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An Unexpected Talent (12/01/20)

It was the first day of my one-year ‘program’ due to a challenge I had with fine wines… and Belgium beer… and, oh, Jagermeister. My liver was pretty much telling me I needed to quit, yet after decades of binge drinking my way through issues, I really needed some help with the cold turkey approach.

I sat down in this bleak room with a couple other guys who also looked a little 'worn.' There were 18 chairs, and the three of us were all appropriately seated a distance from each other. That’s just a guy thing.

In walks this kid in his early 20s, in long black shorts, white tank top, tennies with knee-high white socks, a bandana wrapped around his head, and tattoos covering his chest and shoulders. I don’t like to stereotype others, but all I saw was gang banger. He looked around the room a bit, and aimed for the chair right next to me.


Sitting down, he looked at me, gave me a blunt “hey” and kept looking. Uhm, “hey, how’s it going?” I kept telling myself to forget the attire, he was just another human, obviously in the room for the same reason all the rest of us were.

He told me he could be worse and proceeded to fill in the blanks of why he was there. He not only had 2 prior DUIs, but apparently had stolen the car that he received the last DUI in, simply because he didn’t want to walk home from the bar. But the judge had told him he really needed to get some counseling instead of spending any time in jail, so this was the first day of two years of Saturdays dedicated to the cause of his sobriety.

I asked if he was staying sober, and got this look like I was an idiot, and was told he would be tossed in jail for a minimum 5 years if he touched a drop of alcohol. At this point, he was staying sober.

The room proceeded to fill with quite a collection of humanity, mostly all guys, mostly all young, under 30, and a couple older women. Honestly I couldn’t wait to hear the stories behind all these people. I knew it would be better than watching people at the airport!

And I was just another one of the stories.

About four Saturdays into our weekend meetings, our counselor asked us all to share an aspiration we had for our future, something we wanted to accomplish if we could only stay sober enough to do so.

When it came to my turn, I let them know I had a couple galleries, but really wanted to branch out into something different. Different location, different type of art, something that added an ‘edge’ to the art I had come accustomed to being surrounded by.

Considering others in the room aspired to going to a concert sober, getting their license back so they didn’t have to take the bus to work, and one just wanting to see their kids again, I felt a little uncomfortable after sharing my chosen ‘dream’ for the future. But to my surprise, everybody thought that my aspiration was something really cool, and I got accolades and encouragement from them all.

Wow, that lead balloon floated pretty well!

It was then my new friend’s turn to express his hopes for a future. Gabriel turned and looked at me—yes, he sat next to me every meeting since the first—and told the group he dreamt of being an artist and actually having his art in a gallery. Still looking my direction, he said he knew the two of us thought alike, which was why he had liked me from the first Saturday, and punched me in the shoulder like we were brothers.

All I could think was “what the Hell did I get myself into?”

Once that meeting was over, I tried to scurry out of the room as quickly as I could, but Gabriel caught up with me asking if I was serious about opening a new gallery. Yep, sure was. He said he was an artist, I was skeptical, but asked what type of art he did.

He got out his phone and told me to take a look. He cued up the phone, and told me NOT to scroll right, laughing out loud as he told me it might not be something I wanted to see. That had me curious, but decided maybe it was in my best interest not to know what I didn’t know.

As I did what I was told and scrolled left, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Though the photography was poor, the artwork was stunning, beyond belief. After scrolling through photos of a dozen canvases, I stopped and asked how many there were, and did he really paint all of these?

Sort of looking a little angry and a bit dejected, Gabriel said “what, a gangster can’t have any artistic talent?”

I felt bad, and tried to back out of my comment, saying what I saw was just ‘unexpected’ and that the paintings were, in my opinion, radically superior works of art. Gabriel told me he had about 24 of them at home and was working on the 25th, and that his dream really was to have them displayed in a gallery some day.

He then threw out the shocker! He said there was a building available in his neighborhood that would make an awesome gallery and said I needed to come by and take a look. He told me he had ‘connections’ and could make it happen for ‘cheap’! OK, there was the scroll right thing again, better to just not know the circumstances.

At first I was going to just politely say thank you, but no thanks, but decided I needed to muster the courage to at least check it out. Gabriel had proved to be a pretty nice guy, not of the disposition that I had expected, so the least I could do was see what was available.

We scheduled a day during the following week, he gave me an address and time, and arranged a visit to this building that was in his neighborhood.

On the designated day, I gathered a few friends, for moral support if nothing else, and off to Gabriel’s neighborhood we went. As we approached the address, it was apparent who didn’t belong in the neighborhood, getting a series of angry stares as we drove down the street.

We pulled into the parking lot and saw Gabriel walking our direction as he was talking to the local guys like they were all part of his ‘family.’ Oh wait, they probably were all in the same gang. Great.

But as Gabriel walked up and said hello, I noticed he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and looked like all the rest of us. He’d dropped the gang rags for our visit, and though I knew he had gang tattoos on his chest, back, and shoulders, the t-shirt covered all of them. He was just another one of the guys!

