Rapid brush strokes, sharp and precise, describing the shapes and shadows of a scull-faced man with a powerful gaze; shards of blue paint coruscating from his head and shoulders like the atmospheric disturbance his presence sparked from the oxygen around him…
We’d all seen his work in the school’s first-floor gallery, the most striking of which was this self portrait he’d painted a couple of years earlier. We were in our first quarter of art school; he was among the teachers who taught the advanced classes in the final quarters there. We had a long time to wait for this remarkably talented artist to be our teacher.
The man from the painting stood before us many months later: gangly, intense, and energetic, as fine an artist as I’ve ever met. Unable to communicate the first thing he knew about painting; given to shrill temper tantrums at a moment’s notice; deriding one student’s difficulties with the English language and then staring at us in shocked outrage when we objected to that; storming out of the room and slamming the door behind him.
“U.B.I.,” he’d say, looking at our work. “Unity, Balance, and Integrity. That’s why this doesn’t work.” Unable to specify which aspects of it might fail to unify, balance, or integrate. At first I thought it was just me; the single deadbeat failing to learn anything from his class, but I soon heard of a petition that had been circulating with the intent of getting him fired from his position at the school. I didn’t sign it; I loved his work and still hoped to glean something from his class. Instead I managed to endure it, graduated from the school and then walked away.
Twelve years later I was waiting for a bus on Broadway when a homeless man approached me. His clothes and beard were filthy, one of his eyes was red, glazed, and immobile. He wanted to know my opinion of the billboard looming over our heads.
“Pretty bad,” I nodded. He went into a detailed analysis of it, and the name of the painter Renoir came up– he pronounced it REN-wah, with the accent placed on the first syllable, as my old teacher had done. He went on about the billboard, and then about the mishaps of his life; his broken marriage and lost jobs, and somewhere in the middle of it, I realized that this was, in fact, my old and terrible teacher from long ago, finally able to articulate what his one functioning eye could still perceive so clearly.
“You were my teacher,” I said to him. He stared at me, considering. We were standing two blocks away from our old school. “That could be,” he said. I’d never liked this guy, not even for a moment, but his talent made it impossible not to revere him.
My bus pulled up and I shook his hand impulsively; I boarded without saying anything more to him as he watched us pull away.
My delusion is that talent alone can rescue people from their own worst impulses. I was shocked by how vulnerable he’d been to the decay that’s available to anyone who seeks it, but I believe his talent remains, waiting to spread its wings and extract its host from the consequences that had piled up while he was too far away from his easel and brushes. There’s something pure and redemptive about talent, even when it’s hosted by frail and damaged people.
– Nov 13, 2005