It was a blustery cold morning, and the streets of New York City were empty. A few taxis streaked down Fifth Avenue, their dull yellow metal awash against a palette of grey stone. It was about nine a.m., an overcast Sunday morning in New York City, and I was heading in to exhibit some paintings at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show.
I pulled up alongside the curb, and I paused. The wipers slowly squeaked across the windshield, wiping away a faint mist of rain. Looking out on the sidewalk, I thought of how much work lay in front of me. I would be setting up a large, industrial strength metal tent, affixing walls to three sides, hanging paintings from hooks, arranging my brochures, then praying that I might make a sale. Like many a young, married father, I was at work today, only my career had more in common with deep sea tuna fishermen than with cubicle veals. And such was my difficulty- catch a big fish, or go home empty-handed.
And there she came, all four or five hundred pounds of her. Pushing a shopping cart slowly, spitting and sputtering loudly, the woman was clearly out of her mind. You don’t see crazy people like this on Long Island. Something about our suburban, car culture comfortably confines vagabonds such as her to state institutions far out of sight. But in New York City, there she was, hulking along, falling forward, shrieking. I was repulsed. Her hair was matted, a single mass of shocking white. As she walked past me, I groaned- the smell of her clothes was horrific, suffocating. She shuffled along in slippers, baby step by baby step, and as she slowly made her way along the sidewalk, I wished her gone. She must have heard my wish, because the moment in which I desired her to just disappear, she pushed her shopping cart against the wall. No, good heavens no. Not here. Can’t you pick some other spot? Why here? Why my little sidewalk spot? Of the thousands of miles of streets that zigzag the island of Manhattan, why here? Another artist was parked in front of me, and he hopped out of his car. His face grimaced, he covered his nose, and he pointed angrily at the woman. But try as he may, she was too aloof, and she could not even understand his gestures. He yelled out to the woman “Come on, move along, don’t stop here! My booth is going to be right here. Get outta here!” She slowly slid down against the building, and wiped her nose on her sleeve. She couldn’t talk. She just stared down at the sidewalk.
Angrily, the fellow approached her, but the smell made him recoil. He hopped back into his car, and I could see the silhouette of him picking up his cellphone to his ear. Minutes later, the police arrived.
“Ma’am, we have to ask you to move. NYPD. Get up. You can’t stay here. There is an art show here that’s going to begin in an hour, and you can’t stay here.” The woman just looked at the sidewalk, and rocked her corpulent frame. I watched, still sitting in my truck, and pitied the police officers. They looked like nice enough guys, but they were clearly repulsed enough by the smell of the woman to stand at least ten feet away. They were truly trying to get her to move, without bullying her, but even if they physically tried to pick her up forcibly, they could not have. That woman was there to stay. The cops stayed for twenty minutes or so when their transmitters loudly shrieked with another call, forcing them to continue on uptown.
I was upset. She somehow knew what she was doing. Sane or insane, she was self aware enough to know that she was making a whole block of exhibitors angry. There were eleven or twelve of us, each one mad enough to scream. The longer she stayed, the worse the smell of urine permeated the area. A number of the artists walked down the block to clear their heads, and I sat alone in my truck heavy laden with paintings, and sighed.
And down the road, slowly, walked an older man. By his slow, steady gait, by the angle of his shoulders, you could tell that he was a gentleman. If a life is lived well, if integrity is maintained for decades on end without interruption, even ones manner of standing is somehow suffused with nobility. John Morehouse was the director of the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show, and he was walking in the soft rain, his blue baseball cap pulled over his hair in a vain effort to stay dry. He spotted the woman, and plodded over tenderly towards her. I unrolled my window, but could not hear anything. He was kneeling down, speaking to her, softly, gently. She lifted her head, and looked at him in the eyes. With the warmth of a father to his child, he reached into his pocket, and then pulled out several bills. He counted them out to her. She stared in his eyes with astonishment. And then, slowly, she gathered her clothes, her torn, filthy, discolored rags, and she began the tremendous effort of lifting her heavy frame up to standing position. John helped inasmuch as he could, and once she stood, he asked her if she was alright. He walked alongside of her as she hobbled with her cart towards a bagel shop, where she then disappeared out of sight.
“John, I uh, I saw what just happened. I saw what you did there, I just” I began to stammer, as John walked up to me. I was out of my truck now, and John shook my hand. “Saw what, Kevin?” “John I was in my truck, and I saw that whole thing. You did what the police couldn’t do. You…” John cut me off. “No, she was just someone in need. Mental illness is just that, it is an illness, and the poor soul is obviously suffering. She just wanted breakfast- a bagel and a cup of coffee. Poor soul, it’s not her fault she’s in that condition. She just needs a home, somebody to care for her in her illness. As a society, we really need to care for these people in need.” I could have cried. Though this was my fourth or fifth show, only now did I understand John, only now did I understand the Washington Square Outdoor Exhibition. We artists don’t fit into the established order of things, we have no cubicles, we have no well worn path down which we can walk, no degree which guarantees income- we wish we did have a tried and true formula, but none exists. Here at the Washington Square Show, John’s work as Director is merely the overflow out of the abundance of his heart- he helps those in need. John lifts us up as artists, he helps us find our footing on wobbly legs, and his reward is watching us walk confidently forward on to our career paths. David Leffel, the famous realist painter, found his footing as young man while exhibiting paintings in the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show, on these very sidewalks of New York City. John Traynor, another hero of mine, was too a young artist exhibiting his works, setting up his tent, crystallizing his unique vision, establishing his base of collectors, pouring the foundation of his career. A few decades later, I too was finding my footing, charting a path, building momentum. John Morehouse grabbed my hand, lifted me up, then set me on my way.
That weekend, I sold a few paintings for several thousand dollars a piece, and received several substantial commissions for upcoming works. A year later, John landed my art work on a primetime television news program, on WNBC. A few months after that, a news correspondent for radio station WNYC came to my booth, and I was featured on NPR in a question and smart session with one of the leading gallerists in the world. Through the Washington Square Outdoor Exhibit, I came to be connected to a wide set of avid collectors that ranged from France to Ohio to Fifth Avenue NYC. Many of those collectors would go on to buy more works months after the show, and commission portraits. Two years later, and a number of exhibitions later, John announced his retirement as longtime director of the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit. I let the new director know that, regrettably, I would not be able to make it to the next Washington Square Show, because I now have a school of over thirty students, and many commissions, and several children, and a house, and a very full plate.
Today, John Morehouse came out my studio, and I painted the portrait of one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, and one to whom I owe my art career- without John, New York City would have been deep waters with no fish, and my career would never have even begun.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” – Jesus, from the book of Matthew, chapter 25
John Morehouse, day three in-progress, oil on linen