A couple of weeks back as I was on the two-week countdown to my 20th college reunion, I got a text from my sister that included a painting I had made for my senior honors exhibition at Wake Forest University. I hadn’t seen the piece in 19 years. She had come across it hanging in a local soup kitchen down the street from where I grew up - which is the same house where I live today with my Mom and Wife and Kids.
My sister and niece are having their joint 50th and 16th birthday party in the community room at the parish with donations to benefit the soup kitchen in lieu of gifts. The woman who worked there knew the painting had been done by “a kid from the neighborhood” but didn’t know anything more. She was thrilled to make the personal connection via my sister to me and back to the painting, and I was thrilled it still meant something to someone.
Now, a soup kitchen may seem an odd place to find a piece of art, but the painting was of a homeless man, face obscured, laid out on a park bench in the park across the street from my house - the space that separates my house from that soup kitchen. It was from a series of faceless portraits of people who lived on the streets and often slept in the park. Some of them I knew. Many of them my parents knew. Most of them came and went before their faces, much less their names, were familiar. This man was in the latter category.
In my senior show, I was wrestling with the reality of these faceless, nameless people, and a sense of loss of my own identity and disconnection from my upbringing - especially after four years away, cloistered on a pristine university campus, the opposite of the grittiness that had so defined my neighborhood growing up. In some pieces, I wanted to draw attention to the body, the physical humanity laid out, so often with a face hidden from light or for comfort or perhaps a childlike sense of privacy. Regardless, most of those bodies were faceless. They lacked identity.
I alternated the body portraits in the show with portraits of only faces, specific, with telling eyes and smirks and wrinkles and stories. For these, I didn’t show a body. I only showed the humanity that lives in the eyes and countenance of each of us. These were people. They had identities.
Back to the present: Within a few days of getting that text from my sister, a few days closer to my college reunion, the doorbell rang at my house. As I approached, I scanned the woman in the window trying to see if I recognized her. We still get a lot of doorbell rings for a lot of strange and sundry reasons. As I approached to grab the key, I still wasn’t sure. But then, I locked onto her eyes - eyes I had studied more deeply than she will ever know - eyes that gave meaning to her portrait in my senior show. Eyes that still hung on the wall in my house.
It was Luann. Over 20 years sober with a healthy body that suggested nothing of the toothless, colorless, emaciated addict I had known when I created her portrait. She came in and talked with my Mom and me for a good while, and I introduced my girls as they sat and listened intently.
Life is still tough for Luann. She works hard to help others who have found themselves where she has been. The streets. The drugs. She talked about the day she had given up and found herself on the Shelby Street Bridge ready to jump before a police officer talked her down. My Father had stood on that same bridge with those same inclinations. She talked about my Dad and when she found out about his suicide. She visited and wrote us a note that day. I can’t imagine how such a thing impacts someone who has lived what Luann has lived. To bring it all even closer, she shared that Dad had committed suicide on her birthday, which was the day before his own birthday. She thinks often about him and Mom and their impact on why and how she is still here.
Luann said a lot. She talks rapidly. Passionately. Even feverishly, losing herself and forgetting that my young children were in the room listening curiously and with concern.
So, when she left, we had to debrief. I called everyone back into the living room. We needed to talk about what it means to be addicted to drugs, what it had meant for Luann. We needed to talk about how amazing Luann is and what she has overcome - giving some context to her feverish monologue. We had to explain what Luann meant when she said “Satan lives in East Nashville” and why that is true for her, but that they don’t need to be afraid.
Once I was convinced we had at least given the girls space to ask their questions, I took them into the kitchen and pointed up on the wall to a dry point portrait - scratched into metal with a sharp tool, inked, and printed on paper - of Luann 20+ years and probably 50 pounds ago. Her emaciated face, crevassed and deeply wounded in a way that suggested eternity but no specific age. But, her eyes - once you found them sunk deep in her hollowed out sockets - were still there shimmering. These were the same eyes I met in a new visage, in a new body, in a new life at the front door 23 years later.
Last weekend, when I finally got to campus for my college reunion, I went by the art studios and the first face that I recognized was my former painting instructor. We’ve been in touch here and there over the years, at least enough to feel connected. But, after a pause and a couple of slow moments of recognition of my aging countenance followed by a big hug, I couldn’t wait to tell her of this sequence of events that had curiously led up to my visit. How it was that painting that I hadn’t seen in so long, that portrait that I see every day of that person I hadn’t seen in so long, that art I had wrestled with 20 years before, that work that had helped me explore my story, create my first art show, helped me find my voice through art, start my creative journey - that those experiences that happened in a few undergraduate art studios 20 years ago still mattered deeply to me, and to at least some people I don’t even know about.