To All Artists, Known and Unknown
by Richard Berger,
I remember seeing a threadbare individual sitting in the cafe of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1992. He was very different from the rest of the students and staff personnel. He was old; old in hard years, not with the mellow patina of the well ensconced. He was in the cafe every day I came in, always sitting alone, always smoking and nursing a cup of coffee. Most striking in his appearance was the discrepancy between his physical, and what seemed to be his psychic, circumstances. He was worn, his physical being was worn, his clothes were fragile, almost brittle, garments different from the casually abused garments the students sometimes wore that said, "I don't care," clothing being low in the priority of the things they stood for, for reasons of social demarcation as well as economic urgency. His threadbare garments said, "I do care," not only about preserving the garment for economic reasons, but about the ritual of caring itself, a precious continuity, a ritual of anchorage expressed in the threadbare trousers worn at the seams, white at the line of the upturned cuff, perhaps pressed nightly beneath a mattress; his clothes and his bearing were a diagram of that caring. He was always clean-shaven and fastidious in his appearance.
His flesh was another matter. Too much sun, too much liquor, too many times the senses wide open taking in too much, not enough sleep, not enough food, the reddened eyes drawing another blank at dawn after a tumultuous night; too much life to ever be arrested in likeness. His visage reminded me of some of the portraits by Ivan LeLoraine Albright, an obsessive curmudgeon and astonishing painter who revealed mortality in his subjects by painting every molecule with such individuality that their coherence into a personage isolated the fragility of life by revealing accord in its complexity, evoking and then animating through an infinitely accurate diagramming of a membrane of competing tensions. His visage was just such a diagram.
The complexity produced a radiance about him abetted by the discrepancy between his clothes and his flesh. He seemed the temporary residence for an enduring elsewhere tangent to the worn, but radiant and frail man; and at times, he shone actively with the brilliance of that elsewhere. He was always looking elsewhere, as if he saw things that we didn't, and I experienced one indelible impression of him as he sat at the cafe table with a cigarette smoldering in his lips, warming himself in the morning sun. He suddenly gestured, still sitting at the table; it was a gesture that I imagine an only child would make toward an empty room populated by imaginary friends, a gesture exclaiming, "Look at all my wonderful boys and girls!" Within his gesture was the certainty that these boys and girls constituted a heavenly choir which he was conducting, they bearing him aloft with their song as he guided them. His gestures were the traceries to some paradise via his tattered being, a deliverance beyond comprehension. This went on for a very short time and then he became still, smiling and smoking.
The radiant little man died at the Art Institute. I knew he was homeless and hanging out at the school, but I was unaware that he was living there. He died of exposure over Christmas break, and when he was found beneath a concrete overhang on the Jones Street side of the school, they found a number of sketchbooks in a backpack. He was an artist, a "street artist" as he had described himself to Greg, an employee of the school and one of the few people who had any conversation with him. An unknown artist thrust into our midst his own portable Lascaux, astounding images conceived and executed outside the channels of legitimacy and validation that so many of us need to sustain and guide us, challenging all our notions of the route to authenticity, indicating another depth of being in our midst.
The sketchbooks reveal in obsessive detail the sweetness and mystery of his elsewhere, a realm more compelling for him than our imperfect world, a realm of elsewhere we will only know through him, which seems to welcome us. The last fragment revealed to me in this puzzle that will never be complete was his name, which became known to me only after his death via his signature on a few of his many drawings: Wallace Allen Healey. Greg said that people called him "Wally."
Wally was cremated as John Doe because his family wouldn't or couldn't come from Oregon to verify his identity. Wally's identity, Wally the street artist. What I knew of Wally through his physical being, the posthumous discovery of fragments of his life via others, his images and lastly, his name, represent memorable components in an unusual order of encounter. They are fragments which cohere in spite of their spareness and intermittence, that which is not there being as potent as what is.
I have glimpsed a foreshortened version of such a coherence in several chance observations of how the rooms of people who have been around for a long time can become a summary of their lives. The pared down fragments of Wally's life had no final room in which to reside because he didn't have a home, and yet those surviving fragments of his images and his life cohere somehow to define in summary the sweet elsewhere that was in his images and his being.
I sometimes wonder if these events in their unusual sequence have compelled me to romanticize what might be only a wincing pathos, retroactively endowing it with a magic I hope exists because it is the only bearable reconciliation of Wally's pictures with what there is to know about him. A more remote memory returns in considering this question, by way of Famadou Don Moy, the percussionist with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He performed solo at the Art Institute some years ago; he filled the stage with an enormous array of percussion instruments, big, small, formal, informal, Chinese gongs and hubcaps, a night clerk's bell and a trap drum set among many others. He came slowly to the stage from the back of the auditorium, playing a drum with maracas, the movement of every extremity expressed in sound, and he chanted: "To all great Black musicians, known and unknown."
Known and unknown. It was an invocation to acknowledge ALL those who gave their lives in pursuit of the great human service, the service of the artist, transforming the sometimes unbearable discrepancy between the way things are and the way they ought to be, into something that makes us want to dance.