I’ve been gone from this blog for four years. I will one day write down the profound, terrifying, and unspeakably beautiful story of the years that have transpired. But that is for another time. For now, suffice to say- I’m back.
The widow of my dear, late friend, Allan van Nostrand, is moving today. Mary contacted me a few months ago, and asked me to varnish the portrait I had painted of Allan while he was still alive. And so, in the past week, I touched up the painting of Allan at my studio before she left. This morning, when I went to drop off the painting at her house, Mary was gone on an errand. It was as if a giant plastic spider had wended his way through the house and spun all their belongings up in bubble wrap. There was Allan’s house, the home he built with his hands, his gnarled writing table, his books, his delicately restrained colonial gardens, his brick walkways, his paintings… evidence of this man’s spirit everywhere, but the man gone. As I placed his painting softly against the wall, as I looked into Allan’s gentle face, I understood art, I understood portraiture, and I felt the pain of the passing of time.
BY ROBERT FROST
Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’
The phone rang at about eleven thirty at night. Margaret was folding laundry, and looked over at me. Who is it? I looked at my phone, it was Dimitris. “Hello, Dimitris?” On the other end of the phone, there was the sound of a man’s voice, muffled. I couldn’t make out what was happening. “Dimitris, you okay, hello?” In a pained, scratchy voice, I heard “Yeah, Kev, it’s me. It’s Dimitris.” Opening his mouth to speak must have been like the opening of a dam- he began to sob. I could hear him weeping, like a child. Or maybe not like a child- I’ve only known adults to be able process pain in such a way as to produce a cry of that depth. “Dimitris, you gotta tell me what’s going on.”
He composed himself, and he said, slowly “Kevin, I never told you. I’m a father. Or I was a father. I had a kid when I was real young. He moved to California with his mother. He was beautiful. Seven years old…” He broke into tears again. “But now he’s dead. He died in a car accident.” The phone was silent for a minute. “I’m out here in California, at his funeral. I can’t go on. I can’t do this… Needless to say, Kevin, I won’t be able to come to class tomorrow morning, to pose for the portrait painting students.”
I paused, and prayed that God might give me some wisdom to share, something for him to hold on to, something, anything. Nothing came to mind. “Dimitris, I don’t know what to say, I have nothing to say. I just want to let you know that you are my friend, that I love and care for you. When you come back home, I want to get together, hang out, walk with you through this. But beyond being there for you, I just don’t know what to say.” Dimitris was silent, and was softly crying. “Thanks Kev.” In instances like these, my mind immediately turns towards God, and how much he loves and cares for us. When Jesus walked this earth, he was very close friends with a man by the name of Lazarus. He received word that Lazarus was sick, and several days later, Jesus stood in front of Lazarus’ tomb. There in that tomb lay the dead body of his friend. All of the Jews were gathered around that tomb, weeping, mourning, grieving the loss of Lazarus. And here’s the interesting thing- Jesus knew that God would be raising Lazarus back from the dead, and yet, it is written that “Jesus wept.” If Jesus knew that God would simply raise Lazarus from the dead, then why did Jesus cry? I believe he cried, because those he loved cried. He witnessed their tears, he knew their pain. God loves us, and our pain pains him. Lazarus did, indeed, rise from the dead. But what about when our loved ones pass away, and they do not rise again? Why? I don’t know. But I know that as I shed my tears, as Dimitris shed his tears, that a loving God is up in heaven, and he grieves for us, he shares our pain. God loves us. That’s all I know.
“Dimitris, can I pick you up for class, in a few weeks, when you are ready?” Dimitris responded calmly “Yeah, man, your studio is like some kind of freak healing center or something. I just walk in that place, and all my troubles just melt away. It’s a happy place, with all that classical music you play. I’ll be there.”
Two weeks later, Dimitris walked into the studio. He had a skateboard. He had skated seven or eight miles, just to be in class. He wasn’t himself, he was withdrawn and quiet. I expected a change, at least for a few months, but the expectation didn’t soften the reality. It hurt to see him in such a deep state of mourning. He posed for the painting, and while I painted, several other students painted other projects, other portraits, and the studio hummed along. When he spoke, he cried. When he cried, he walked out of the room to compose himself. My students loved Dimitris, they all fought over whose turn it was to paint him next.
Please join me, this fall, for the Suffolk County Historical Society exhibition, “Facing History.” Opening night is October 10th, six p.m. Click for more details http://suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org/events.html
Dimitris, oil on linen, 20″ x 36″
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
The summer of 2014, a town councilman from Islip called and asked me to help paint a large mural for a nearby community, Central Islip. I grew up in Central Islip, and I was glad to help. So there I was, in the heat of July, roller in hand, painting a huge, 30 ft wide mural of a map of the United States on a concrete surface in Central Islip.
As the painting unfolded, a man came over to volunteer alongside me. His name was Dimitris, and he had the most eclectic features I’d ever seen in a face. his eyes looked Japanese, his skin was dark, his build was caucasian. As we worked away, rolling out state by state, Dimitris began to talk about his troubled childhood in Brooklyn, and how he came to live on Long Island. It pained me to hear his difficulty of transitioning in his early teens from a rough urban area, to a rough suburban area. Although he is younger than me, it seemed Dimitris had lived several lives, he had seen so much, endured so much. Radically different worlds, radically different lives, and Dimitris and I grew up about three miles from eachother.
