On Saturday morning, over 800 artists met under the live oaks in Forsyth Park to draw. Each artist was given one square of sidewalk, one box of chalk and three hours–the rest was up to them. The Sidewalk Chalk Festival is hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design, so the quality is astounding. Undergrads, grad students, high school hopefuls, alumni, faculty all drawing their hearts out as we stroll by or picnic on the grass. In the mid-afternoon, judges judge, prizes are awarded, thousands and thousands of pictures are snapped. Then as the sun sets, it’s all washed away. It’s just chalk, after all.
Jose Luis Silva spent the day drawing a portrait of our friend, Spencer Cox, who died in December. Luis had been working on the portrait for an hour when we showed up. The grinning mug that he had summoned to life there on the sidewalk was already stopping traffic. People paused silently to watch him work with just black chalk, white chalk, his fingers and a watery brush.
Luis paused long enough to share hugs with me, with Brantley, with Jill. We three had loved Spencer when he was a bold boy at Governor’s Honors and again as a wizened man. In the interim years, most of us were unaware of Spencer’s work to get AIDS drugs approved by the FDA. He had disappeared on us during those New York years. At his memorial in January, many of Spencer’s dearest friends had commented on his chimeric habit of disappearing, of slipping away then reappearing years later. We started saying goodbye to Spencer when he was diagnosed with AIDS in the early 1990s. Hell, Spencer was supposed to have been dying for twenty years but he never did. Then he did. It was hard to believe he was gone gone.
Thanks to the work that Spencer did to get protease inhibitors approved by the FDA, eight million people around the world are living with AIDS today. Living. Today. Yet he’s gone. I can’t find words for the….irony? Pathos? Tragedy? I can’t, so I’ll quote from Peter Staley’s eulogy, “Grief Is a Sword”:Eight million people on standardized regimens. Eight million lives saved. It’s a stunning legacy, and so bittersweet. How could that young gay man, confronted with his own demise, respond with a level of genius that impacted millions of lives but failed to save his own? This death hit us hard. We have grappled to make sense of it. Why did he stop his meds? What role did his struggle with crystal meth play? Was this a failure of community? Are there lessons we can learn?
The first lesson for me has been about impermanence–Spencer is gone. Yes, it was complicated. Yes, he did great things with his genius. Yes, he did horrible things to his health. Yes, we can learn things from his life. Yes, there are things we will never know. No. He is gone.
But there he was again, emerging from the sidewalk beneath Luis’ fingertips. Luis drew the figure first. Then he added texture to the shirt and the hands. He added highlights. A couple of strokes from a stick of chalk and the distinctive patch of white in Spencer’s beard came back to us. A little bit of chalk dust and there was my friend.
When he was diagnosed with AIDS in his early 20s, it seemed foolish to dream of living to 30. Miraculously, he made it to 44. It was still miraculous for a man with AIDS who had survived the plague years to die at the advanced age of 44; it was still tragic for a man in this day to die of AIDS at 44 when drugs are able to offer many more years.
Luis surrounded his black and white portrait with a vibrant pink and purple background. Colors are never as simple as “pink” and “purple.” It took yellow and brown and gray to make the pink and purple work.
He added Spencer’s name and the years of his birth and death in the top left corner. That’s when the passersby started asking each other, “Who is that?” In the top right corner, Luis added a red ribbon for compostional balance. Once they saw the red ribbon, fewer people asked who Spencer was. Oh, AIDS. Another one bites the dust.
The dust. Saturday’s weather couldn’t have been more pleasant–warm spring sun, dappled shade, light breeze. Even in that idyllic climate, every motion–from the breeze to the sighs of careful crowds–took its toll on Luis’ creation. Near the end of his three hours of allotted drawing time, he turned to me and said, “That’s the thing about chalk. I use the water to make it stick better, but the face is already changed from when I drew it. Just in a few hours.” His hand fluttered between the photocopied picture of Spencer that ran with the New York Times obituary and the chalk portrait there on the ground before us. Chalk art changes as you make it. It can’t be anything but impermanent.
When Luis declared that he was done, we sat under the oaks and we didn’t talk about Spencer. We played with the tired baby. We drank beer and iced coffees. We sent the big kids on errands. We packed up and headed home at a sensible hour, like grown ups do.
I wonder what it would have felt like to stay there until the park emptied out and the cleaning crew came through with their hoses. I wonder what it would have meant to me to watch that patch of white in Spencer’s beard wash away into nothing as it joined with everything around it.
An artist creates a portrait that changes as he draws. A musician plays a note that fades at the same instant it is born. Eight million people breathe in; eight million people breathe out and the dust shifts around them. Before we can know a thing, it has moved on.