I met the artist Lobo (I never knew his real name) through my friend T.V. Louie. Occupying at least one ramshackle storefront and a semi-vacant lot in the shadow of the El tracks, T.V. is an entrepreneur, impresario, and man of some local renown. His crew does clean-outs, and he sells the goods in the store and lined up along the sidewalk. Furniture, electronics, tools, a shipping container’s worth of vintage videotapes, repaired appliances and the odd book….all make their appearance along the cyclone fence. Always eyeing new markets, T.V. recently expanded his business to include the sale of “loosies;” single cigarettes sold for fifty cents to the struggling smokers who can’t afford the price of a whole pack.
T.V. and I first met many years ago. I was working nearby, saw his storefront, and it happened to be open, which was something of a miracle, as the listed store hours were more a hoped-for ideal than an actual schedule. To walk inside was to enter every Building Inspector’s nightmare: uneven floors, sputtering lights, concave walls, and a great view of the third floor rafters through the yawning gap that used to be the second floor. There were display cases brimming with bling, mysterious rustlings in every corner, and an exotic fragrance that was part fermented shag rug and part aging cat spray.
But on the wall, surrounded by pictures of kittens and unicorns, was a painting that caught my eye. It featured a confident black man sitting behind the steering wheel of a convertible with the top down. It was done in a bold, bright style, and then, as I looked closer, I saw that the man looked familiar. Sure enough, it turned out to be T.V. Louie himself, in a younger incarnation. It also turned out not to be for sale. Which was not a surprise. I have a portrait of myself that was painted by my mother, and I would never sell it either (not that there have been any offers). But it was disappointing, because T.V.’s painting was a playful and realistic rendering of a commonplace but rarely portrayed scenario: a man and his machine. I have realized through the years that just because something sits on a store shelf doesn’t mean the owner will actually part with it. Still, it is also oddly re-assuring to discover that even in a poorer part of town, money does not always trump memories.
T.V. knew what I was looking for, as I had indeed purchased a few items from him in the past. He said he wanted me to meet someone, and took me to a corner row house, up a dark stairway, and into an even darker room. There I met Lobo, a soft-spoken hulk of a man, wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses, despite the dimness. He pointed at and talked about the many works of art that he had created, which I could now begin to see were hung neatly along all the walls of the apartment. There was a wonderful array of colorful and extremely original masks, as well as a number of bas-reliefs representing a wide range of subjects, and which I learned were made from paper-maiche.
There were also quite a number of framed paintings, hung higher on the wall. They were hard to see from where I stood, and Lobo encouraged me to climb up on a table loaded with containers in order to get a better look. I clambered up and was delighted to see in better detail the humor and inventiveness which Lobo had imbued in many of his paintings. My delight lessened considerably, however, when I happened to look down and saw that what I had at first thought was a large, empty aquarium below me was not empty at all, but frighteningly filled with many coils of a very large snake. It was eyeing me as if taking my measurements and calculating the gastronomical odds. I got down in a hurry.
I visited with Lobo a couple more times before we struck a deal. No one was probably more surprised than Lobo himself to discover that, in the course of paying his debt to society, he became an artist. And a good one! I’m not sure what sort of fine arts instruction is offered within the penal system, but I can be sure that it isn’t like attending the Academy of Fine Arts. And yet Lobo succeeded in creating works that were inventive, filled with spirit and style, and in a variety of media. It is a lesson that I have leaned over and over again through the years of searching for and acquiring art: one must not pre-judge what can be found housed within a crumbling and ramshackle exterior. And, as Life keeps showing me over and over through the years, the same lesson applies a thousand times over when meeting new people for the first time: there is no vessel lacking beauty within.