Thursday, June 7, 2012

A bad sports mom gets a hug from Lepoleon

I met Lepoleon Swopes through Joey’s 3rd grade football team.  I fell in love with him and he made me wish I were cooler, as many people do.

Especially in the first years of drawing full time after getting canned from my corporate job, I tried to draw my pencil portraits in public whenever possible, hoping to attract new customers.  I probably should have drawn the line at my kids’ sports games, but I’m a shameless capitalist.  Plus, as much as I want to be a supportive mom and lovingly stare at my sons as they do everything, there can be a lot of down time before your young kids get in on the team action.

Mostly, I’m not a big sports fan, anyway.  Don’t even get me started on baseball when nothing happens until all of a sudden a kid makes a mistake and everyone is rounding the bases, rubbing the poor kid’s nose in it and later discussing how everything would have been okay if that one damn kid had caught/hit/thrown the ball better.  My feelings are officially hurt for every kid who screws up and I’m just too sensitive for baseball. Except for tee-ball when everyone gets a turn and we cheer for everything and everyone.  That’s my kind of competition.

Football was easier on my emotions because I couldn’t tell what was happening.  Plus, I loved seeing my Joey in his first set of football pads.  With a 6’8 father and a sturdy Swedish mother, Joey was always tall for his age and built like a truck.  When he first put on those big shoulder pads, his already over-sized, Baby Huey frame was thrust into the future, time travel to his looming manhood.  My baby suddenly looked so huge and tough, and he knew it.  

Watching football requires a gene that I lack. Joey is on the offensive line and locating him in the pile of flailing kids was impossible to my untrained eye.  I’d watch for awhile, then give up and draw.  On the way home, my husband Joe would accusingly ask, “Did you see that block Joey made in the second quarter when the score was this and the play was that?”  I can’t fake it with Joe.  He knows. 

At one of Joey’s football games, another mom was sitting nearby with her girls.  They were actually watching the game while I was drawing without even pretending to pay attention.  They chatted with me a bit about my work and I ended up doing a memorial portrait and prayer cards for their uncle, Chester Swopes.  I thought Chester was quite handsome and I was thrilled to add his portrait to my portfolio.

Someone once emailed me, “I don’t see any dark skinned people on your web site.”  This was embarrassing and true; almost all my clients check the Caucasian census box.  I got a little overly excited when Chester Swopes’ lovely niece, Jacqueline, asked me to draw him.  I was honored and proudly displayed his portrait at my shows.  I was hoping he’d be a handsome lure to a better melting pot of work.

The real prize in drawing Chester, was meeting his brother, Lepoleon.

Lepoleon called me on the phone to tell me how much he enjoyed his little brother’s portrait and I was instantly smitten.  He had a melodic, lilting voice full of warmth, as if he was always on the verge of telling the punchline of a joke.  

There is something about an elderly black man that humbles me.  I always think to myself - here is someone who has experienced things that I couldn’t begin to understand. 

In a rich voice straight out of the movies,  Lepoleon praised my portrait of his brother and told me what a wonderful person Chester was, a leader in his community and church.  Lepoleon was so proud of his brother and seemed to let that pride wash over me too, making me feel like he’d been rooting for me to do a good job.  He said that it seemed like I knew what I was doing and that he hoped I could help him with another project.  Lepoleon explained that he had a drawing of his grandfather that a young girl had drawn for him.  It needed some work and he hoped that I would be willing to take a stab at it. 

I couldn’t wait to meet him, and when Lepoleon came over with his drawing, I couldn’t get enough of him.  He was a wiry little man with a rubbery, animated face and eyes that snap and spark.  He could have been 60, he could have been 80, in that ageless way some people have.  He would rub his dry hands together slowly while he talked, rocking a little bit and revving up his story.  I was transfixed.  I wanted to be about five years old and climb into his lap while he talked.  Of course it would have startled and crushed him if I'd actually done it, but you know what I mean.  I loved him and I wanted him to love me because I’m just inappropriate and greedy that way.

