Bob and Darwin

Reprinted from the May 15, 1986 edition ofProfitable 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 severe case.

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 hospital cafeteria.

One night Juanetta’s body had had enough and she died quietly. Darwin gathered up his art supplies and finally went home.

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 years later.)