He unlocked the front door to the building, and laughingly said 18,000 square feet would make one really sick gallery. We walked inside and damn, yes it would. Covered with an a-frame roof, surrounded by concrete walls, with concrete floor, all 18,000 square feet of the space was column free. And aside from the dust, spiders, and what I thought was a rat running by checking us out, the building was in good condition.

I did all my due diligence asking about bathroom facilities, structural issues, HVAC, and the like, and nearly lost my breakfast when Gabriel told me how much I could lease it for. Deal, I’ll take it.

We continued talking details and walking around the exterior, with me trying not to notice the exterior walls covered in graffiti and tags, and a couple of Gabriel’s friends outside starting to harass him about his new 'friends.' But I thought, finally somebody beside his mother and sisters would see his art.

Laughing from deep down in his gut, one of the guys said “we have our own Basquiat!”

OK, now I was beyond confused. Not only did they know who Basquiat was, but got the pronunciation perfect! What’s the saying, “there is always hope,” or maybe the “don’t judge the book…!”

Gabriel insisted that we come to his house to meet his family, and to see his canvases in person. We all walked a couple blocks down the street, with the ever present stare of the locals watching our every move. Gabriel would sporadically shout a few words in Spanish, and his 'neighbors' would back off after quick retorts back to him. All Gabriel did was laugh. Knowing the little Spanish that I did, I realized this was going to be an interesting adventure.

We arrived at his house, met his Mom, sister and a couple other relatives, all genuinely happy to see us brought to tears by the thought Gabriel would have his art in a real gallery.

Gabriel then took us out to the garage towards the back of the driveway, raised the overhead door, and damn!

The garage was filled with this colorful, energetic, vibrant, expressive canvases—and relatively large canvases at that. I must have spent 30 minutes just moving from piece to piece checking out the detail, the layers of paint, the skill of his artistry. Gabriel's works were truly stunning!

I arranged with Gabriel to talk to the old guy who was leasing the building, took another walk several blocks through the neighborhood to make arrangements, sealed the deal, got the keys, and the new space was mine. 'INesperada' would be a reality.

I called Gabriel to let him know. He told me he’d let his friends know, so we wouldn’t get hassled for being on their turf, but he let me know that I should expect a bit of harassment just because they could.

But I could sense in Gabriel’s voice a tone of complete excitement as he told me to call him to come and help with anything needed to get the space ready. He said he had plenty of friends who would also be willing to help out. This was going to be crazy.

At the next ‘sobriety’ meeting, Gabriel showed up in his jeans and t-shirt, abandoning the gang look he had been keeping. He was the first to speak to the group and told everybody what we were planning on doing. We immediately had another dozen guys that were willing to help with anything we needed to get the gallery up and running.

The amount of support we were offered was both surprising and astounding. I had planned on taking the next week to start the process of cleaning up the space, painting exterior walls to cover all the graffiti and tagging, get lighting fixed, bathrooms cleaned, and start the construction of some interior walls to increase the wall space available.

That Monday a couple of my friends and I showed up and got right to work. In a matter of minutes, we had another dozen guys from the neighborhood there ready to do as they were told. And asking all sorts of questions about what we were going to do with the space, were we going to have opening receptions, were the ladies managing the gallery going to be the best looking we could find. Hadn’t gotten that far, but sure, we’ll see what we can do.

What I had anticipated to take several weeks was done in a week, and the space was ready to start placement of art. And the first into the space were the stunning works of art from Gabriel.

He had brought all 24 of his canvases, some of them quite large, over to the gallery and we spent several hours arranging in an order that told the story that was behind his art.

His art was not soft or subtle, but hard, angry, rough, and grabbed the viewer by the throat, then proceeded to rip their heart out. It was raw, it was emotional, yet he had a way with colors, figures, and textures like I had never seen before from a person with no art training or art education. His work was just simply spectacular.

We finally got the order right, got all the work hung on the walls, all the spot lighting trained to the appropriate locations, and the entire group of guys, about 15 of us, just stood there and stared. It looked amazing.

The silence was broken by one of the rougher guys in the group, “F..k! Where’d you learn to paint so f...king good?”

Gabriel just responded that when he got mad, he painted, and that he’d been mad quite a bit, so had lots of practice! He was only 26.

After all the work was done, and my friends and I were getting ready to leave, we noticed Gabriel standing in the middle of the space just staring. As we walked closer we saw a glint in his eyes. He wouldn’t ever admit it, but those were tears. Mister tough gangster was tearing up.

"Hey Gabriel, you deserved this, your work is spectacular." I asked when he was going to show his Mom and sisters, and he told me he wanted to wait till the proper opening reception, and that he didn’t want them to see it until then.

We started planning the reception. But as those plans were starting, Gabriel wanted me to meet a couple of his friends that were also ‘artistic.’ Man, if the talent ran in the neighborhood, this could be something really special.

