This summer sculptor Chris Wagner and I had a great time working with Bill Keys, a World War II veteran who turned 90 while we were doing his portrait. We loved the change of scenery, packing up our gear and heading out of the studio to meet Bill at his apartment. We loved sharing the birthday cake with him and enjoyed the ebb and flow of conversation while we painted and sculpted, not least because Bill told great stories about growing up in rural Clatskanie, Oregon, during the 1920s and 30s and about living in a beautiful Portland retirement community for the past ten years. In celebration of the stories you don’t expect to hear when doing portraits of combat veterans, I’ll relate a quick three.
The Mystery of the Squaw’s Black Hair
Bill told us all about an old woman he knew around town, a Native American named Ellen Mitchell (a rather un-squaw sounding name to my ears) who had lived longer than anyone around and still had jet black hair. “She was full-blooded Indian,” said Bill, “and there were rumors everywhere about how she kept her hair that way.” The town hairdresser denied helping her, claiming she never set foot in their establishment. And Ellen kept to herself, had nary a friend. So what was her secret, we asked. Witchcraft?
After Ellen died, the neighbor who settled her estate discovered her trick while sorting through her effects: hand prints in the chimney behind Ellen’s wood stove. She had been “dying” her hair with soot.
The Long Lost Throw
Bill had been working since age six, running alongside a milk delivery truck picking up and dropping off bottles. But his ambitions revolved around baseball, and as a teenager he happily found a way to combine that with a paycheck, letting the government subsidize his habit. In the late 1930s, he lied about his age to join the Army, lured not by the thrill of guns, guts, and glory, but by the promise from the local regiment that he would play catcher on their ball team.
Apparently Bill was a heck of a catcher. As we worked on his portrait, he told us in detail how he honed his ability throw fast and accurately over the pitcher’s mound to nail would-be base stealers at second base. He practiced all the time to refine his technique before the US entry into World War II put a stop to his focus on baseball. And he still laments the loss of that big throw thanks to a sniper who fired a bullet from the Leaning Tower of Pisa through his upper right arm during the 1945 Allied invasion of Italy. (See our previous post for more on that.)
The Dinner Harem
To hear Bill tell it, life in a retirement community sounds like the college dorm life he never had… female friends sneaking down the hall after hours to avoid spreading rumors about who’s sharing late-night wine with whom, along with the occasional intimate conversation, what Bill calls “playing house.”
Living with a lot of people their own age, and usually free of spouses, it seems Bill and his neighbors navigate the same social questions college students do, chief among them, “Who should I sit with in the dining room?”
Bill said he hangs out with five ladies who all live on the same floor as he does. He jokingly refers to them as “my harem.” After his wife died, Bill actually married one of those ladies from down the hall. He told us she was the most beautiful 80-year-old woman a person can imagine, and he treasured her offer to play house with him for a while. “We shared three good years before she died,” he said.
Chris and I met the ladies from the dinner harem during our evenings working with Bill. We usually started at 5:30pm, and worked on his portrait for three hours until the summer light left us, which kept Bill from his dinner routine. The ladies would come by to check up on us, curious about our progress on the portrait and ready to set Bill’s stories straight with their own points of view.
Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.