Lost art

Lost artBy Pat Nelson
For “The Daily News,” Longview, WA
Reprinted with permission

Fourteen years ago, a drifter named John, a talented artist, agreed to create a pastel drawing of two children believed to be from Kalama or Woodland, but John left the area before the family received the finished artwork.

I don’t know how this family met John. It’s likely that they saw him sketching on a napkin in an area restaurant. He often went into a restaurant, ordered coffee, and sat for hours creating elaborate artwork on napkins. Often, customers admired his work, and sometimes they paid him to sketch something for them. These jobs gave him enough money to move on to the next stop in his never-ending journey. He never stayed in one place very long.

My husband met John more than twenty years ago when he stopped  by his store in Longview to ask if there was anything he could paint. John agreed to paint signs on the building. That probably wasn’t the kind of painting he had in mind, but he needed money. When he finished the job, he moved on.

For the next six years, John stopped by every year or two when he was in the area, and my husband always found a little work for him. When we moved to Vancouver and opened a store there, John located us and painted our building. We took him to lunch one day, and I can still remember a man in the restaurant saying, “Oh, you’re the guy who’s painting that building across the street.” Bright yellow blobs of paint covered John’s shirt, pants, and worn shoes.

By then, we had seen some of John’s sketches, and we realized he was a very bright and talented artist by choice, and a building painter only by necessity.

 My husband, who had never met or even seen photos of his Indian grandfather, but had been told he looked like him, asked John to capture on canvas what he thought his grandfather would have looked like, dressed in furs.  After a few days of work, John showed us the unfinished picture; it was incredible, but he kept working on it until he no longer liked it, and he sold it to someone in a restaurant for next to nothing. He started again, and then once more. Finally, he showed us two pictures: one that he was happy with, and another that he considered garbage. We loved both. Today, framed and matted, they hang side-by-side in our home. We enjoy looking for the similarities and differences in the two pictures, and wondering if my husband’s grandfather really did look like the man in one of the pictures.

I was so impressed with the Indian pictures that after my daughter was married in 1993, I asked John to do a pastel portrait from her wedding picture. However, after we saw the partially-finished picture once, John left and did not return.

I thought about that wedding portrait, and was sad that it had never been finished. I didn’t expect to ever see it again. Then, one day I received a phone call from a lady in Astoria. “Did you ask a man named John to do a wedding picture of your daughter?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, I have it here, and you’re welcome to pick it up. John left the area, and he wanted me to get this picture to you.”

 We drove to Astoria and picked up the beautiful wedding portrait. That’s when we found out John had left another undelivered picture, a pastel of two children.

“I’ll send this one with you too,” she said. “Maybe you can find out who it belongs to. John told me it’s for someone he met around Kalama or Woodland.”

 The children in the picture had probably been in a wedding. The dark-haired boy wore a white hat and tux, and the little blonde girl, not even reaching the boy’s shoulder, was dressed in frilly white. The boy stood proudly and the little girl, clasping her hands together, looked shy.

These kids would be young adults now. Their family probably gave up long ago on ever receiving the picture. Maybe with the help of The Daily News, this won’t remain “lost art.”

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Filed under art, Kalama, The Daily News, Woodland

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