On a hot Manhattan night in the mid ’50s, I sat, completely naked, on a wooden throne chair on the third floor of the Art Students’ League, where I was studying painting on the G.I. Bill while listening to the rain on the roof and sirens and horns in the distance.

For this and any artist/actor who was around, I received $5 an hour, which I usually spent on Carling Black Label and corned beef on rye at the Shamrock Inn on 14th Street. Such was life then.

It wasn’t exactly the bottom of my career, but I could smell it from there.

To make matters worse, I remember having a cold sore the size of a walnut, which kept me out of commercial modeling gigs, and I was also suffering from a summer cold from the drafts in the portrait room.

After months of one-line walk-ons and the occasional modeling gig, I began feeling sorry for myself.

Bored and disillusioned, I stood daily in front of the casting jobs board in the Actors Equity office with my fingers crossed. I knew I had to make a move.

I remembered reading, on a paper menu in a cheap diner, a line from the poet Robert Frost: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

So I cashed my G.I. check and took a Trailways bus home to St. Louis, looking to reconnect with my dreams.

Frost forgot to add, “But don’t expect a ticker tape parade and applause.”

My mother gave me her sofa, a toothbrush and that day’s Post-Dispatch want ads.

After a week of free meals from assorted relatives, I found myself at my sister Eileen’s doorstep. Eileen was always the fountain of hope from which we all drank when we were soul thirsty.

Eileen Devine Klein, a beautiful, dark-haired Irish woman, once a high school champion swimmer who could dance the tango perfectly with her older brother, had, by this time in her life, been confined to a wheelchair, the victim of crippling rheumatoid arthritis.

But Eileen was a tough bird and, despite her handicap, refused to forgo her newfound love of painting.

One day, her husband, Charlie, gave her a Life magazine story about the great artist Pierre Auguste Renoir, who was crippled from the same arthritis she had. It seems that he had fastened rubber straps to hold the brushes in his hand. So Charlie got her a couple of huge rubber bands, and she made it work.

For a long time, she did only flowers and street scenes for friends. Then one hot day a young woman came to Eileen’s screened-in porch where she worked, holding a yellowing photograph of a young sailor.

“This was my daddy,” she said. “He died in the Pacific, and I was wondering, do you think you could paint a portrait of him from this picture?”

That woman, on that day, changed Eileen’s lazy summer days overnight. Pretty soon, word got around, and the families of dead fathers and brothers who had died in the war were at her door every day with framed faces of their dearly beloveds.

When my sister Rita, a canny business major, made her charge for her work, it became something else.

That first year Eileen made enough to buy a new fridge and freezer and a bevy of better brushes.

There she was, my beautiful sister at 50 years old, a painter in a wheelchair, suffering from the same rheumatoid arthritis that crippled the great Renoir, churning out oil paintings of the dead.

One afternoon as I sat there sipping a soda and watching her work, she looked at me for the longest time before saying, “Mama tells me you’re going to art school up in New York.”

“Off and on,” I said. “Just to meet girls.”

“You learn anything?”

She reached behind her and pulled out an 8-by-10 photograph of a sailor in a silver frame.

“You think you could do him?”

“Me?”

“You’re an artist, aren’t you? And I’m swamped.”

“Really?”

“Twenty-five bucks a picture, but don’t get fancy. No modern stuff. These are their dead fathers.”

Why not? She loaned me the brushes and set up an easel on the other side of the porch.

I made over 200 bucks that summer with a total of six dead fathers, two brothers and a mother.

Back in New York, refreshed with that drink from Eileen’s fountain, I started getting lucky in theater and never went back to nude modeling.

Today some of my old work hangs in homes somewhere in America and one in Hong Kong. And who knows? Perhaps in some hall closet, toilets and garages, a couple of oil paintings of a very nude, handsome, skinny actor/painter are gathering dust.

Thanks for the drink, Eileen.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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