“Hi Art. Can you hang on awhile; I have some calls to make?”
A young Latino man I’ve never seen before offers me a Coke. I accept and relax into the soft leather couch.
The studio is geared for mass production – at least mass-production on Keith’s hand-made scale. Everything is within arm’s reach – markers, brushes, paint, paper, vinyl, rags, and buckets of water. There are more than a dozen iconic vases on the shelf. Some are covered with subtle geometric characters, tightly locked into repetitive patterns. Others are festooned with bright strokes of calligraphy. The ambiguous shapes form symbols that look like combinations of inscrutable letters, numbers, and figures.
Beside a group of maquettes for a sculpture series ready to be fabricated a pile of shiny prints forms a foot-high stack on the floor. The walls are alive with a row of brilliant red, yellow, blue, and green paintings.
I consider how far he has come in a few short years. His Broome Street studio was dark, seedy, cluttered. This new place on Broadway is spectacular in every way – from the plush furniture to the stores of newly-stocked art supplies.
After a half hour or so, he tells two boys in his immediate vicinity he doesn’t want to be disturbed and joins me on the couch.
“I’m way too busy, man.”
This is how he starts most conversations these days. It’s become clear the demands on him are great.
“Well ultimately you’re in charge of that, you know.”
“Yeah. It’s just that all these projects right now are important. I know they’re getting in the way of our meetings and I’m sorry about that, but…”
“It’s OK, Keith. The connections are…up there – in the air somewhere – it’s a mental…or metaphysical…thing. It goes on. Have you noticed that?”
“Actually, I’ve been thinking about what you meant when you said you stopped believing in the real world…I can’t get that out of my head. I talked to Timothy Leary about it. He said he remembered you from Gettysburg…”
“Cool. I saw him after that in San Francisco, too. But that’s where we met, yeah. I was corresponding with Richard Alpert. He was working with Leary at Harvard. Anyway, I eventually got Tim to visit Gettysburg College. We had this loose group of beatniks and hippies. Everyone gathered around him in front. We sat there in lotus positions on the floor. The other students acted like a flying saucer had landed.”
“Maybe one did,” he says.
“As a matter of fact….”
At this point I just break up in laughter. Keith does too. I remember what I like about this relationship. It’s almost twenty years since the Summer of Love and the changes in consciousness that marked the end of one world and the beginning of a new one – at least for some of us.
Since then, though, a lot of my friends turned out straight-laced. And yet, here I am, sitting on a couch with a guy ten years younger than I am and we’re laughing and talking like we’re on a psychedelic trip, even though all we’ve had is a couple of Cokes.
“So anyway, I think you’re right about the real world,“ he says.
“Well, whatever it is there’s no reason to believe in it. It’s the last religion. Even atheists believe in the real world.”
“Yeah. People make up their reality as they go through it. Nobody seems to notice.”
“Until things get so strange…they have no choice – like when something we can’t comprehend won’t go away, or…when we’re dreaming…or dying.”
“I know. When I died it was, like…unreal at first…and then it seemed so natural…”
He is no longer here. I have not averted my gaze. He has simply…disappeared…
A young Jamaican kid who’s been blowing smoke rings into the ceiling fan looks over and laughs.
“You look like you see’in a ghost, mahn.”
A glimpse of gold in his smile and the glint in his eye are my final memories.
An eternity passes.
Within me – a voice…
“You’ll get used to death, Art. It took me some time, too. I’m with you here…don’t worry. Actually, you’re getting better at realizing it. You just tuned out for a few seconds this time.”
A young Latino man I feel like I have seen before – perhaps it was in a dream – offers me a Coke. I accept and relax into the soft leather couch.
(to be continued…)
Image: “New World” and studio view, Tullio DeSantis, 2009.