Inside Looking Out

Tamara Hendershot seeks out those who work their artistic magic in obscurity. The visionary art she finds is hot, but for her, buying and selling it is a labor of love.

"That's what we do all day around here, drink coladas," Holmes says jovially, offering one to Hendershot and one to a fellow resident, whom he addresses in Spanish -- Holmes was born in Bogata, where his father worked in the foreign service. His parents now live in Homestead. As he lifts his own plastic cup, his hands shake slightly, not from coffee, but from his medication. He is dressed surfer-style, in baggy jeans, sport sandals, and a T-shirt that says "Baja, California." A fashionable patch of hair sprouts beneath his lower lip.

A graduate in history from the University of Pennsylvania, Holmes, who is 50, has been in and out of institutions most of his adult life. He started painting 25 years ago, in a Philadelphia facility that had an art therapy program. "I'm a believer in art therapy in institutions," says Holmes, who complains of voices in his head. "I paint just because it gives me a lift. My art is just a giant therapy. Painting relaxes me. I paint something and I sit back and look at it, then I paint some more, and I try to keep going," he continues, breaking into a gap-toothed smile. "Then I give up."

Holmes goes upstairs to his sunny room. A pile of books sits on a desk under the window -- Alan Ginsberg's collected poems, a volume of Picasso's work, Mein Kampf, Perestroika. His roommate sleeps motionless on the bed nearest the door.

Holmes shows Hendershot his latest works. She frowns at the manner in which the housekeeper has piled them in a corner, like so much clutter, but the artist just shrugs, used to such things. Many of the paintings are simple pictures of white-and-yellow daisies, disarmingly juxtaposed with words painted above them that Holmes says have just been on his mind -- "resurrect," "God," "assume," "shirt," "truth," "Save Us Anyway." Other flowers are poignantly named for Holmes's old girlfriends, like Janet and Suzanne. These seem to take on human form -- seduction can be seen in the curve of a stem, sadness in the droop of a petal. One flower is named for his mother. He retrieved it from the garbage can where she threw it after he gave it to her as a present.

Some paintings are actual portraits, mottled faces floating in the middle of bright or earth-color backgrounds, or full-length figures -- Larry, a "marijuana buddy" from college. Jesus. A self-portrait in which Holmes paints himself van Gogh-like, with glazed, saucer eyes. One called Gloria shows a frowzy potato face of a woman with a black eye, wearing a porkpie hat and smoking a cigarette. Speaking quietly, Holmes identifies her as a prostitute he met on a trip to Mexico. He glances over at his roommate, who is in a deep sleep. The man has lain there all morning, knocked out from some new medication.

Hendershot loudly compliments each painting as she flips through the stack. Holmes sells her two paintings, charging $15 for both. She has some clients who are fans of his work, mostly in the film industry -- they might pay as much as $300 apiece for them. She subsequently gives the artist a percentage. Holmes spends his extra income on cigarettes. He likes to peruse the stores on nearby Eighth Street, where he buys statues of Buddha or other religious figures. Half of the $500 he got from the American Visionary Art Museum went for art supplies. He spent another $40 on a bust of Jesus that somebody later stole from its hiding place on the top shelf of his closet.

The sales have not inspired Holmes to paint more; in fact, he seems mostly amused at the whole notion of the commercial art world, and he admits that he's gotten a little bored with the whole thing. Most of the time he reads. "I'm not as excited about art as I used to be," Holmes confesses. Nonetheless, art has been on his mind. He picks up a piece of notebook paper from the dresser, and reads out loud what he has written on it. "What is art? If I knew, I would keep the knowledge to myself. I am not the artist."

Hendershot pulls up to the house in Opa-locka where Willie Eaglin and four other black senior citizens are sitting outside on lawn chairs, along with their caretaker, a bulky, jovial man named Joe. She shouts greetings and comes into the yard, carrying two plastic bags. One bag is full of old clothes, sheets, and some self-threading needles. She puts it down next to Eaglin and takes a package of oatmeal cookies out of the other bag and passes them around.

Eaglin is wearing a stocking cap he cut and sewed from a pantyhose leg; three necklaces strung with wooden beads, buttons, and plastic cigarillo tips; and a beatific smile. His T-shirt says "Hiney Winery," and the voice inside the black watch on his wrist announces the time when he pushes a button -- the watch was a gift from Hendershot. Brown loafers tap out a Broadway shuffle on the grass beneath his feet.

He is eager to show Hendershot what he has made since her last visit. Inside a shopping bag on a table next to him are a dozen handbags and a throw rug, woven from scraps of cloth and yarn. The rug is mostly red and irregular in shape; it looks like a blossoming poppy. Each of the purses is a wild tapestry -- braided rags woven together and sewn with combinations of red, yellow, black, and green yarn. Eaglin's needlework exhibits an extraordinary sense of materials and color, considering the fact that he cannot see. He works at night, listening to the baseball game on the radio.

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