Saturday, March 21, 2015

"I am a Writer" The Story of the Painting

One of my artistic goals is to do a collection of portraits of local homeless people.  I want to show others how those individuals who may be spotted on our downtown streets can have such interesting stories.  They deserve more attention and respect than they usually receive.

It was July of 2013.  I was taking a week of independent painting with instructor George Glen at the Prince Albert Art Centre.  It was a great opportunity to use this location to find models for portraits by looking out the second floor window at the downtown park below.  I spotted an older man sitting on one of the benches.  Quickly I gathered my notebook, camera, and a prepared model release form and went outside to meet him.

I introduced myself and offered to pay five dollars for a few photos and a little information.  The man immediately agreed.  I had him sign my model release form, getting his name and his signed permission for me to use his image for a potential painting for which I retained copyright.  Legalities out of the way I told him to tell me a bit about himself while I took some impromptu photos.

Augie’s first statement about himself was this: “I am a Writer.”  He went on to tell me that he was writing stories about himself for a book.  That was not an unusual thing to hear – even from someone who declared himself to be relatively homeless.  It was his subsequent descriptions of his life that had me thinking, “Okay, this man is obviously a story teller, and a good one.”  Some of his experiences, such becoming a star boxer and meeting Sugar Ray fit in with my understanding of story tellers, for whom accuracy of fact takes a back seat to fictional embellishment. 

I enjoyed listening to him talk as I photographed and sketched him.  As he described his experiences of residential school I consciously kept my mouth shut, for that is an area I deal with in my work life as a mental health therapist.  Here I was just being an artist.  I already had a notion of just how the experience of separation from family and community and language would have affected the child that he was.  He went on to describe his adult life as a northern guide and naturalist.  He said “The things I know about survival in the bush – those are things that will be important to many other people very soon.  I am writing about that too. The world needs that knowledge.”

Very satisfied with the time spent with Augie, I returned to the studio in the Art Centre and commenced the under-painting for the portrait of this interesting man; his full name, Joseph Augustus Merasty.  Later in the year the painting was enhanced by applying a final layer of paint with a dropper, rather than a brush. 

On its first public display the portrait of Augie was purchased by the Mann Art Gallery for its permanent collection.  Subsequently it was displayed in Saskatoon as a part of a show curated by Michel Boutin.  It was at that show that someone relayed the information about it to the University of Regina publishing company – the one that was in the process of publishing a book of memoirs of Augie Merasty!

I found that out when I got an email from the publisher, Bruce Walsh.  He received a photo of my painting and wanted to know if it could be used in the book and if it was, indeed, Augie Merasty.  I was grateful that I did have the foresight to have had Augie sign the model release, although I was teased a little in the class for being so business-like with street people. Sending him a copy of the document was an easy confirmation.

Perhaps that is the lesson behind this painting.  People that we may see (and most want to avoid) on the streets – particularly those that appear a little shabbier, may contain the most valuable stories for all of us.  We would not know that unless we treat them as rightful citizens and take the time to listen.

The Book  The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir has now been published and available through the University of Regina Press. The link brings another story about the man and his book.

1 comment:

  1. That is an amazing story and reminds us that people are usually not what we see.