Paint it Black

Barron Storey is searching for a painting, determined to find a specific piece of his work among the many stashed away in a hall closet. He bends down, flipping back one piece after another--beautiful and abstract paintings that make up his as-yet-unfinished "Dream Series," portraits he did for Time magazine in the 1970s, among so many other works grand and small--desperately hunting for the one piece he says will explain it all.

When he finds the painting he's looking for, a charcoal sketch contained within a cheap silver frame, he holds it aloft, more careful with it than he is with the others. "This is my mom on her death bed in Parkland Hospital," he begins. Standing in his cluttered San Francisco apartment now, he holds a sketch of a woman lying on a bed, a tracheotomy tube protruding from her neck. But it is difficult to tell from the gray-and-white drawing whether it's a man or woman, only that the figure is, most likely, dead.

The skin is taut, contracted tight to mold around bone and teeth. The mouth is a gaping black maw, no lips. The hair is thin, the eyes closed.

Storey explains he drew the portrait while sitting next to his mother, who was being kept alive on a respirator at Parkland, just a few hours after he got off a plane from New York City and returned to his hometown. It was in December 1963, just a couple of weeks after John Kennedy had been assassinated, and a then-24-year-old Barron Storey had received a phone call from his father, who told his oldest son that his mother was sick, and that perhaps she'd feel better if Barron came home.

Of Juanita and Lewis Storey's four children, Barron, their oldest, was the closest to his mother. She had nurtured him, taught him, prodded him to become a great thinker. When the other children were playing ball in their neighborhood near Inwood and Lemmon, he would be reading Shakespeare; when the other kids from Thomas J. Rusk Junior High were listening to rock and roll, Barron would be listening to Beethoven. It was Juanita who encouraged Barron to use his childhood skills as an artist so he might someday become famous.

Juanita Williamson Storey loved her son, wanted him to be all the things she couldn't. But that was before. Before she went crazy, before she swallowed all that rat poison. "Enough to kill an army," the doctor told Barron.

He had been in New York working in advertising at the renowned J. Walter Thompson agency, something his mother had always despised; she thought ad work was duplicitous--beneath her son's prodigious talents as an artist. But he had also been studying art on the side, learning under his mentor Robert Weaver ("a man I admired like a god") at the prestigious School of Visual Arts. Weaver had challenged his students to tackle serious subjects, so Barron decided to draw the dead. With the help of a friend at Bellevue Hospital, Barron would slip into the morgue with his sketchpad.

"It was vivid," he recalls. "It was totally antiseptic. All the corpses were on steel drawers you'd pull out like a filing cabinet. All the walls were polished stainless steel, the floors were tile. There was no voodoo. They had a room called 'The Floater Room' where they kept the corpses that were fished up out of the river, and I can remember drawing the image of a doctor talking to a student, leaning on the rib cage of this grotesquely mutilated corpse like it was an arm rest. They were that casual about death.

"And then, a twist of fate. I was off to Texas not knowing why I was going, and there was another corpse. I had been drawing all these things in the city morgue, and my reaction was to draw it. It was my mom, but it was a corpse. The minute someone's dead, it's just meat."

That was 22 years ago, and Barron Storey has not stopped drawing his mother to this day.

Despite his success as an illustrator, his work in Time and National Geographic, the paintings he has hanging in national galleries, and the comic art he helped reinvent, suicidal Juanita Storey still inhabits his drawings, journals, plays, and songs.

"Sidney Deepscorn?"
"Sometimes. No money right now."
"Why not?"
--"The Adjustment of Sidney Deepscorn," Barron Storey, 1992

Barron Storey lives at the end of an alley in North Beach, near Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. He lives here in anonymity, tucked away from the outside world. Wearing his usual outfit of gray pants, gray socks, and black shoes--"I used to wear all black," he says, "during the Reagan-Bush years"--he ventures out a few days a week to teach at the nearby California College of Arts and Crafts or another art school in San Jose. But most of the time he spends in this modest-sized flat draped over his easel in his front room, on frenzied deadline with an illustration for the likes of Boys' Life, Reader's Digest, National Geographic--his mainstream stuff.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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