I was recently asked to name the greatest artist I’ve ever known. It wasn’t a difficult question to answer; only one name came to mind—Raoul.
In the fall of 1970 I started at West Valley Community College, which was only a few miles from where I lived in what would later be termed California’s Silicon Valley. I immediately struck up a friendship with Raoul. I never got around to learning his last name, which I regret because Raoul was the greatest artist I’d ever encounter, not that I knew it at the time. Raoul was sensitive, with a childlike simplicity and vulnerability. He swiped tears from his eyes and choked up whenever anyone said anything nice to him.
Raoul had a kind word for everyone’s work and would give up the foul-smelling shirt on his back if asked. His clothes were ragged and the bottoms of his shoes were usually caked with gum. Blackheads dotted his face, and I swear I once saw something moving in his oily and unruly hair. Yet when Raoul picked up a piece of charcoal and began to draw, his hygiene issues vanished beneath an aura of creativity bordering on the spiritual.
I wasn’t the only one to notice this transformation, many did who toiled at easels beside him. When we watched him draw, we imagined Mozart writing music. Raoul wasn’t so much recording what he saw as revealing a perfect vision in his head. He had no concern for composition, placing his figures on the page in a haphazard manner. When he ran out of space, he would bum paper from someone and attach the additional sheet to his drawing, using masking tape or whatever else he could find. Sometimes he would remove a chunk of gum from the bottom of his shoe and use it to stick papers together. In the end, he would produce an astonishing mix of beauty and revulsion.
West Valley’s drawing classes provided the first nude models I ever saw, and my first attempts to capture the human form were peculiar to say the least. Had Eve resembled one of my early drawings the human race wouldn’t have come to anything because Adam would have remained celibate. In contrast, I remember looking at one of Raoul’s drawings and not being able to decide if I wanted to tear it to shreds or hang it in my bedroom where I could see it first thing every morning when I opened my eyes. There, mingling with the condensed essence of human emotion, mixed with smudges and snot, and rising through a scribbled anatomical shorthand—the human soul as I’d never before imagined it.
Once after class while sharing my cheese sandwich with Raoul, I told him, “I wish I could draw as well as you.”
His dark eyes widened with amazement. “But your work is wonderful.”
“Thanks.” He still looked hungry so I gave him the rest of my sandwich. “Have you always wanted to be an artist?”
He wolfed down the rest of the cheese and bread, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “I don’t want to become an artist. Never did.”
“You’re joking, right?”
He shook his head.
“What do you want to be when you graduate?”
His answer made my jaw drop. “A soldier. I want to go to Vietnam.”
I couldn’t believe my ears, especially at a time when guys were cutting off fingers or running off to Canada to avoid the draft. Was it clean clothes and regular meals prompting his desire to risk his divine gifts? His life? I was about to question him when he blurted out, “But they won’t take me.”
“Why not,” I asked, immediately wishing I hadn’t. I could think of a few reasons the draft board might turn him down.
Tears spilled down his cheeks. “The Army recruiters I’ve talked to turned me down because of my…” he glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to hear, “…spells.”
“You have spells?”
“Yeah. When I was a kid they were so bad I spend days in bed recovering. No TV at our house, so I passed time drawing. When my parents could afford it they took me to doctors for tests. They gave me pills and my spells slowly went away.”
This sounded familiar. Dad had a sister living in a state hospital near Sacramento. She was an epileptic and suffered seizures.
Raoul added, “The Army says I can’t join up because they can’t be sure I won’t get the shakes or pass out, especially in stressful situations.”
“There probably aren’t many places more stressful than Vietnam,” I said. “Why is serving so important to you?”
“My parents brought me to this country from Guatemala when I was five. We’re illegal aliens. They work hard, but we struggle to get by. If I joined the Army I would have a paycheck to send them, and I could prove to everyone that I’m a good American, and I belong here.”
“Will the Army take illegal aliens?” I asked.
“Yeah. I checked it out. You don’t have to be a citizen to enlist.”
He had nothing to prove as far as I was concerned, but the sight of his tearstained cheeks made me ask, “Do you think you could face the horrors of combat? Could you shoot somebody?”
“I’d do what I had to do.”
“Well, I’m kinda glad they said no, or else I might not have met you.”
His smile revealed a lack of familiarity with toothpaste. “I won’t give up. This one recruiter told me to come back with a letter signed by my doctor when I’d gone five years without a spell. He promised to see what he could do. That’s less than three months from now.”
It felt odd, but I wished him good luck.
Three months later, near the end of our afternoon figure drawing session, Raoul’s charcoal slipped from his hand and he slumped to the floor. He lost awareness and began thrashing around. The instructor reached for his wallet, turned Raoul on his side and pressed the wallet between Raoul’s teeth to keep him from biting off his tongue. An ambulance was summoned and paramedics strapped a convulsing Raoul to the gurney.
I learned later that he’d suffered a grand mal seizure. Word spread that earlier in the day he’d gone to the recruiting office with the letter from his doctor.
Once again he’d been rejected.
I’d grabbed the drawing he was working on the day of his collapse—a female figure more angelic than human. I wanted to keep it safe, planned on handing it back to him when he returned. But he never did. I managed to wrangle an address from the Registrar’s Office but the address had been faked; no one knew of Raoul or his Guatemalan parents.I never saw him again, but for years his spirit lingered near my easel.
Have you encountered remarkable talent in your life? Tell me about it.