One of his friends was the neighborhood graffiti 'artist,' and though we had painted over his work on the side wall when we first moved in, I decided to allow him to ‘create’ on one of the large walls that faced the street and parking lot. It was the wall that would be the first seen when visiting the gallery, so was the perfect spot for the best exposure.

I told him he could create what he wanted on the wall, and I would provide whatever materials he needed.

At first he was shocked I was giving him the space, but as the reality sunk in, he was like “Hell yes, I’m going to spray you a masterpiece.” And that he did. The mural he painted on the wall ended up being quite the piece of art, and again represented that angry struggle that most of the guys we met expressed. And it was his first 'commission!'

We decided to have two separate opening receptions. One for Gabriel, his family, his extended family, and everyone from the neighborhood. From the beginning, the neighbors had been extremely supportive of what we were doing, and we had gathered a couple more artists from the area whose art would also be shown during the first show.

The second opening would be for the ‘collectors,’ those with the money to properly purchase quality art. I had struggled for weeks over whether to separate the two receptions. I had spent quite a bit of time with the guys from the neighborhood and was no longer concerned with their gang affiliation, nor their behavior.

But I was not convinced I could get a group of wealthy art investors to mingle with the group, so Gabriel and I decided it would be best to have two receptions, but that the families of the artists participating could still also attend the second reception. Done!

The night of the neighborhood opening reception, I was not sure I knew what to expect. I was aghast when everybody started arriving dressed in their Sunday best. All the guys from the the neighborhood were in suit and tie, and all the ladies, well, they were in their finest dresses and accessories, including a dozen or more lavish hats that could have rivaled those at the Kentucky derby.

I asked one of the ladies about the hats, and she said I needed to meet Angelina, she had made them all. I thought damn, another exhibit and show just of the hats. This is truly a talented neighborhood!

Gabriel was in a suit and ascot. I had expected Gabriel would be wearing a tie, but an ascot was an interesting choice for him. It was made from a shimmering red fabric with black geometric and organic patterns overlaid with stunningly beautiful gold printed characters. The characters were not of a language I recognized, but the look definitely worked.

I complimented him on how he looked, and asked about the ascot. He got a surprised look on his face, and said it was sitting in his house in a beautifully wrapped box and had thought it was from me. No, not me, but it is definitely beautiful. When I asked how he knew how to tie an ascot, he grabbed his phone, "Google."

The night was spectacular, and at the top of the list for the most fun opening receptions I had ever been at. There was something about the night being about an artist from the neighborhood, with the neighborhood participating in the work involved to make the night’s reception, and the gallery, a reality.

The highlight of the evening though was definitely when Gabriel’s Mom walked in. Unlike Gabriel, she didn’t hold back the tears and grabbed him and hugged him and told him she always knew he would be a success. She glowed from head to toe with pride. Even I got a wholehearted hug and kiss from her as she thanked me for seeing more from Gabriel than just his bad choice in clothing.

She told me all the neighborhood guys were a good bunch, and just needed the proper guidance and some positive attention.

I had seen that when working with them. Those tough initial personas they put up fell down quickly when they were treated with respect and dignity, and simply treated like one of the guys!

The next night we had a large group of brokers and collectors that showed up to assess the ‘worth’ of the art and it’s collector value. Needless to say, I had been to many opening receptions, and this one was not the fun of the previous night. But ‘fun’ was not its purpose—the purpose was to sell art, and sell it did. Eighteen of Gabriel’s 24 paintings had new homes, and would be delivered to their new owners once the show closed.

Quite a few of the pieces from the other artists were sold too, and several commissions were established, and the local ‘muralist’ was asked to create another piece in one of the wealthier parts of the city. He came over to me asking if the offer was ‘real’? Yes, and think of the recognition you will get! "F..k! This is legit!"

He looked at me with this look like ‘nobody had ever done anything for him before.’ The world works in mysterious ways, if you let it.

I made Gabriel manager of the gallery, to the jubilation of his family and friends. We rearranged a section of the gallery so that Gabriel and other artists could use the space as their studio—I needed Gabriel to get back to painting since most of his works had been sold. Watching him painting in his new space after such a successful opening and show would be extremely satisfying.

Gabriel's new paintings though took on a new spirit. They still had the raw, rough grit of his older art, but the anger seemed to express itself as joy, which brought a brighter 'light' to the canvases.

On the Saturday morning after the reception, as we gathered for our group sobriety session, all the people in our group were congratulating Gabriel and I on the success of the show and the gallery. Every single one in our group, and several of the counselors from the sobriety center, had shown up for the opening reception. The success and optimism in what was possible was evident with everybody.

After our group session, we installed one of Gabriel's paintings in the entry to the counseling center, and it looked damn good. Gabriel was beaming with pride.

The greatest joy of the entire adventure was seeing the camaraderie of Gabriel and his friends, and the tears of joy from Gabriel’s Mom and family.

In the end, dreams can come true, stereotypes can be overcome, book covers do not truly portend the contents, and people are people, regardless of their situations!

#gallery #art #Gabriel #fabric #hats #Inesperada