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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A saga of three young Texans


Some of you may have read the beginning of this story on my website. But recently it had a very special conclusion and I thought it would be great to share the whole story…

Last year Hurricane Ike roared through the Gulf Coast and devastated many homes. It spread destruction and heartbreak all around Baytown, Texas, and yet in the process, brought me and an old customer back together. Take note of how many “coincidences” had to happen for all of this story to have fallen together, like Creation itself. God even creates order out of the chaos of a hurricane…

Jan only had a few hours to make critical choices about what would go and what would stay. Another terrible Texas hurricane was on the way, and after the destruction from hurricanes Katrina and Rita the year before, she and her husband decided not to weather the storm, but vacate and take what they could with them. Only so much would be able to go. She snatched up those essential things that occurred to her and stuffed her car full. Then she looked on the wall at one of her prized possessions. A large picture with a mammoth rustic frame pleaded for passage. It was a print of a little girl playing with her kitten and ragdoll, deep in pioneer Texas Hill Country. The little girl’s eyes had always had a soulful appeal to her, and now more than ever.

She took the large limited edition art piece down and rushed around looking of a place that might hold it above flood level, somewhere where the “Three Young Texans” might survive, in case of a direct hit. She had owned and loved her signed copy of a watercolor by Russell Cushman for nearly thirty years, and the babies in the painting were like her children. They had to be saved. Desperately, she placed them on her bed, right where she normally slept, and covered them with blankets, pillows, anything that might protect them. Then it was time to go. She took one last look at her home, and they rushed away.

The storm did hit, with devastating force. Jan told herself, “We are alive, and that is all that matters,” but as they returned to their home days later, the heartbreak began to unveil itself, one painful loss after another. Some of the house was still in tact, but in her bedroom, was a giant oak tree. A limb had thrust right through the picture, shattering the glass, and damaging the print beyond repair. The frame was almost unscratched. She told herself it was a minor loss, compared to what might have happened to them if they had hunkered down during the storm, and she had been laying there instead of the picture. Pictures can be replaced. It was as if the Three Young Texans had died in her place.

She did not have the heart to throw the image away, even after the insurance had been collected and their life had been reconstructed. She began to look on the Internet for the artist, to see if he was still around. Perhaps he might have another copy of the print, after thirty years, but that was not likely. She found some leads, but they never lead to the artist himself. As with much of the information on the Internet, it was mostly obsolete. It was obvious the artist was still active by all the listings, but she could find no website. Months passed, and occasionally she would do a search. Nothing new popped up. She began to think about giving up, and settling for something else. But she knew that nothing else would do. These were her babies for thirty years…

I painted Three Young Texans in 1979, while Linda and I were living in Altair, Texas. Just married three years, she had taken a job nearby at the Gulf Coast community of Eagle Lake, and I went about my art career, and took odd jobs as a rice truck hauler and goose hunting guide. This watercolor was one of my very first “major pieces.” Because the model for the painting was our niece Jennifer, Linda requisitioned the painting almost immediately after it did not sell at its first showing at a gallery in Clear Lake. In fact the gallery owner asked me to take it away, as the little girl’s eyes bothered her. A young artist, easily confused and hating rejection, I took the painting home, and was glad at least my wife liked it. She could have it. Later we made photographic copies of the painting when I sold my works at the Texas Renaissance Festival near Plantersville. We had moved to Plantersville to be near my parents, and I sought an opportunity to sell my works at what was to be one of the most successful exhibits of my career. Jan purchased a framed print of Three Young Texans from me during one of six weekends during the fall of 1980, when I stood before my works in tights and a beret at the Renaissance Festival, as the ”Young Master.”

After the fair I was notified by the management of the event that I would not be coming back. I had inadvertently violated one of the “king’s” rules, and was instructed to get my stuff and vacate the premises. I would never set foot in the “Rennfair” again. This was a serious setback, as all the great contacts that I had made would have to find me some other way. People like Jan would lose my common ground with them, and it was up to fate to ever reconnect. This is when I learned the importance of keeping a mailing list.

