December 1, 2014
I set up a dingy little studio in my basement and did my annual self portrait.
Generally speaking I am not one of those “If I didn’t do art I’d kill myself” types—I find painting deeply satisfying, but hardly therapeutic in a clinical sense—but I’ve been pretty down in the dumps lately and doing this did make me feel better. I’ll try and get some more painting done this winter, maybe set up some still lifes.
On the panhandler front, the weather has been mostly miserable for the past few weeks, alternately rainy, snowy and ice cold. I saw Justin and Lauren (“The Lovebirds”) last week and asked how they were doing. They were very excited about moving to Michigan—Lauren’s mom was taking them in and had sent them money for bus tickets. Justin insinuated that they were somehow “pulling a fast one” on Lauren’s mom, but whatever floats your boat and if their self esteem requires them to downplay or trivialize Lauren’s mom’s generosity, I’ll be happy to be grateful to her on their behalf.
November 17, 2014
I went to the Goya show at the MFA the other night. Oh my God, what a brilliant, tortured man. On the plus side, as far as my personal ego goes, I got to get up close to most of the paintings for a good look (museum guards hate me), and his handling of clothes and drapery, I’m happy to report, was clumsy at best. I just don’t think he was that interested in it, an attitude I can completely understand. However, on top of all the other superlatives one could care to bestow on his art, I was especially surprised and impressed by his use and depiction of light. Astonishing, modern and even cinematic in its intensity.
Then I went to the Jamie Wyeth show, and I was eaten up with envy. Not at his artwork; I found that rather banal, technically proficient in the Brown Gravy style but not extraordinary (the same criticism I have of Andrew), nor particularly insightful, but of the apparent ease and leisure to do whatever he wants provided by his famous name. Shit, I wish I owned a private island off the coast of Maine. I wish I could afford to buy Rockwell Kent’s house on Monhegan. Then I could paint eight foot canvases of pumpkins too. Small of me, I know, but that’s how I felt.
October 31, 2014
Maria was eating an apple outside the Coop. She was wearing a hoodie and, incongruously, a mink coat. A gentleman with a Duck Dynasty style beard, Indio, was introduced to me as her husband. “You’re her husband?” I asked. “I take care of her,” he said.
Because of the paucity of shelter caused by the closing of the Long Island Shelter, I asked Indio what their plans were for the winter. “Heading down to Raleigh,” he said. Apparently Raleigh, NC has an enlightened attitude towards the homeless. “Maybe out west.”
I didn’t get a chance to talk with Maria, who didn’t seem to be the talkative type anyway, because as soon as I set up a drummer of the plastic bucket and miscellaneous cooking utensils variety set up behind me and starting banging away. He was quite good and some of it reminded me of gamelan music. After I finished painting I chatted with him a little bit and asked him if he’d ever heard of John Cage. “He wrote a lot of music for prepared piano,” I said. “What’s that?” he asked. I said, “He put little bits of metal, forks and washers, things like that, under the piano strings and then played the piano. Your music reminded me of his a bit.” “You’re shittin’ me!” he cried. “What do they call that kind of music?” “I guess it’s classical, but back in the day it was called ‘Avant Garde.'” He found a John Cage video on his smart phone and started to watch. “His most famous piece is called 4’33,” I said. “The performer comes out and sits in front of the piano for exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds without playing a note.” “No way!” he exclaimed.
October 26, 2014
I buy a Spare Change News from Frank almost every week. He was standing in front of my office last Saturday when I came out and eagerly agreed to pose.
Frank is 63. He told me he had been an artist himself but nearly tore his thumb off when he punched a wall in a fit of rage and he could no longer draw. His brother, he told me, is a well known artist, and indeed he is–a successful comic book penciller when I looked up his name on-line.
Frank was in Viet Nam and spent several years as a POW. We discussed his career options–he had been offered a job handing out the free Metro newspaper, but preferred “making my own hours” as the much-less-lucrative Spare Change vendor. “Plus they check up on you. The manager comes around and makes sure you haven’t just ditched your papers.” Like John, he was intensely interested in and (from what I could see) unwelcomely forthcoming with his compliments for passing women. Frank didn’t like his portrait.
