Sometimes you just have to have been there.
by Katharina Keoughan, Dec. 2017

 

I love talking to strangers. It is the best part of traveling, even if the journey is a few blocks from home. I instantly identified with Kio Stark who wrote, "When you interact with a stranger, you’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive."

These encounters are often a surprise, of limited duration, and most often pleasant. Both parties can show their best side.

I easily ask for directions, talk to shopkeepers, engage telephone receptionists, and smile at all children, even if their mothers, once noticing me, whisk them away.

Basic instincts come to bear. I scan a face for signs that I am welcome. In turn they scan mine to decide if I am of potential danger. I have seldom been rebuffed. Perhaps if we ignored the training of caution and only let our instincts come to play we would be a nicer species. Most of us just want to be acknowledged, noticed, recognized as having value.

This encounter was special.

Mid June even at 7:00 p.m. offered bright daylight as my sister, Christina, and I walked to her car in downtown Milwaukee. We choose a path that would take us past a public sculpture I had noticed from the car window when we drove into the city.

"Don’t touch that!" The voice behind me shouted as my arm stretched out to the sculpture. I flinched, as a child being caught and reprimanded. The voice laughed, then softened and apologized, "I didn’t mean to scare you, I thought it would be funny." Turning, still startled, I saw two twenty-something black men standing on the street corner a few yards from us. One, dressed in dark clothes, distanced himself, smoke in hand. The other, in T-shirt and camouflage pants grinned with a smile that could light up the world. So began what I have now coined, "A Jerome Moment."

 

They offered up that they had had two beers as an excuse for their being forward. I too had had two beers, however I did not need that to engage in conversation. My sister, who knew my propensity, waited to see what I would do. We four began to talk. Only now do I realize that I gave out more information than I collected.

Jerome was full of questions, "Where are you from?" "What do you do?" When Jerome learned I am an artist, he tilted his head and said, "How much do you charge to paint a body?" My thoughts immediately interpreted body as nude figure, although I suspect he meant portrait. "I have to pay people to pose for me." As I said this he took off his t-shirt. With "nude" still in my head I instantly panicked, shouting, "You’re not going to take your clothes off, are you?" With t-shirt in hand his face lit up, eyes twinkled, and smiling sheepishly, he said, "Nooooo, just my shirt." What he revealed was a beautiful, gleaming bronze muscled chest. My mind traveled back to the nudes I had painted -- none had been so sculptured.

"If you painted me, I would be somebody!" Jerome declared.

"But Jerome, you already are somebody," was my loud and immediate response. Knowing I had my camera in my purse I added, "I will take your picture and perhaps I will do a painting of you."

If you had been driving by, you would have seen a white middle-aged woman taking photos of a young black man, with his shirt off, posing with no inhibitions as children do when a camera is pointed at them. We were in the moment. We felt alive. As we began our goodbyes, Christina took down his email and mobile number. Perhaps Jerome too realized how serendipitous the meeting was. He asked if we did not want to come with them, "We will buy you chicken wings!" was the enticement. It was an offer filled with sincerity, which we decided not to take.

By the time I arrived back in Maine, I had already decided to paint Jerome’s portrait. Perhaps canvas and paint could make him feel that he is somebody. How could I shun such responsibility? Besides I had been looking for a project to get me back in the studio.

 

I admire the work of Kehinde Wiley and challenged myself to paint Jerome’s portrait in Wiley’s style. Wiley portrays young black men and woman in noble poses, surrounded by entwining flowers. The description cannot do justice to the effect. My portrait of Jerome was an absorbing labor, which brought me great satisfaction. Although I wanted Jerome to have the portrait, I did not need an audience. Having painted it was enough.

The mobile phone number did not take messages. The emails were not answered. After two months I accepted that the story would not end as I had hoped, then Christina made contact through LinkedIn. Jerome sent an address I could mail the portrait to. It was his grandfather’s, as he was presently homeless. I mailed the package and waited. A month later an email arrived.

He was thrilled with the painting. He was currently living with his sister and had just gotten a job. "You made me believe there is good in people."

I would like to think that the portrait helped him believe there is good in him, and that he is somebody.

Look for updates in this series of glimpses
into my creative life.

 

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