rembrandt, a nerd from islandia, and the gangs of new york
“Okay, Kevin, just remember. These guys are rough. They’re all gang members, they’ve committed the worst crimes. Homicide, rape, you name it. They are not respectful, they will interrupt you, make fun of you, whatever, but just don’t take it personally.” The corrections officer walked off, and gave me a warm pat on the shoulder. I had come through multiple security checkpoints, barbed wire walls, buzzing jail gates, metal detectors, more buzzing jail gates, and now stood in the back of a small auditorium. In the front of the auditorium were twelve inmates, talking quietly. A guard stood waiting at the back, his hands clasped in front, his eyes riveted on the prisoners.
I walked to the front of the room, and all of their heads turned. Most everyone in the room was in their twenties, though one fellow was in his sixties. They continued to talk, but were watching my every move. Against the wall, I set up my painting of Dan Acosta, a Greek portrait bust in plaster, and a few drawings.
“So, I can see that you’ve been given a bit of information on the art program, a painting course. It’s actually painting in the Renaissance tradition, where you begin by copying Greek statues, and end by painting the portrait. But, before I go on, let me introduce myself. My name is Kevin McEvoy. And, you may think me to be some artsy type of guy who you’ve heard spent a few years studying painting in Italy, but I just gotta tell you, there’s more to me than that. I’m actually pretty hardcore. I grew up in one of the roughest ghettos on Long Island…” and I paused. I let their quizzical gazes study me for a moment. “I grew up in Islandia, the roughest part of Central Islip.” The room exploded in laughter, they screamed out. They all got my sarcasm, and knew that I was making fun of myself. They knew that I knew that Islandia was a scrawny little town that pretended to be tough, pretended to be a part of the rough gang scene in Central Islip. In fact, Islandia is a pleasant, rolling little strip of suburbia, dotted with horsefarms. They screamed out “Man, you grew up in Islandia? You wuss, hah, oh that’s great. You one of them cheesy little nerds from Islandia?” I responded with a “Yup, I’m a nerd, and I am here today to teach you how to paint in the classical tradition, but how to paint your world.” The room was silent. Nobody moved. “‘If you learn how to paint, then you can paint your world.”
I explained how the Greek tradition of sculpture is the basis for all painting. If you can understand some of the basic principles of turning the three dimensions of sculpture into the two dimensions of drawing, then you can draw. If you can draw, then you can paint. If you understand these basic ideas of order, symmetry, asymmetry, value, gradients, light, shadow, pattern, texture, focus, mystery, clarity, color harmonies… then you can depict the world we live in. Which brought me to ask the inmates what kind of world they lived in. They exploded in conversation, each one having something to say about their lives. “Look up the paper. I was in the front a month ago” said a young guy who didn’t look more than nineteen. Another guy talked about his grandmother, and how she always gave him coloring books, and how she always praised his coloring. Then he talked about how she gave him pencils, and praised his drawings. “Drawing’s easy. But painting, shit man, that’s hard shit. Everything just gets all messed up, the second you start messing round with that smeary shit.” I loved that description, I was laughing so hard, because it’s so true. The act of putting paint down on the canvas is, in and of itself, a frustration- you have to learn how paint moves. I reassured him, and told him that painting would be a ways off, that we would begin with drawing, and that he could progress onto painting after learning how to draw well. He smiled “You’re gonna be around for a while, then?” “Yeah. As long as you guys are interested.” The room exploded, again, in a chorus of “Man, you gotta come back right away.”
One guy called out from the other side of the room “Kevin, I’m in for thirty five years to life. And, I got nothin to do for all those years. Teach me how to paint, man. I like that Greek sculpture, but it’s kinda gay lookin. Is that a guy or a girl, that sculpture? Anyway, I like your painting better- the fat bitch, with the guitar. Man, that’s awesome. That’s sick. You’re a soul capturer, right? That’s what you do, you paint eyes, and you capture the soul.” I paused in amazement, to hear this gang member describe portrait painting. He continued on “You see people. You see their pain, mixed with other stuff. It’s their eyes. Can you paint me? If you’re so good at painting eyes, what do you think of the pain that you see in my eyes? I killed somebody, now I’m in jail for the rest of my life.” His friend joined the conversation “Man, you can’t do a painting of him, he’s as ugly as shit. Look at his face, even his mother doesn’t love him. Now me, I’m hot shit man, look at these guns.” As he spoke, everyone in the room laughed really hard. It was pretty funny.
The conversation went on like this for a half hour or so. A door opened up, and a sheriff entered. “Time for the next group, please vacate the chapel.” The guys all jumped out of their chairs, and ran over to me. “Please do this man. I love to draw. You don’t know how much this means to me.” “Come back soon, thanks so much.” “You gotta come back.” “I love painting so much, I always have. Please come back.” They each shook my hand. They told me their names, one by one. The last guy to come up to me was an older fellow, about sixty or so. “Kevin, I love Rembrandt. Thanks for bringing that book in on him. He’s always been my favorite painter. I don’t like any of that gay European fluffy drapery curtain shit. I like Rembrandt. Kevin, I’m gonna be gettin out of here in a few months, and I just gotta ask you- could you ever do a portrait of me when I’m free? I’ve got a beautiful motorcycle waiting for me, it’s black and silver. I’d love to have my portrait done on that bike.” I told him that I would definitely do that portrait. He smiled, and walked off.
As I left the auditorium, I found my thoughts swimming around in my head. Exiting back through the security checkpoints, I retrieved my wallet, belt, and keys from a locker. Sergeant White, the sergeant in charge of inmate rehabilitation, walked me out of the door. She smoked a cigarette as we stood beneath an immense wall of barbed wire. As we talked, I was so impressed by her hopes for these men. For her, this was more than a job, it was about changing a mindset. She said that gang members were a different breed of criminal. Most of these men grew up in the worst poverty imaginable, their mothers were crack addicts, their fathers were in prison. They joined gangs to find some sort of family structure. They had never known any form of encouragement, any form of work ethic, anything. She quietly conveyed her hopes for a painting program that could teach the men how to work hard, how to learn, how to acquire a something. She never spoke it in such lofty wording, but if I can infer it, she hoped that painting would teach the men how to understand beauty.