His name was Heinz Gaugel. He died in 2000 at 73 years of age, but I met him five years before that, when I was an innocent and starry-eyed twelve.
When I entered the studio, he sat with his back to me. A canvas road stretched away from him, with horses and buggies scattered along it and bare trees crowding close. He was calling out the leaves, daubing a sharp tool into the paint on his easel, mixing and smearing and pressing the color into his work. The leaves were yellow and orange against the sunset, and then all shades as they faded into the dusk: blue, red, green, purple.
I watched, mesmerized.
My family hurried me on, but I sneaked back into his studio to watch, dizzy with exhilaration. I felt that anything could happen, really, with such talent in the world.
He painted on, accustomed to watchers and unaware of my presence.
I took a deep breath.
“When did you make your first painting to sell?” I asked timidly.
Shari, Shari. Ever the dreamer.
He stopped painting and turned completely around in his chair. His chin was tipped up and his eyes smiling. But he answered with a question.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Twelve,” I said.
He turned and began daubing more colors. “That’s just how old I was.”
“When I was twelve,” he said, in his delightful old-Germany accent, “I had a little job, and when I got some money, the first thing I did was to go and buy some paints. With these I made my first oil painting to sell.”
He daubed. “Do you like to paint?”
“Yes!” I said, caught up in joy, and then rather crestfallen. “But I’m not good at it.”
“No, no. Keep at it,” he said. “Don’t let anyone stop you. If people criticize you, you tell them to go away and make their own mistakes. That’s the time when they shouldn’t criticize, they should praise.”
My brother showed up in the studio doorway. “Our tour guide’s here. Time to go,” he said.
We toured the Behalt, Mr. Gaugel’s 265-foot mural-in-the-round, his 14-year labor of love, his place of remembrance. We saw the red years of persecution, and the golden age of peace. We saw the amazing eyes of Jesus, that followed you around the room. We saw White Jonas, the man who expected the Lord’s imminent return, and prepared for it by wearing clothes of pure white and building a chair for Christ to sit in when he came to rule the world. There sat the chair, waiting still. White Jonas was long gone, but grafted into my own family tree: grandfather to my step-grandma.
When the tour was done I bought a postcard for twenty-five cents and went to see if Mr. Gaugel would autograph it for me. What an interrupted morning he was having! how brusque he could have been, for sure! but I was only twelve, and my eyes were shining. “Make sure to ask what you owe him,” my mother said.
Mr. Gaugel stood up from his painting, crossed the room, and sat down on his loveseat. I perched beside him.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“And how do you spell it?”
When he was done I said obediently, “How much do I owe you?”
He began to laugh. “How much do you owe me?! Nothing. Just take good care of it.” He walked with me to the door, his arm on my shoulders. My mother and sister were there. “Keep painting, sweetheart,” he said.
I went home and filled nine pages of my journal with him.
The postcard says “To Shari with Best Wishes. Heinz Gaugel. 9-12-95”
I would have liked to see him again, just to say thank you. Kindness to a small and foolish girl is an unexpected gift; and now that I am grown I see that perhaps to a man coolly assessed by many for his masterpieces and his cash value, my foolish starriness was also a gift.
I like to think so.