Part of what kept me in France long after my illusions were dashed and my pockets frighteningly empty was my desire not to give my family the satisfaction of being proven right. I’d learned one could not simply survive on a dream, and even artists must sometimes accept less than desirable commissions. But I was not giving up on my own creative vision, merely taking a temporary side step.
I wished I’d brought my sketchbook to the wild garden so I could capture the ancient crab apple tree clinging to the last leaves of faded summer. It made a poignant statement about human nature, for didn’t we all clutch at life until our very last breath? A movement behind a nearby bush accompanied by a rattle of branches drew my attention from musing on life and death.
“Who’s there?” I called, heartbeats ramping up at the unexpected intrusion. I calmed myself with the thought it was probably a gardener. God knew the place could use some pruning.
The hider behind the bush went utterly still. I moved cautiously as if tracking a deer as I edged around the shrubbery. When I glimpsed a gray jacket through red leaves, I had a fairly good idea who was spying on me.
“Mr. Phineas Abernathy, I presume.” I misquoted explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
The figure behind the bush did not reply, but a burst of laughter escaped him. He understood my quote, so he was not weak brained as his sister suggested, but he was clearly shy. I would make it my mission to entice him out into the open.
“My name is Theodore Dandridge. I’ve been hired to paint your sister Rose’s portrait. I believe you already know that.” I paused, and when Abernathy didn’t respond, I added, “Won’t you show me around your garden, and we can have a chat?”
“Not… No!” The mutter was followed by the clearing of a throat and stronger negation. “I’d rather not. But I will talk with you from here.”
“All right. I noticed you watching me paint earlier. Are you interested in art?”
“Yes. Very much. I wish I could see your work.”
“I could bring my sample portfolio to your quarters later,” I offered. “Or, if you don’t wish to invite me up, I could send it along with your servant whom I met earlier. What’s his name?”
“Ledbetter. Perhaps I’ll send him to you later in the day.”
“Do you draw or paint?” I asked.
“Oh no. I scribble a bit, but nothing worth looking at.” He shifted farther behind the bush, withdrawing his shoulder so all I could see was a bit of sleeve.
“Nevertheless, I’d like to see your work as well,” I said. “I’m interested in every type of art, from the great masters to children’s drawings. Art is an expression of the soul. Nothing is unworthy of interest and admiration.”
“I’m not an artist.”
“Of course you are. Everyone who puts so much as a mark on paper or molds a snowman out of his mashed potatoes is an artist.”
My bit of whimsy prompted another laugh from the lurker. He eased into his former position, and now I could see a bit of his face3. Maybe, in time, I could cajole him all the way out of the bushes.
“The desire to create is universal. Many people suppress the artistic side of their nature because they don’t believe it is ‘good enough’ for others to see—or hear, if they are musically inclined. Perhaps they’ve been told the arts are frivolous, a waste of time. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Without creative expression, be it music, literature, art, acting, or what have you, we are less than our full selves.” I only half paid attention to my words, though I truly believed them. My companion was visibly relaxing, taking a less rigid stance as he listened.
“Sharing even primitive talent is a beautiful thing,” I assured him.
“I could never be so bold,” Phineas replied. “I don’t want anyone to see my doodlings.”
“Begin by sharing your drawings with me. I will give you honest suggestions for improvement, but not a harsh critique. I can teach you some technique, although personal expression is about so much more than that.”
“I would like to know how to draw a face that looks like a face and not a lumpy squash.”
“Shall I give you lessons while I’m here? In the evenings, after I’m finished working on Miss Rose’s portrait.”
“Oh! I don’t know…” Again he withdrew into the scarlet leaves.
I held my breath and waited. I’d made the offer and could do no more.
“Yes. I would like that.” He spoke with sudden determination. “I would like it very much. Might you come to my rooms after supper tonight?”
“Absolutely. Now that’s decided, perhaps we ought to meet face-to-face.” I took a step toward him.
“No. I’m not ready,” he said breathlessly. “Tonight will be soon enough. When it’s a bit…darker.”
“As you wish,” I replied mildly. “Still, you can’t hide away in the shadows forever, my friend.”
“You might not say so after you’ve seen me, Mr. Dandridge. I am more akin to a gargoyle than Michelangelo’s David.”
An arrow pierced my heart at his matter-of-fact tone. Someone had convinced the poor man he was hideous so he identified himself in no other way. As an unusual child, I’d certainly experienced my share of slurs, so I understood the powerful effect words held. I felt an immediate kinship and desire to help Abernathy realize his difference was only one part of his being.