Walter could have been a painter. His father was a fairly well-known painter in Philadelphia. Walter studied painting at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He traveled in Europe, draining Italy of its inspiration. A style that started out as representational morphed into abstraction. In Italy he worked with an unusual technique involving painting on screens. It was similar to silk screening, but different for the way it captured depth and the play of textures. Perhaps there was some Warhol influence, perhaps it was the best way Walter knew to distinguish himself from his father, the well-known Philadelphia painter. The screens were quite large, unwieldy, definitely not ideal for travel, especially for a relatively penniless art student in a foreign country. Many got left behind in Rome.
It was the ‘70s. A heedless war spilled out from the jungles and into American living rooms. The draft came for Walter in Italy. A physical. A mercifully high number. A reckoning: paint and struggle or find a new path. A hasty move to New Jersey to take a job teaching elementary school along with a deferment. This was just after the riots, Walter explained, referring to the ones in Camden in the early-1970s. White police officers had killed a Hispanic motorist and then, as now, the officers were not charged, at least not at first. They were allowed to remain on the job, which sparked massive riots. The more things change, the more they stay the same it seems. He was a terrible teacher, he admitted, but found he really liked helping kids. Social services appealed to Walter. A master’s degree later, he suddenly had a career as a case worker for children and adolescents.
“I was a good painter,” Walter says. “I was immature, but my work was mature. I could have stuck with it.”
We are on the elliptical at the gym. A month ago I was working out at an hour of the morning acceptable to farmers and irresponsible, young pop stars when a voice startled me out of my exercise trance. “Hi! I’m Walter, what’s your name? I see you in here a lot and I just like to get to know people.” He smiled broadly. He looked to be in his mid-50s with salt and pepper hair. There was a stark friendliness about him that reminded me of a cross between Mr. Rogers and a durpy Labrador Retriever. I almost couldn’t help but respond in kind. Since then, if I happen to be at the gym around that same time in the morning, I board the elliptical and listen to Walter tell me about his life or rather, his life not taken.
This was not the first time he’s talked about his art. In another conversation he told me that he got rid of most of his work years ago. Trashed. Dumped. There was one time, he said, he came up on a listing for one of his works for sale at an auction. He bought it. He was briefly his own patron. In these previous conversations, I usually let him talk without interjecting too much. A creative skill of any kind is a source of enormous sensitivity like an exposed root canal. But I found myself blurting: “You could still do it, though, right? For fun, you know, on the side, yeah?” He laughs, shrugging as the handles of the elliptical pull him along. “Yeah, I suppose so. That stuff never goes away. I was a good painter. My work was mature, it was quite good.”
I’m unhappy with his answer. I’m mildly irritated he didn’t seem to be picking up on my subtext. How could you stop doing something that was such a big part of you, that brought you joy? How could you starve your gift? I thought about what he had said about ditching his screens, making orphans of that work. My stomach roiled. I thought about the dozens of notebooks I’ve accrued over the years and continue to collect, filled with notes, drafts, ideas, bold declarations, embarrassing premises—the slurry of my writing life. I tried to imagine a situation where I would leave them behind or empty them into a recycling bin. I couldn’t, not because they deserve preservation for preservation’s sake, but because I want to capture all the building material that I can for whenever I might use or need it—future tense here. I’m a writer and I will always be a writer; I will always write. I will never find myself on an elliptical telling a stranger, “I could have been a writer.”
The creative arts are not glamorous. It’s 1000% work, Faith, persistence, failure, win, more work, luck, belief, passion, a lot more work. Each person gets to decide for themselves how their art fits into their life: career, hobby, dream, secret obsession, or some combination thereof. There are no wrong paths. There are no bad reasons to create. But there is a violence in denying yourself that pursuit, especially when it fueled you at some point, when it was meaningful to you, when it was part of your way of being in the world.
The way Walter talks about his painting, the work that never got a chance to grow, makes me want to tell him that he might be done with the art, but maybe the art is not done with him. It’s not too late to connect up with a life left at a fork in the road, I am tempted to say, and then I realize how preachy that sounds and, more to the point, how Walter likely already knows this, poignantly, intimately.
Instead, I say, “Yeah, the art never really goes away, does it, which is a lucky thing. I can’t imagine what I’d do without it.” We both smile and nod, letting what’s unsaid settle between us like the forms imprinted on one of Walter’s lost screens.