Artist In The Park

I loved a man I didn’t really know once. I didn’t know him because the hard life he had led caused him to build up such walls around himself that it wasn’t possible for anyone to break through. He was a homeless man. A tramp. A hobo. He was also a poet and an artist. I spoke to him every day for my last two years of University. He lived in the park nearby. There was madness in his eyes but also kindness. He was a sensitive man, a thinking man who had almost gone mad with grief. Grief at the way the world was. Grief at the way his life had turned out.

My friends thought I was putting myself in danger, that he would try to steal from me, would attack me. Sometimes they used to watch from behind the bushes by the Chinese Elm tree, but they had no need to worry. Donald was the gentlest of souls.

He liked a drink. That was part of the reason he was homeless, but he was never violent or obnoxious after a bottle of cheap sherry, merely contemplative. Donald drew with coloured pencils on discarded scraps of paper. People don’t throw away paints, he would say, but they do throw away packets of pencils. Most of the time only one pencil is missing – usually red. People are so frivolous with colour, so fickle. All the other colours are thrown away because red is missing. It’s a waste. It was something that bothered him a lot.

Donald drew a lot of nature scenes. He used a lot of green until the pencils were worn down to stubs. I used to raid the art rooms for old, slightly broken green pencils and pass them on.

Donald’s drawings were like paintings. I don’t know enough about drawing techniques to know how he achieved the look, but it was impressive given his limited materials.

His poems were even better. He taught me that you don’t need to be sitting in a gondola in Venice to see a poem in your world. Through him I developed an interest and a love for the beauty in everyday things.

Beauty in the little things. It’s what kept Donald alive. It’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings.

Someone asked me the other day how I learned to write about trees and birds and commonplace things. One of the people who taught me was Donald. He taught me how to see things. He taught me that a swirl on the pavement or a gnarled knot in a tree branch is a story.

One day after a long weekend I went to the park and Donald was gone. He was never not there, the park was his home. I asked a Council worker where he was and he told me Donald had died on the weekend. A heart attack. All of his stuff was gone. His drawings, his poetry. The Council worker thought it had probably been thrown away. I rang Head Office, desperate, pleading. They told me all of Donald’s stuff had been incinerated, that he had no next of kin to pass it on to anyway, and really, who in their right mind would want that stuff?

Sometimes when the grass is held in a certain light or the leaves on the brushbox tree touch one another in song, I think of Donald. I saw a piece of broken glass on the road today, edges smooth, forest green and I held it up to the light and looked through. It was a muted, magical world of wild grasses and shadowy woodland. It was subtly hued like a candlelit room.

That piece of glass made me realise how lucky I am. If not for Donald I might not be able to see the world through the glass at all.

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29 thoughts on “Artist In The Park

  1. You have just the most beautiful, balanced prose style, Selma. This piece and many others you have posted is so elegant and clean and perfectly phrased. It is of a quality publishable anywhere.

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  2. This made me wonder … how much valuable stuff gets dismissed as ‘rubbish’ and just thrown away? I think of my Grandma’s water-colours; they were by no means great works of art, but I’d still like to have had some. But, I was abroad when she passed away, and all were destroyed.

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  3. Hi PAUL:
    You are so kind to say that. That means so much to me. Thanks, mate!

    Hi TRAVELRAT:
    That’s what I mean. I’m sure you would treasure your Grandma’s watercolours. It’s such a shame they were destroyed. I guess some things just aren’t viewed as being valuable. Such a shame.

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  4. If I could sum up this post in a single word, I would be at a loss, as I don’t think that there is a single word that can cover what I felt after reading it. With a little artistic license (aka plagiarism), how about this:

    Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious!

    (That’s from Mary Poppins!)

    Sometimes the people who seem to have nothing can see the beauty in every day life, and the ones that seem to have it all are always looking. From how you describe him, Donald seems to have been a really decent human being, who didn’t judge anyone, and tried to find nothing but the beauty in his life, despite his surroundings and situation. If only more of us could be like that.
    It is sad to think that all of his work was incinerated because of the stereotypical ignorant thinking of an unthinking and unfeeling human being.
    Having said that, Donald’s work will live forever. It changed the way that you looked at life, and actually changed the way that you live. Through you, Donald’s life has reached us, and through us it will reach others.
    So while you are sad at the passing of a friend, and the wanton destruction of his life’s work, I would say that the most important thing that Donald did – helping you see the beauty in life – is still shining brightly!

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  5. You are just a beautiful, emotionally rich and wonderful person. This sad yet heart-warming tale makes me yearn to see Donald’s drawings.

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  6. Hot damn, this is beautiful.

    This post really took me back to the young hippie artist I used to love and live with back in my early 20’s so…thank you so much for that. 🙂

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  7. I love this post. It’s my kind of story (as I’m sure you know) and I’m so glad I got to read it today. You are lucky indeed. And I’m glad you immortalised Donald by telling this story. Most homeless people are treated as if they are invisible – imagine the layers going on in this “invisible” world.

