street. I guess, if you go to jail for something, then escape, give up your homeland, your family ties, move half a world away; it’s hard to come to terms with the reality that it was based on an illusion. You see. He was a ‘political prisoner’ in Albania for listening to American propaganda radio broadcasts. I had to find him a shortwave radio so he could try to tune them in here. I kept trying to explain that America lied to him and they were not allowed to do that here. It was too much for him. Of course, now, they have changed the law. The CIA is now allowed to lie to us “legally” by broadcasting propaganda within the US. I guess Alex should try firing up the shortwave again.

My life is so much richer for knowing him.

These are just two of the hundreds of ‘throwaway’ people whom I have known throughout my life and grown to appreciate, enjoy, and sometimes love. These are the people whom the cold-hearted, falsely self-labeled ‘pro-life’ Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and his ilk call “takers”. If one doesn’t like people, all kinds of people, one isn’t pro-life. People are not interchangeable widgets. Each one of us is a unique, living, breathing, unrepeatable expression of the love, exuberance, joy and persistence of life! Each one of us longs to be and ought to be respected and celebrated. I am attempting, with these feeble cartoons and little articles to do that for some of my lovely brothers and sisters whom most of society would rather not see.

The doctor prescribed it, because she took my blood pressure after I told her about these paintings and it was 20 points lower than before. This is good for my heart. I hope they are good for yours, too.

Line Painting as Entry Drug

DSC02939I started out just painting two different colors on the same wall. Then I stepped it up to include thin white lines to make the colors appear to be rows of tiles. Next thing you know, I’m freehand drawing cartoon characters to paint onto ‘special tiles’. The first three were from physical models I could hold in my hands: Rubber Ducky, Pokey & Gumby. Then my appetites led me to scour the internet for images to draw: Rocky, Bullwinkle, Sylvester, etc. I published these on Facebook, and my public clamoured for more! They were surprised by my talent. My wife was surprised by my modest talent. Quite frankly, I was the most surprised of all. I have never been able to draw!
DSC02937

This was quite intoxicating. I took the next step and graduated into original art. Well, you can be the judge. It’s a cartoon self-portrait. Before condemning me, remember that it was you, my public, who drove me to this! I would not have gone so far down this cartoon art rabbithole without others enabling me and coddling me along the way; not allowing me to hit bottom.DSC02933

Here is the selfie that is the basis of my painting:DSC02960

Here is my 9″x 12″ cartoon selfie:selfcartoon

 

 

 

 

To think, it all started with a seemingly innocent line. Of course, in reality, it goes back to the Rubber Ducky that set me on the path to painting the bathroom to begin with. To think of it, I never would have gotten that Rubber Ducky if the bathroom didn’t have an antique, clawfoot tub.  It was that tub that put its talons into my soul to put me on the path to perditionDSC02936 of cartoon art!DSC02935

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tile_rubberducky