Today, I worked with another artist in the town of Riverhead, a town desperately trying to reinvent itself as an artistic hub, but is caught in the throes of recession. I like the town, it is civilized enough to allow for ethnic foods and art studios, yet run down enough to be accessible and personable. Riverhead is home to a very large hispanic community, many of whom are illegal immigrants. By day, these men and women bike from Riverhead to the Hamptons, where they work long hours at jobs ranging from construction to kitchen work. When I worked in construction, I would be around these guys often, and although I am hesitant to make a generalization, I could say that I never met one of these guys that I didn’t like. They were hard workers, never complained, and were often in higher spirits than anyone else. There’s just some unspoken bond between Irish- American bluecollars, and illegal immigrants- even if they don’t all get along, they understand what it is to work with your hands. Frank McCourt’s book, ‘Tis, paints the best picture of this world.
The problem I had today is that my fellow artist and I didn’t have a model. We knew that there were lots of these hispanic workers, waiting on the street corners for some employment. Earlier that morning, when I grabbed a coffee, a pain shot through me to see these guys waiting on the sidewalk in the cold, hoping that some builder might come pick them up for a day’s work in construction. My friend asked one of these guys if they’d be willing to pose for a portrait, and he quickly agreed.
Juan entered the studio, clearly happy to have found such simple employment. After a few minutes, he and I began talking about the studio, about painting, and about his life. He was from Guatemala, had been here for years, and worked day and night at anything he could put his hands to. Problem was, lately there’s been no work. He’s had nothing to do, and it was killing him to be idle. I couldn’t imagine his pain- I’ve gone crazy in the past, when I’ve had to sit around idle. When I worked construction I was making great money spackling, until I hurt my hand. It was an injury which, the doctors told me, would prevent me from ever working construction again. I was devastated, I had no other way of making money. It took me a long time to find my way, and fortunately I had my family and friends who helped me along. But what about Juan? His face seemed pained, lost.
I suppose I could continue to write for the next hour. I don’t pretend to know Juan, I don’t understand his world, but his face was enough for me, a painter of portraits. Though this drawing was rapidly sketched without any time for polish, I don’t really mind the lack of finish. I know the painting that this drawing has birthed in my mind, and I’m up writing this blog because I’m wide awake tonight, thinking about this painting.