This painting is the first in the series of my former students at the academy in the inner city of Miami where I taught for 3 incredibly intense years. The series started at a low point after the closure of the school. I say it “started,” but maybe “happened” would be more accurate. It was the way it came about: without forethought, without premeditation, without any prior design whatsoever. It suddenly flowed from my hands, as if it had always been below my skin, coursing invisibly, until something caused it to appear. Creating this series was something like bleeding art from one’s fingertips.
I'd been bearing the weight of a depression for weeks. It was October and the relief of a summer break from school had long worn off. I was rejuvenated and ready for classes again. But there were no classes. Because there was no school. It was an experience of disorienting disconnection. And the resulting gap had made me feel wrong, all wrong. Which had led to anxiousness, which had become depression. It was a hollow crawly sensation, like ants inside a bottle. Not only was I out of step with the greater world, but worse, I was out of step with the workings of my personal world.
Yes, other schools were holding classes. In the city, the state, and beyond, everywhere school was in session. But I had no interest in other schools. I was only interested in mine. My students couldn’t so easily be substituted with others, any more than a passerby can take the place of an old friend.
Unable to endure it any longer, on a day when schools city-wide had no classes, I invited a couple of former students to my home to make art and talk about their new lives in their new schools. These were older students, two of several with whom I’d formed very open and candid relationships, so we spoke freely about things; and for a few sweet hours my connection was reestablished and again I felt in step with the world. My depression abated. But no sooner had they gone home, alone and disconnected once more, my blues returned. And worse than ever. Enjoying what I once had now made going without far more difficult.
Realization set in and it was hard, very hard. It was like a concrete slab around the heart. I went into the living quarters of my home in the pool cabana of the old Al Capone home in Miami Beach and collapsed onto the futon in despair. And as I lay there sinking lower, lower, I discovered I had visitors again. But they weren’t outside my door. They were in my head. And they wanted out.
It was a haunting. Faces from my dead school flashed behind my eyes, repeating my name as they passed as students do to teachers in the hallways. I tried ignoring them, but it didn’t work. The faces were too close and the voices too loud. So I tried accepting them, making light of them. But that didn’t work, either. These ghosts demanded my full attention. So I resorted to drink and soon had enough alcohol in me to do the job under normal conditions, but that didn’t work, either. I was hopelessly sober, so intense was this despair that it burned as a fever. So I just continued lying there, burning into a state of utter resignation, sprawled boneless and jelly-like on a bed of mental flames, letting the fire consume me, turn me to ashes. And for a moment I understood what it is to die. And that understanding was thorough and complete. And peaceful. Then, to my surprise, I was overwhelmed by a phoenix sensation. Suddenly and inexplicably, I was possessed by the need to rise.
I marched down the spiral stairs and further into the great empty pool below the cabana. I spread a piece of canvas I’d cut from the drop cloth I used as a commercial painter of apartments on South Beach—work I’d always relied on in times of retreat, in times of escape. I then rolled white wall paint onto the canvas and while it dried, I paced the pebbled deck around the pool, looking with intense concentration at the shape of perfect white on the mottled gray bottom.
Eyes stared back at me. Not the realistic image of eyes, but the emotional impression eyes leave on you. Especially eyes expressing pain. The gaze of heartbreak. This was something I’d seen often enough while teaching in the most notorious neighborhood of the city, hot hard streets where the pastel innocence of childhood was spoiled by the glaring hardships of premature adulthood. And these eyes followed me wherever I went. Around the sides of the pool and its ends, they would not stop following me as I paced and paced.
The empty pool worked like an oven. The cement walls radiated solar heat. Soon it baked dry the coated canvas and I went to the cabana and from supplies left over from class work, I took a pencil and an eraser, tubes of acrylic paint, small brushes, large brushes, plastic picnic plates for palettes, rags, jars of water, then returned with them to the pool.
With pencil and eraser, I stood over the canvas. And for reasons I still don’t understand, the face of a specific former student now graced the white space by some means of projection. It was Joseph. And he wanted out of my head.
Straddling the canvas, my hand busily went to work making his contours. Within minutes I was perspiring so freely that sweat dripped from my chin and streamed down my arms. It was late afternoon and sunny, and though nearby palm trees were beginning to comb the pool with shade, it was still well over a hundred degrees in there. When I had completed the basic shape of his head and the layout of his face, my attention was drawn to the drops of sweat. They had become so numerous that they were touching, then joining. These little puddles had ragged edges due to the roughness of the cloth, which was further roughened by the rolled application of wall paint, which caused tiny dimples to form over the weave. It reminded me of rain water on cracked concrete. It reminded me of Overtown. It seemed Joseph was telling me how to paint him.
He'd been a student of mine for only 1 year, but I’d come to understand him well. He was a young man prone to extremes. He was either good or he was bad. He was either quiet or loud, helpful or disruptive, dutiful or delinquent, peaceful or violent. But at no point in my relationship with him did I believe he was truly bad, etc. No, he was just a good kid having a tough year. He was a boy becoming a man. And during this pivotal period, if a boy hasn’t positive associations with manhood there will be trouble.
His sister and his cousin also attended our school. From the 3 of them I was able to piece together a picture of their family life and its tensions. Joseph’s father didn’t live with him. Indeed, he called another city some distance away his home. I’d learned that parental estrangement was a prime motivating factor in student misbehavior. What was more, there was a man in Joseph’s life who'd assumed the role of elder, but he hadn’t won Joseph’s respect. He hadn’t paid his dues. He'd only been around a short time, and probably wouldn’t last long enough to fully pay them. Consequently, Joseph rebelled against him. His home life became agitated and mercurial. Blowups were common.
Me, a man in his life almost every day, a man as regular as a father, was drawn into this outer conflict and inner turmoil. Joseph both longed to please me and loved to make me angry. And he was a skilled manipulator. He could draw me in, bring me close, then strike out. On 1 occasion he got the better of me. I lost my cool and he nearly had the kind of attention he was used to getting from adult men—violence. But his eyes betrayed him. They were large, almost disproportional, and through those huge windows I could see his soul and the truth about him. Joseph was good.
When the palm shadows had stretched across the pool, up the side, and onto the yard, it was done. I stood back and looked and was satisfied I’d put that truth on the canvas. I was so exhausted that I just left everything there and trudged up the steps in the shallow end to the pool deck, then to the cabana and up the spiral stairs to the living quarters comfortably cooled by a window air-conditioner. I entered with a sigh and spread a beach towel over the futon and fell onto it. Lying there, drifting to sleep, I realized I wasn’t haunted anymore. I heard no voices, saw no parade of faces. There was only the portrait of Joseph. And it was good.
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