I woke up, jumped into my truck, and headed out from my house.  A minute down the road, I decided to stop by the town docks and look out at the water for a few minutes.  I had a bit to think about, before my day started.

In the past few weeks, there’s been quite a bit of change in my painting situation.  My studio in Islip has been essentially closed up.  The Islip Presbyterian church has been tremendously generous to me, in allowing me the use of their chapel for two years.  I’ve painted many of my best works there, thanks to their kindness.  But now, large tables have been moved into that space, making work impossible.

I lifted up a prayer to God, as I overlooked the water.  I told him how badly I needed a studio, but the options just seemed so unaffordable.  And yet, my career has never been more exciting, with new opportunities arising everywhere.  Somehow, performance has outstripped facilities, and I’ve been troubled by this disconnect.  I recited the verse, “Commit your way unto the Lord, and he will do this: He will cause all of your plans to succeed.”  You know, there are some days when a slight sigh in the direction of the sky occasions a glorious parting of the celestial spheres, and from on high a voice thunders affirmation.  This was not one of those days.  I hopped in my truck, turned the ignition on, and began my day.

My first stop was in Northport Harbor.  A smiling woman greeted me at the door, and I spent the next hour discussing her ideas on a portrait of her children.  As she spoke, the children’s  laughter filled the house.  I left the house with a good feeling, looking forward to working for her.

But, as I returned to my truck, a quiet returned, and I just dwelt on my studio situation.

My next stop was home.  I was greeted at the door by my own laughing children, and my composed wife.  She had just finished filling out a lengthy, complex application for an artist grant.  She ran to the post office to mail it, the culmination of several days work.  And as I watched her juggle the kids while keeping the paperwork clean, I admired her deeply.

Back in the truck, I continued on to the Riverhead Maximum Security Correctional Facility.  As I rolled down the highway, I began to chew the cud again, and was troubled as I thought about how I was without a studio.

After passing through various checkpoints, security gates, and metal detectors, I was back in jail once more.  But today was different.  Sargent Fisher had called me the week before, to specifically inquire as to whether I might be officially hired by the jail, to be involved in a new, experimental program.  She asked me to teach classical painting to the new bracket of inmates, the “Minor Inmates.”  In short, the jail was taking a proactive effort to keep 16 to 18 year olds from committing serious crimes.  When these boys were arrested for criminal charges related to gang violence, they were not turned back onto the streets, only to commit worse crimes- now, they were admitted as inmates.  This is a really compassionate vision, on behalf of the jail- to help these young men to redirect their lives, towards good.

I stood in front of the group of nine, and was struck by how boyish their looks were.  They were already involved in gangs, and they were just children.

My hands easily found the brushes, mixed the paints, prepared the canvas, and all the while we spoke.  I asked them where they were from, whether they liked painting or not, and whether they liked the Caravaggio book I brought.  They exploded in praise when I brought out the other painting of the older inmates.  They were visibly troubled by the element of despair depicted by one of the inmates in the painting.  They shared their backgrounds, their hopes, their anger.  I selected one young man from the group, grabbed a new, blank canvas, and the nine gathered around me as I began to paint his face.  “Looks nothing like him” laughed one boy.  “Man, that’s tight, that’s good” said another.  I instructed them on painting technique, on light, on form.  Minutes in, they were silent.  And as they watched, they asked me where I grew up, how I came to be a painter, and if I were married or not.  They wanted to know how old I was when I got married, whether I was still married, if I had kids.  They wanted to know how I came to study in Italy, when I was from a corny town like Islandia.  They were just boys, some of whom were looking for direction.

An hour and a half passed like this, and as the correction officer ordered them to exit the room, each young man came up and shook my hand.

Next, the older inmates came in.  I picked up the canvas I’d been working on for a few months, and resumed working on Speedy’s portrait.  Speedy was happy to see me, and we spoke for several hours as he posed.  I brought out the details in his face, from his wrinkled forehead to the grey hairs in his beard.  Speedy was excited, because instead of being transferred to a remote upstate jail, he had been allowed to stay on and serve his sentence at the Riverhead jail, provided he continued to be such a positive influence to other inmates.  All the sheriffs seem to agree that Speedy was showing signs of being weary of jail life, weary of a life of needless strife, and that he wanted to simply undo some of the harm he’d done in this life.  We had a long conversation about reform, about jail, about life.  A sheriff called out to me that it was eight p.m., and that Speedy had to return to his cell.

As I cleaned up, I stared at the two canvases I painted that day.  A young, naive face, a face with so much to learn.  And an old, tired face, but a face that had experienced so much- and possibly, a face that had learned.  I realized that somehow a very familiar image, buried in my subconscious, had emerged- but altered.  I copied this drawing by Da Vinci many times, as a child.

Leonardo da Vinci, il vecchio e il giovane

A few months ago, in the back of my garage, I made a super palette.  Yes, a super palette.  I mounted a three foot wide board on top of a bench, and it rolls on wheels, it has pvc pipes attached to it to store brushes and preserve my paints, it has telescopic legs, it also has a turbocharged roll bar with nitrogen boosters… or umm… well it’s my super palette.  I would call it a super duper palette, but that’s a bit excessive, seeing as I haven’t gotten the built in espresso machine to work yet.  I built it to hold absolutely all of my painting materials, so that I could set up shop and be painting in just seconds, no matter where I am.  When I paint, I want my setup to be like a piano- every time I strike a key, it is in the same spot.  And so, every time I reach for a specific brush- thanks to super palette- it is in the same spot.  This has  helped me paint.

Super Palette

I cleaned up my paints and brushes and stored them away in super palette.  I rolled super palette through the jail, and as I did so, a bunch of the correction officers yelled “good night Kevin” to me.  They smiled at super palette.  They opened doors for me.  They helped me maneuver through the buzzing gates.  Everyone commented on the paintings.

As I rolled super palette to my truck, I realized something.  This is my studio.


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