Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alexander King and Doc Reser

One of the many things I love about the Guerrilla Painter is that he has miles of old books lined up on shelves everywhere. In one of them that came to our attention recently, there is a description of a plein air painter that really made an impression on me.

The book, written by Alexander King and published in 1963, is entitled Is There Life After Birth?

King lived from 1900-1965 and was an illustrator, painter, art editor (for Vanity Fair and Life magazines) and raconteur.

In the last chapter of this book, he recalls the summer he spent living in Haiti in the mid-thirties, in a large house in a mountain village not far from Port au Prince. He ponders whether any of the people he had come to know there, while obviously living comfortably, were truly happy. He eventually decided that there were a few who were. One of them was Doc Reser, originally a member of the United States occupation forces who had stayed on to become chief supervisor of the native insane asylum. His sense of fulfillment came from befriending his staff and patients, who were on the bottom rung of status-conscious Haitian society. He did what he could for them, and he knew it made a big difference in their lives.

"When I first caught sight of him he had just discovered the pleasures of painting. Since he had no art materials of any kind, he used to distill his colors out of flowers and roots, and his first brush had been contrived out of a swatch of his own hair, which he had fastened onto a kitchen match.

"There was a totally leafless tree out in the back yard of the asylum, and, as if by common agreement, the skinny, permanently molting chickens in the whole dreary neighborhood used to come to roost in it. It was a truly weird sight to see all that bankrupt poultry covering every branch and twig of that dead cottonwood tree, and the day I happened to drop by, Doc was sitting just a little distance away, doing a painting of this apocalyptic manifestation.

"As I watched him I could see almost tangible emanations of pure joy radiating from his pink countenance, which was puckered into folds of amiable concentration. His huge, freckled hand held his tiny brush in creative hesitancy above the piece of cardboard he had propped up against a convenient stone, and as I looked at him I was convinced that Adam, on that first day, in that first garden, could have known no greater happiness than this."


Heather said...

I am currently reading Mine Enemy Grows Older by Alexander King, published in 1958, written when the author felt his days were numbered due to deteriorating health. I was happy to discover that he lived until 1965, continuing to write. I have been enjoying his humor through his interesting and unique voice as he shares his life experiences in earlier times and places. I will be looking into his other works and hoping to see him on an old Jack Parr episode. Thank you for featuring this author on your blog!

lady guerrilla painter said...

Thanks so much, Heather. He was definitely a unique perceptive.