Bill Leet, pencil on bristol paper, 16″ x 10″
A couple of years ago, a fellow artist called me up and asked me to fill in for a class he was unable to teach. I was new to teaching, in that I had never really gone before a large group of art students and taught for a few hours. But it sounded fun, so I said yes. I entered the room, and was struck by the sheer number of students, there must have been twenty of them all packed into one small room. As I made my way around, I eventually arrived at the easel of an older man with a kind face. He was working on a still life painting, and seemed utterly frustrated. I can’t remember the exact exchange between the two of us, but I do remember that, somehow, we ended up talking about Yeats, and a couple other Irish authors. About ten minutes of animated conversation passed, when I realized that I was neglecting the rest of the room.
Well, I was eventually offered a position teaching at the school, and the first student to sign up for the course was that same, kind gentleman. He shook my hand, told me he was excited to work with me, and told me about another Irish author I should look into. I suddenly knew that I would be good friends with Bill, as sometimes will randomly happen in life- you meet a kindred spirit, and it feels as if you’ve known eachother for ages. And, a year passed by like this. Every Monday, I would teach a group of students, and in that group Bill worked on a beautiful copy of a Rembrandt painting.
Then, there was some drama at the school. I wasn’t at all involved, nor was I interested in getting in the middle of the brawl. In fact, I found the whole situation so disheartening, I pulled out of my class for a semester, and I contemplated ending my teaching career early, one year in, and just going back to painting full time. Bill knew what was going on in my head, and sent me an email. He told me how much my teaching had meant to him, and he urged me to continue. I was encouraged by Bill’s letter, and so I resumed teaching the following semester.
Over the course of this time, Bill came to all of my shows- the outdoor shows in New York City, the Salmagundi shows, the painting exhibitions I put that Margaret and I put on in the living room of my home. Everything I put my hand to, Bill was there encouraging me, laughing. He was a real force in giving me momentum for this blog, because he read every line of it, and gave me such enthusiastic feedback. He signed up for my portrait and figure classes this past January, and was excited to hear that I occasionally opted out of teaching, and played the fiddle to my class.
But, the day before my class started, I got a call. Bill told me he was in the hospital, that they had found a large tumor on his lung. He had a very aggressive form of cancer.
I was so sad, I can’t describe. I asked Bill if I could paint his portrait, and he agreed. But when I went over his house, he was so weak that he couldn’t pose. Instead, he just talked gently, smiled, and listened to me play the fiddle. The doctors gave him six months, and he told me he was working on finishing the Rembrandt painting that we had done together in class.
I called him up the next week, and his wife Carol answered, and told me that a complication had arisen, and he had suddenly died. I took a trip to the Met, and stood before a sculpture by Daniel Chester French. The sculpture is of Death, stopping a young artist in the middle of his work. The man is unable to make eye contact with death, because there is a hood draped over her eyes. Death is not a vicious grim reaper, but comes softly, mysteriously, sternly, and bearing poppies, symbolizing eternal sleep. I can’t put words to the power of this piece.
In my little family, all is going very well- my boys are happy, my wife is baking bread, and I am painting away. But, Bill’s passing has brought a sadness to the end of this winter. I started this painting a long time ago, and recently resumed, having put two days work into it. It is a violin whose strings are silenced, a glass of wine that has been drunk, a book whose cover has been closed. This painting is not intended to be morbid, but rather, a celebration of a well lived life, and an acceptance that all things pass. This painting is my way of accepting that life is seasonal, and choosing to see beauty, despite the presence of pain.
Bill’s wife called me up the other day, and said that she had some news to share. Before Bill had passed, one of his last requests was that a memorial fund might be created in his name. He said that painting had given him a new joy in life, a returned childhood joy that had been eclipsed by his long years as a finance lawyer in Manhattan. And, he asked that the fund might be used towards generous purposes, to help those whom I know, in the arts, who might be in need. The fund was to be placed in the stewardship of his wife, his daughter, and myself, to be directed to any artistic causes that we might deem worthy. Initially, I was somewhat reluctant to be a steward- the responsibility is great, and I felt awkward. But his wife assured me that this is what Bill wanted, and he spoke of it with such enthusiasm and certainty. I’m so grateful to Bill, and I’ve accepted my part in the stewardship of the fund.
Today, I headed out east to Riverhead, to teach at the Maximum Security Correctional Facility. I’d been nervous about today for a while, because a pretty significant event was lined up. Newsday, a major newspaper of New York, and specific to Long Island, had gotten word of my teaching classical oil painting at the Riverhead jail. And so, Newsday contacted the jail, and asked to do an in depth article, with photography. I was worried, though, that the prisoners might think that I set this whole thing up as a sort of photo op. I was worried that the inmates might perceive me as objectifying or exploiting them. The heads of the jail spoke to me over the phone, and assured me that everybody knew my motives were sincere, and that everything would be well received by the men.
And so it was! The easels were set up, the Greek statues were placed beside them, and then the inmates filed in. As we discussed the newspaper, every face was lit up with excitement. In fact, they were all so eager to get photographed for the paper, that we had to draw tickets randomly to select a portion of the crowd. And, the reporter for Newsday was, simply put, a very warm and personable person. She sat right in the middle of the prisoners, and talked to them as comfortably as if she were at a family reunion or something. I can’t describe what a good feeling it was. You know, this group is a pretty rare thing. Typically, the gangs members do not coexist- much jail violence is connected to gang warfare. But, when I looked out on the group today, there were many gangs of New York represented… and they were all studying the book of paintings by Sir Anthony van Dyck, the Flemish painter from the Baroque period.
I overheard the reporter speaking to one guy, Speedy. “I gotta be honest wit you, I’m just always so angry. I’m fuckin angry, and this jail makes me wanna fuckin kill people, because they’re always pissin me off. But, when I’m here, when I’m drawing… this is the first sense of calm I’ve had in… first peace… I don’t know how long.”
And so, the inmates drew classical Greek casts, with the sight size technique that was used by John Singer Sargent. Some of them did really nice work. One guy was so frustrated, he laughed and sat down. Another guy hopped up, erased his drawing, and began his own cast drawing. He did a great job. When we had a half hour left in the class, I returned to the drawing that I had begun the other week. The reader of this blog will remember that I was not able to give the true name of the sitter, nor was I able to post his picture. Well, he has signed a release form, allowing his picture and nickname to be publicized. And so, instead of Hades, his name is Speedy. Most everybody in jail goes by a pseudonym- other guys in my class are named Agony, Macho, Ripper. In addition to being really quick and perceptive, he’s well read. He understands a lot about baroque painting, especially about Rembrandt.
The most moving event of the day was the announcement that I was able to make to the group. Although it is not a certain thing, I told them that it was possible that the new painting program was going to receive an undetermined contribution by a private donor. “Who the hell’s gonna give us money to buy paints and brushes?” somebody called out. “There was a wonderful friend of mine, a gifted artist named Bill Leet. I told him about the work I was doing with you guys, and he was very interested. He, sadly, discovered that he had a really aggressive form of cancer, and he passed away the other week. Though I have to meet with others to determine the certainty of the funding, I can say to you with confidence that Bill was very touched by your stories, and wanted to see you guys paint something beautiful. He encouraged me to do this work with you guys.”
After everybody had gone, the Newsday reporter asked me what I saw, when I looked out on these guys. I shared this quote with her. It is by C.S. Lewis, from The Weight of Glory.
“There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations- these are mortal, and their life is to ours as is the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit- immortal horrors or everlasting splendors…”
To Bill, an everlasting splendor.