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  8. Wow Selma- I’m lost for words after reading this… It was simply beautiful!
    Fascinating isn’t it- how we like to label people as “crazy” or “lunatic” if they tend to get upset about how corrupted our world has become.
    And those missing red pencils shows something even more tragic; how we’re always looking to mark the mistakes, the faults and the rest of the colors just goes to waste…

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  9. So sad to think that people believe that just because one doesn’t have family, they don’t belong to someone. I hope he knew what a difference he made in your life – that through the grief and ugliness, he made the world a better place by mentoring you. Which brings me to another thought – that one never knows where pearls of wisdom are going to come from. 🙂

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  10. Selma, this post makes me like you more than I already did. I love that you can find with friendships with people that others see as scary or dangerous, that you can see through the exterior and get to the interior. People miss out on such wonderful encounters with other human beings when they discount someone because of their looks or lot in life.

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  11. Hi SLAMDUNK:
    I have met some incredibly inspirational people who were outwardly a little offputting. Everyone has a story worth telling, I firmly believe that. Just as everyone has something to offer.

    Hi MANOJ:
    It means a lot to me that you should say that because I would like to think I am honouring him in some small way. He was a well-educated man (it was obvious) with a great deal of sensitivity and insight who had fallen on hard times. He gave me a gift I will always treasure.

    Hi ROSHAN:
    I wish I had just one. They were something special. Donald really was one in a million yet to most people he was faceless. Such a shame.

    Hi HILLY:
    I am so glad. I really like the hippy sensibility, especially the artistic side. It’s what life should really be like, I think.

    Hi JENNIFER:
    I had a feeling you might like this one. You’re so right about the layers. Homeless people have laughed and ached as much as the rest of us only sometimes more intensely. They don’t deserve to be regarded as invisible.

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  12. Hi JENNIFER:
    Thank you so much for the inclusion. I am honoured.

    Hi LUA:
    The point about the coloured pencils is an interesting one. I hadn’t thought about red being the most used colour. And we are to quick to label as a society. It’s a shame.

    Hi TEX:
    You just never know where inspiration will come from. Your point about family is an important one. Even though I wasn’t family in a way I felt he belonged to me.

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  13. Hi SUSANNAH:
    I am glad his story could touch you. He was a very special man!

    Hi LAURI:
    It’s almost there. Thanks for asking. I do need a push from time to time.

    Hi KATE:
    Awww. What a beautiful thing to say. And you are so right about looking past the exterior.

    Hi BRITT:
    My pleasure. Really, it was the least I could do.

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  14. I have tears in my eyes. I’m so sorry Donald’s work was lost. But I totally agree with Manoj: what a wonderful thought and a great realisation I’ve had today. Thank you for teaching me how to see, dear Sel.

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  15. Fantastic story Selma and again you bought a tear to my eye. You have immortalised Donald and I’m sure he loved talking to you everyday. Many people are only a few pay checks away from being homeless. The ending of your story is excellent.

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  16. I am literally tearing up. Just like Donald taught you -Thank you for teaching ME how to REALLY look at things and how to be more aware of the talent that just might be sitting next to me! I only wish I could have seen Donald’s drawings.

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  17. Wow. Just…wow. Damn, lady, your imagery is powerful.

    Also, you’d somehow disappeared from my reader feed, which is why I’ve been absent and missing out on the good stuff. WTF? Argh, etc.

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  18. Hi DAOINE:
    My pleasure. Donald’s story has always stuck with me. I wish I had been able to learn more about him. He obviously had a background in the arts. He really was a special person.

    Hi GABRIELLE:
    I think that’s why I could relate to Donald so well. His situation could so easily have been mine. My Scottish granddad who was normally a very reserved man was very passionate about homeless people. ‘Don’t judge them,’ he used to say. ‘You don’t know their story.’

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  19. Hi MELEAH:
    I wish I had one of Donald’s drawings to show you. They were amazing. It kills me to think they were burned. What a waste.

    Hi HEATHER:
    My reader feed must have done the great Aussie tradition of going walkabout. I lose feeds occasionally too. I don’t know if it’s Firefox or Google Reader that is the culprit. Weirdly enough, they’ll be gone and then all of a sudden a few days or weeks later they’ll be back. I think it’s a glitch in the matrix….

    Hi MAMA ZEN:
    He really was a blessing. What a beautiful way of looking at it. Thanks, Mama!

    Hi ONE OF THE GUYS:
    I really appreciate you saying that. Thank you for coming to visit. Any friend of Meleah’s is more than welcome here!

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  20. Selma! I love this story AND how you wrote it! Beautiful.

    May we always be open to seeing the gifts of one another, despite our differences.

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  21. Oh Selma, this is so poignant and heartbreaking that he died and then his artwork was destroyed as well. As an artist, that news hit me viscerally. At least, you were able to know his true essence and benefit from that. How kind of you to bring him art supplies!

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  22. Hi DANA:
    I couldn’t agree more. Embrace the differences!

    Hi GEL:
    I know. I felt it too. Even though I complain about the manuscripts in my drawer I would be devastated if someone burned them. It would be like burning an arm or a leg.

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