Insights on business -- and life.
Bob and Darwin
Reprinted from the May 15,
1986 edition of Profitable Craft Merchandising.
by Mike Hartnett (May 2, 2011)
I have two stories about art materials. I'm
telling them in this issue because PCM is devoting so much space to
the nuts and bolts of a successful painting department. The articles
and charts explain everything from the sizes and price ranges of
synthetic brushes to the variety of acrylic paints and the number of
turns promotion-minded retailers can expect.
But the facts, figures, and advice do not
convey the emotional impact a painting can have on the viewer or the
therapeutic value of expressing feelings on canvas. Hence, these
stories, both true.
The first takes place in Chicago on the
Congress Park elevated train in the mid 60's. Barbara, my future
wife, and I were celebrating our college vacation by taking the
train downtown for some last-minute Christmas shopping.
The "El" traveled through some rough, poor
neighborhoods. At Pulaski Street a black teenager entered our car
and sat facing us a few rows away. Barbara and I noticed him but
quickly returned to our only source of interest, each other.
Ten minutes later, the train stopped at Clinton
Street. The young man stood up, walked to our seats, handed us a
sheet of paper, said "Merry Christmas" with a shy smile, and walked
off the train.
On the paper was a drawing, a sketch of Barbara
and me. He signed it, "Bob Hart," at the bottom.
For a bumpy, 10-minute train ride, I think the
sketch is pretty good; he included details, such as Barbara's
earring, and I like the feeling between us that he conveys. But
would an expert be impressed? Probably not.
I really have no idea about the quality of the
sketch or what happened to young Bob Hart from the tough
neighborhood. I don't remember anything else about that day or any
of the presents I received that Christmas.
But that sketch has hung in every apartment and
house Barbara and I have shared for the past 20 years. It's become
such a part of our home that we hardly notice it anymore. When we do,
though, we remember happy times and the spirit of Christmas and
thank young Bob Hart, wherever he is, once again.
Now we jump ahead to the mid 70's where I am
working at a small junior college in central Illinois. One fall
semester I helped a young freshman from a Chicago ghetto, Darwin
Fletcher, find an apartment for him and his pretty young wife, Juanetta, through the local public housing office.
I didn't realize what type of person Darwin was
until the next day when he sat in my waiting room for 45 minutes
just to say thanks for helping him find the apartment.
Darwin was a freshman art major with a partial
scholarship for wrestling. He and Juanetta were quiet, handsome
people obviously deeply in love.
There were also desperately poor; so poor,
their living room had nothing but a single chair bought at a used
furniture store. I never saw Darwin wear anything except a white
T-shirt and blue jeans. That, of course was the uniform of college
students in the mid '70s, but the difference for Darwin, which I
realized when he politely declined to attend a dinner at the house
of the college's president, was that he had nothing else to wear.
For two months Juanetta waited tables in the
local Woolworth's while Darwin attended classes and practiced with
the wrestling team. I saw them occasionally at campus activities –
always close together and smiling. Now that I think of it, they may
have looked similar to a young couple who used to ride the "El"
trains in Chicago.
One day Darwin burst into my office with a
wide, gleaming smile: Juanetta was pregnant.
Darwin was quietly aglow for two months until
Juanetta had to quit her job because of problems with the pregnancy.
Three months later, while Darwin was wrestling
in a tournament in Chicago, a neighbor found Juanetta unconscious on
her living room floor. She was rushed to the hospital in labor.
We contacted the wrestling coach who
immediately drove Darwin to the hospital. I spent the night in the
emergency waiting room with him as he alternated between quiet tears
and shocked silence.
The baby died about 3 am. Juanetta was kept
alive though life support systems. The doctor said the cause was
toxic eclampsia, or some such thing. He said if he worked for a year
in a big city public hospital, he probably would not see such a
Darwin refused to leave the hospital while
Juanetta clung to life. After 48 hours I returned home without him.
Juanetta remained in a coma. Darwin just sat in
the waiting room.
While sitting there one night, Darwin met a
woman whose son had left some painting supplies at home when he
joined the Army. When Darwin told her he was an art major, she
brought the supplies to him the next day. He thanked the woman and
began painting in the waiting room
Students would bring him clothes and I
periodically tried to convince him to return home for some rest. His
mother rode the train from Chicago to talk to him, but he would not
leave Juanetta. He just kept waiting – and painting.
The days stretched into weeks and the weeks
into a month. Darwin kept painting.
Hospital staff members noticed his work and
offered him money for this paintings. I don't know if the doctors
and nurses bought them out of pity or an appreciation of his talent.
I do know he made enough money to buy all of his meals in the
One night Juanetta's body had had enough and
she died quietly. Darwin gathered up his art supplies and finally
The hospital bill was more than $250,000. It
might as well have been $25 million.
I drove some of Darwin's classmates to Chicago
for the funeral and was shocked by Darwin's appearance—a hollow
shell of the smiling young wrestler-artist I had known.
After the burial he told me he was going to
drop out of school. He had missed so many classes, he said, and
anyway, he didn't see much point in school anymore.
Darwin stayed in Chicago after the funeral. I
thought about him often and three years later, when I was writing
for a newspaper, I called his mother trying to find him. She said he
was working part time as a security guard, still trying to pay off
the hospital bill. She said he was just about the same as I had seen
him at the funeral.
She added, "They were just two good, kind
little old kids tying to get ahead."
I never saw Darwin again.
These tubes of paint and sable brushes aren't
simple SKUs we're selling to the public. They're the conveyors of
emotions too strong, too complicated for mere language.
I don't know if Darwin Fletcher and Bob Hart
have continued to paint and sketch. I hope so. Painting helped
Darwin through what was surely the toughest time of his young life.
And as it did for Bob Hart on a train 10 years and 170 miles away,
putting images on paper or canvas allowed him to give form to
feelings he could not express.
And their art work has given me, the viewer,
feelings I can't express.
(Post Script: I googled Darwin, but
could not find him. There are numerous Bob Harts, a singer,
insurance agent, videographer, etc., but no painter. But his drawing
of Barbara and me hangs in my home office to this day, about 45