Lepoleon had never met his grandfather and there were no photographs of him in existence.  In anticipation of an upcoming family reunion, Lepoleon was gathering photos for a family tree.  Wouldn’t it be a fine surprise for his family to include a drawing of his grandfather?  The girl who had attempted the drawing was a fledgling artist in the family.  One of Lepoleon’s cousins remembered their grandfather well, and said that the girl’s drawing was a close resemblance.  But the eyes were wrong and it was a little rough. 

I worked on the drawing while Lepoleon leaned over my shoulder, giving me instruction.  I felt like a police sketch artist.  As I would add a wrinkle here, an adjustment there, Lepoleon would make rumbling pleased noises and say, “Nooowwww, we’re gettin’ somewhere.  Now, I’m seein’ him.” 

When we were through, Lepoleon sat back with a slow, big grin.  “Well what do you know,” he said softly, with a little catch in his voice.  “There’s my grand-dad.  I’ve never seen him before.” 

I don’t know that I’ve ever had a more rewarding moment as an artist. 

Later, Lepoleon decided to bring me a photo of his grandmother to add to the drawing of his grandfather. 

“Wow,” I said, surprised by the stern looking woman.  “She looks like she had a lot on her mind.”

“Well, I 'spect she sure did,” Lepoleon agreed.  “She had herself eleven kids!” 

“Maybe she was thinking about all that laundry,” I guessed.  Lepoleon laughed and hopefully decided I was hilarious.  I drew his grandmother separately and then digitally put them together for his family tree. 

Lepoleon was delighted when he came to pick up his family masterpiece.  “Everyone is going to be so surprised… they’ll get such a big kick out of this,” he said with extra warmth and asked me what he owed.  He paid me from a big wad of cash in his fanny pack. 

“Wow!” I gasped playfully, “You’re loaded.” 

He chuckled and said it was money from his shop.  “I’m a barber,” he said with a little pride and maybe a little fatigue.  I don’t think I could have pictured a better job for him.  I wished I could sit in the corner of his shop and listen to the exchanges that must go on… all the talk that’s so full of history and culture and connection and laughter.  White people don’t ever seem to connect in the joyful way that black people do.  I know you’re not supposed to say black, but I think black people are so much cooler than white people.  White people don’t see each other and think, “Hey, awesome!  White guy!”  We think, his car is better.  Or my car is better.  We are idiots.

We are not cool.
“I’m so glad you’re happy,” I told Lepoleon, feeling a little shy and choked up.  “I loved drawing for you.”

“Oh honey, I love you, too,” he said, and he gave me a tight hug.  I’m a big hugger, as you know, but this was different and special and unexpected… this loving hug that reached across culture and generations and my sheltered upbringing. It was just so touching to me.

Every time I’m finished with a project that has involved a few meetings, especially when the subject is so important, it’s hard.  We look at each other and think, “Well, what now?  Is this good-bye?”  There’s emotion there, sometimes.  A connection.  And then it is over and we move on with our lives.  I told Lepoleon to please come back and tell me all about the reunion.  I didn't want him to go.

I wish I could give an afternoon with Lepoleon to everyone I know.  He would make you smile and want to be a little kinder, because you'd want to make him proud.


  1. Damb it, you made me tear up.

    1. That's my job! I got choked up writing it too, so we've even.

  2. This is fabulous! Truly does make me want to go out and be kinder person and break through steriotypes. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much. I think there are jerks and wonderful people in all walks of life. But the very nicest white person just doesn't seem as nice as Lepoleon. I'll write another story another day about a similar experience I had with some younger guys.

  3. A wonderful story -- and the drawing of Chester is beautiful and handsome. I can see why someone else in the family came to work with you. I had the advantage of working for many years as a minority in the public schools of Detroit and met so many warm and lovely people. I felt like it was a special gift I'd been given.

    1. Were you an art teacher, Connie? That would explain how you create such a wonderful sense of community.

  4. I love getting your blogs, not only are you a talented artist but an amazing story teller/writer. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  5. I didn't get a hug after you did the portrait of my kids. Bogus, man.

    1. I've got a hug waiting for you at all times. And you got SEVERAL hugs for that portrait, you with the pants on fire.

  6. Great, touching story, Wendy! You are a remarkable writer as well!


Tell me some stuff!