I often turn to drawing during tough times. It is less of a respite and more of a regroup. I have drawings that I work on over a number of years. This is one of them. My subjects need breath, blood, and DNA to be convincing. If they don’t have it I put it them on a back burner. They lie in the flat file like a body on a slab at a cryonics lab. There will come a time. We will meet again.

I found that time on an early autumn morning during the final weeks of the campaign. The country was being hijacked by an evil and dangerous huckster. A sociopathic bully who wants to rob the country of its life and dreams was all anyone was talking about. It’s the fragile, defenseless, and invisible ones who will take the hit and feel it first. They always do. That brings me to the backstory of this drawing.

Forty-five years ago I had attitude, a young man’s swagger. I was a bit of a punk and usually ready for a fight. That made me a repeated target for the local police.

On one particular morning I arrived three hours late for Ed Colston’s three hour class. Ed Colston had facial hair like Malcolm X; he wore kente cloth dashikis and very often sunglasses. He spoke in a gravelly voice just above a whisper. When I arrived the classroom was empty except for Mr. Colston. I was beginning to explain myself when he said, “I know, I heard.” I was arrested the night before but this time couldn’t afford bail. I had to spend the night in jail and wait for an early morning court appearance. He appreciated the energy and pedal to the metal pace that I kept but was concerned about my recklessness, I suppose. He asked if he could show me something. We arrived at his studio and he pulled out a painting. It was the only painting that he showed me in a roomful of paintings. “It’s called ‘Little Black Sambo with a Hard On for Life.’” he whispered in my ear. And then we left.

Over the years that painting has come to mean, among other things, strength and a sparkling yet bruised resilience. When Ed showed it to me that morning, it was one of the sweetest and most genuinely human gestures I’ve ever been given.

Forty-five years ago was also a time of great divide and anger. I think about Ed and his Little Black Sambo often and I mean often. Because he understood. That is what caring people do. That is what he did and why he did it.

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Fred Valentine

Fred Valentine is an artist and gallerist based in New York City. He moved to New York City in 1984. In the early 1990s he became part of a group of artists, activists, and organizers of guerrilla theater...