October 13, 2014
Nathan is the son of my good friend, Joey. This is two sittings, which allowed me to bring the painting to a more finished state than my usual.
I set up a mirror so he could watch me paint. He was actually a pretty good model.
I also painted what may be my last panhandler painting of 2014–I’ll try and get out this week but it’s getting cold. I am actually very happy with this painting.
This is John. He volunteered to pose after I was turned down by his buddy–my second rejection of the day. John sipped discreetly from a beer can otherwise hidden behind a trash can, alternated with a clear liquid drunk from a soda bottle in his other hand. He said the cops didn’t bother him; he was too good at hiding his liquor.
John was mostly mumbling to himself, but also enthusiastically appreciating the passing examples of female pulchritude. I said, “I used to work in a grocery store and when a pretty girl walked in we had a code over the intercom: Check out the ice. ‘Check out the ice in aisle three!’ You’re checking out the ice.” “I’ll have some ice,” he answered, “and some Pepsi too.”
September 27, 2014
No new paintings to show, but an update on some issues that have concerned me. As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the panhandlers told me that a dozen homeless had died in 2014. I found that shocking; on top of that I could find no evidence on line about anything: no statistics, no listing or summary of homeless deaths in Cambridge. The other day I spoke to Ken and Frenchie, whom I are more reliable, and they thought the number was closer to half a dozen. One recent death was the murder –murder, actually–of Bob Shea, or he was known,”Jumping” Bob Shea. I asked Bob to pose for me once and he said no. Anyway, I didn’t really know him but it seems he had quite the reputation, living on the streets of Cambridge since 1985. Here are two well-written encomia for Bob:
I also spoke with Justin and Lauren (see April 27th post) yesterday.. They proudly told me they were married, two weeks ago Sunday. Justin filled me in on what they’d been up to. For a while they had been making and trying to sell jewelry, but they’d lost money on the deal and were back to standard cardboard sign panhandling. Both waxed rather indignant on the vagaries of the market, with Justin particularly offended by Etsy’s betrayal of its trust to sell only handmade goods, and then revealed his plan to create a web site to compete with Etsy. I changed the subject and said, “It’s going to be cold soon, I hope you guys are getting a line on some housing.” Justin told me that once Lauren got her Section 8 paperwork, their married status would make finding a place easy. Lauren assured me her sleeping bag was rated to 20 below. I said, “Yeah, you should really start looking for place to stay.” Justin has spent the winter on the streets before but this will be the first time for Lauren.
Here’s the portrait from earlier this year.
September 21, 2014
Here are two recent paintings. I was able to finish the portrait commission of the Norris children a few weeks ago, after three sittings. Here it is:
Dylan, the youngest, was the last to pose. He actually grew a few inches between the start of the painting in early summer and completion in early September.
I also painted another panhandler painting. This is John, or as he prefer to be known, Mars.
Mars took the name Mars because he was, he told me, fascinated by the planet Mars. Mars has a distinct southern accent. He told me he and his brother flipped a coin when it came time to make a decision about where to go after leaving Kentucky, and the decision was Boston. His brother is gone, but Mars loves it here and has spent several years in the Harvard Square homeless community. He left an ex-wife and a daughter down South. Mars had originally gotten work as a tattoo artist, but was told his work was too old-fashioned and not up to Massachusetts standards, and so he ended up on the street.
Gary and Whitney have been hanging out outside my office. They still haven’t found a place, although they seemed to have a few leads. Gary almost gleefully told me about another Harvard Square panhandler who died, a young women I haven’t met who worked mornings at JP Licks. That brings the total of premature deaths I’m aware of to three, although Gary claims there have been at least a dozen. I haven’t been able to find any confirmation of this or statistics on homeless death rates in the Square. It’s been a tough year.