Ars Pro Multis
By Jeff Baker
We were browsing through my old Senior Yearbook after dinner, when Artie pointed to the picture.
“Hey! I recognize him! That’s Jerryl Donnelo, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “But back in 1958, he was just Jerry Donnely.”
“Did you know him?”
“Not really,” I said. “I think we took a couple of classes together.”
“He signed your yearbook, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, but so did a lot of people,” I said.
“Let me look at this; short hair, button-down checkered shirt. Doesn’t look like the Donnelo I read about.”
“I think there’s a picture of him in the front of the book, painting one of the sets for the school play,” I said. There was, but it wasn’t the picture I remembered of Jerry.
Summer, 1960. I was going to the community college and Jerry was living in a little walk-up off 37th street. He couldn’t afford college so he was working various jobs trying to sell some of his paintings. One afternoon I walked into the loft he was using and found him wearing nothing but jeans, looking tanned and sinewy. He was talking about a show he was going to be in that might be a big break for him. Then he pointed over to an empty easel and asked me what I thought.
“Of what?” I said.
“The painting,” Jerry said.
“Um, there’s no painting there.” I said.
“I know.” Jerry said. “I sold it this morning. For fifty bucks.” He broke out into a big grin.
Fifty bucks was a lot of money back then.
“Congratulations!” I said.
“You want to celebrate?” he asked.
I did. We walked down to the store and got some beer and wine. I sat and had a beer and watched him in his room as he put the finishing touches on another painting. Then we made out on the floor and on his couch. (His bed was piled with magazines.) Later in the evening we finished off the wine and walked down the street in the dark.
“Let’s be daring,” he said. There was a low, concrete bridge just up the street. We hid under it in the darkness and made the most passionate love we ever had. Daring, this was 1960. As we were laying there afterwards, Jerry stared up at the concrete arch overhead and asked me to wait there. He pulled his clothes on and rushed off. I cautiously pulled on my pants and shirt and stood up, staying in the shadows. About twenty minutes later, Jerry rushed back carrying a bag. He set the bag on the ground and stared up at the arch above us.
“Ha-Ha! You are mine!” Jerry said with a maniacal grin as he pulled out some spray paint and within ten minutes had covered a strip in the middle of the underside of the bridge with abstract color. It was somehow appealing in the dim light. I was laughing. We were both drunk.
“Finis!” Jerry said, surveying his work. “A masterpiece by, by…by the great expatriate artist Jerryl Donnatello. No, no…Jerryl Donnelo! Yes!”
So I was there when he rechristened himself. We kissed again under the bridge, then we staggered back to his apartment and I think we slept on the floor.
By that fall, he was in New York City, making Jerryl Donnelo the most talked-about name in the art world, and I was working towards my eventual Bachelor’s Degree and a more prosaic career in business.
When I heard that he had died in 1969, turning his car against the light when he was plastered out of his mind, I went that weekend to the bridge he’d decorated. Weeds were growing on either side and it didn’t look like his art had been disturbed. Now, in the 21st Century I read about collectors paying thousands for one Jerryl Donnelo and I muse about the irony of people driving over an unknown Donnelo. Who would own it? His estate? The city? The paint store?
Fifty-Eight years is a long time, but I can still taste his kiss.
Note: Maybe inspired by stories of an art teacher my Mom worked with 30 + years ago who had gone to school with Jackson Pollock. Thanks to Darryl for the title!