By the time we got to Kansas, I was tired. I did not feel so glad to be from such a big country, I wished that perhaps we could be painting a map of, say, Lichtenstein. But the conversation was nice, and on we painted. I learned that Dimitris was a really talented artist, his work in the vein of graffiti. Learning that I was an artist, classically trained in Italy, Dimitris was eager to come to my studio. I asked him to pose for a painting. He agreed.
This is day two of the pose. I’m not going to reveal the right hand side of the composition just yet, but I’m eager to continue. I’m thrilled with the progress, so far.
I thought it might interest you to see the final conceptual sketch that I just sent off to California, to the church that is commissioning the painting. The initial sketch, which I featured a couple of weeks ago, was not yet fleshed out with the imaginative element. I spent a couple more hours on this piece, heightening certain elements, subduing others, emboldening certain dark values, rubbing out highlights. Above all, carefully orchestrating the value range of the whole- the figure in the foreground and the background- so as to have one, cohesive work. If I have a decided influence, in my sketches, it would probably be the etchings of Rembrandt- the pitting of the light on the lower hill, against the dark of the sky, and the pitting of the dark of the silhouetted cross against the light of the sky. In literature, they call that a “foil,” which means placing the most evil character against the most virtuous character, so as to heighten the element in both. In painting, we don’t really have such a good term, but when teaching I often say “Light on dark, dark on light.” It’s a silhouette, and a vignette. Somewhat abstract, but study the drawing, and you’ll see this “painterly foil” principle at work everywhere in this piece.
The Pause, graphite on Twinrocker handmade paper, 12″ x 16″
Here is a figure drawing that I did, while teaching class last night at my studio. I don’t really feel the need to say much, except that I really like the feeling of this sketch.
Itzhak Perlman has a wonderful statement concerning teaching. He says “Teaching is really very, very important. I always tell students you should find an opportunity to teach. When you teach others, you teach yourself.” Dragging my silvery 4H pencil across the beautiful handmade paper, capturing the line of the shoulder as it leads to the upper arm, letting the contour closest to the light fade away, all convexities without concavities, expressing the maximum by means of the minimum… I could see things on this night that I could not see five years ago. And I turned and watched my group of dedicated students working steadily in front of their easels, and I listened to the soft whisper of pencil on paper, and there was a deep awareness- teaching others has taught me.
I recently received a nice painting commission from a church in California. The commission is of the scene of the Roman centurion standing before the cross, as Jesus was being crucified.
A friend of mine was sitting in a church service, having been dragged there by some well meaning individual. As my friend sat there, despondently, he looked at all of the people in the church and reflected. He’d spent decades not really believing or disbelieving in anything, just somewhat neutral. And then, he said, he just had an instantaneous awareness that God is real. That was it. Nothing flashy, nothing sensational, just that God was real, and that God was reaching out to him. This friend of mine actually, before he became my friend, was my history teacher in high school. For years of my schooling, I sat under a man for whom God was considered so real as to be his friend. The idea is somewhat absurd, but the writers of the ages, from Moses, to David, to Matthew, to St Augustine, to C.S. Lewis, they all propose the same absurdity- God is knowable, and wants to be known. Paul went so far as to call it foolishness, but wiser than any wisdom this world.
And so, a Roman centurion, some measly, tired, foot soldier looked out at a cross. The sky turned black with clouds, the earth shook in a violent earthquake, and the man on the cross yelled out “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing… It is finished.” And the God who reached down to my history teacher and opened his eyes, the same God reached down and opened the eyes of a Roman soldier.
“When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ ” Matthew 27
I have a bit if work to do, putting in the armour, background, etc. Then I send this drawing off to the church, and pending their approval, I begin painting.
The Gardener, Kevin McEvoy, oil on Belgian linen, 58″ x 34″
I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
of the pleasures of hoeing;
there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.
The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
moist- dark loam-
the pea-root’s home,
a fertile wound perpetually healing
How neatly the green weeds go under!
The blade chops the earth new.
Ignorant the wise boy who
has never rendered thus the world fecunder.
-poem by John Updike
If, years from now, a young man reads this blog, and if that young man has a wife, and children, and a consuming career, and a house, and is in contract on a new house, and… if you, dear young man, think that time is too precious to break for a vacation with your wife and little children, then you are wrong.
We are in Camden, Maine, staying at my sister in law’s home. There is a beautiful meadow that runs down to the beach, and there, on that rocky shore, my sons and my nephews are having the time of their life. Climbing rocks, catching hermit crabs, making snorkels out of straws, laughing.
Here is Eoin, my cool little nephew, relaxing on a towel, on the beach. He was just a boy, a year ago. He’s almost a man now.
Why is it that we parents are forever anxious to see what is round the bend, forever hoping that today will become tomorrow, forever wishing that our kids would grow up healthy and strong, and yet we fail to see the beauty in them now, today, this moment, with the beautiful sun shining on their strong shoulders. Jesus taught us to leave tomorrow in God’s hands, and to bask in the gifts, the joy, that we have today.
Here is my homage to today, to the moment.