Thirty years later, I was living not far from Plantersville, in Navasota. As an established artist, I did not have to advertise or seek very hard for opportunities. I had let my website go into Internet oblivion after it failed to bring me much business in five years. It wasn’t even paying for itself. But in the spring I taught an outdoor painting workshop, where one of my students confided that she almost did not come, and others refused, because no one in Houston knew who I was. The many years I had invested building a reputation as an art teacher at Houston’s popular art studios had faded, and a new generation of artists were saying Russell Who? Just like me, they assumed if something wasn’t on the Internet, it couldn’t be important. This student also kindly directed me to a website company that soon solved my website deficiency. It was up by late April.

Almost immediately Jan found me. Relieved and grateful, after months of searching and losing hope, she told her story. And I had great news for her, because we had kept the painting all these years. I had no extra copies of Three Young Texans… but I could make a giclee for her from the original watercolor that would be far superior to the original print she lost. Her search for her babies was over.
She told me about the symbolism in the painting, which had so much meaning to her. Her mother had grown up in a central Texas cotton farm, and had a little ragdoll just like the girl’s in the watercolor. She explained how the little girl’s eyes spoke to her… inspired her, comforted her, and how much she missed them in her daily life. And how she felt as if the Three Young Texans had taken her place. They had been taken in her stead.

I told her that is how God works. In fact He died for us in the same way. He took our place on the cross of shame and eternal separation from the Father… and God asks us to sacrifice as well, but that He never takes anything away that He doesn’t replace it with something far superior. We sacrifice our willful ways to jump aboard His magic carpet ride of personal fulfillment, loved ones are lost and we gain a closer relationship with Him, Our human lives expire, and are traded for Eternal life.

The hurricane took away an old faded photograph, and God saw to it, in His time, that it was restored better than new. And a friendship was born, and a lesson about perseverance was demonstrated to all of us, and He is glorified. Jan even got a new frame that matched her new home d├ęcor. And a better print that will not fade like the old one. Try taking anything in your home, that you have owned for thirty years, down to the store and try to trade up for something new and superior. God is good. These kinds of things happen all the time in His economy.

Now I know one reason why I painted this painting, and why thirty years ago the gallery owner rebuffed the painting, and we kept it, and never tried to sell it again, but made a few copies and sold them for a very short time, one autumn at the Rennfair, and then I taught that one gal, at the first outdoor workshop in several years, that told me about a good website system, that I untypically listened to, and did what she said almost immediately, after years of neglecting my Internet presence, so a lady could find me that needed to restore an icon in her life, lost by a random storm that slung a tree right through it, and almost as if on purpose, leaving the frame intact, at the very place where she might have laid in her sleep… And as it just so happened, I had just started making giclees of my work just months ago, the first color reproductions I have made in thirty years. All by … coincidence…

This past week I delivered Jan’s children, safe and sound, when we met for lunch at Papasita’s on the east side of Houston. I was so impressed by her love for the work, by what a special place it had in her heart, and how she kept searching for months for the artist of her treasure of thirty years. Just on the slight chance that he might have a copy, after such a long time. It was such a long shot, after such a brutal attack from the forces of Nature, that most people would have given in from the sheer time and impossible odds and the tragedy that had unfolded. They would have bought something else and mourned the loss and gone on. But Jan proved something special beyond personal taste or materialism. She illustrated the power of art. And that, I believe is just man's feeble attempt to reflect the awesome, creative powers of God.

Thanks Jan, that was worth a lot to me, and to every artist that ever doubted that his or her work made a difference, or had importance, or had soul, or universal significance. I know, you’re thinking that I’m getting way too much out of this, but let me assure you, this kind of affirmation, with so many of God’s fingerprints, means more than money, or public recognition, and even King George’s favor.

Jan spent her insurance money, which just did take care of the restoration, but looking back on it all, I would pay for it all myself just to see all those pieces fall together again.

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