You will never guess what happened last Sunday. The story started 25 years ago when I was director of the Skidaway Marine Science Foundation in Savannah. One sunny Saturday in spring, I was manning a foundation booth at an event at the Oatland Island Wildlife Center in Savannah. Directly across from me a young black man was displaying a small collection of his paintings for sale. I had never seen anything quite like them. Bright, rich colors with African themes — women in turbans sitting among a whirl of baskets, a host of animals peeking shyly out of a jungle. All except the lion, who strode full view into the scene, his face turned to glower at the observer.
Nobody stopped to look at his paintings. After an hour or so, I strolled over and asked the prices. The one I liked was $50. As the day wore on, the artist grew more discouraged, slouching deeper into his lawn chair, his hands clasped across his belly. I finally decided to purchase the turban and basket painting.
"This is not an 'art' crowd," he grumbled, handing me the canvas. I had no idea what his circumstances were or who he was. I just liked his work.
As the hours passed, I kept eyeing the lion painting. There was something Edenic about it — all the animals, the lush vegetation. But the price was $75. It would be extravagant to buy two paintings, especially with a son approaching college age.
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Fast forward to last Sunday, a warm, sunny afternoon in Savannah. Husband Bill and I decided to drive through the historic district after lunch. We visit neither of the two main tourist areas downtown, River Street and City Market, very often. It had been years since we had browsed among the shops at City Market. But for some reason, I asked Bill to try to find a parking space so that we could look around. Amazingly, we found a place behind Savannah's Candy Kitchen.
The candy shop opened onto a breezeway that led from the back street where we had parked to the center of City Market. Several art galleries opened onto the breezeway. On the right was Alix Baptiste's gallery, a small, airy space adorned with vibrantly colored canvases of all sizes. As I entered, a slender black man greeted me. "Are you Alix?" I asked. Then I glanced around his gallery.
He was the glum artist of Oatland Island. "I bought one of your paintings a hundred years ago," I told him. "You charged me fifty dollars."
"Oh! That's when I was starving. I would take anything people would give me," he said, pulling me into a laughing hug.
I pointed to a painting the same size as mine. "How much is that one?" I asked.
"$3,000," he replied.
"What?" I squawked in disbelief.
He walked to the cash register, pushed a button and printed out a receipt. "I'll show you so you'll believe me." He held out a scrap of paper bearing four figures, with the facsimile of an illegible signature at the bottom of the receipt.
Regaining my composure, I pointed to a 3-foot-by-4-foot canvas. "And what about this one?"
"$25,000," he replied.
Alix offered me $1,000 for my painting. He wanted to make giclees of it to sell for $600 apiece in his gallery.
"Absolutely not," I said with a smile, secretly planning to take my painting to a bank vault.
Alix pointed to a framed photograph of none other than Robert DeNiro. He was standing in Alix's gallery. "He bought three of my paintings," Alix said, naming a sum that took my breath away. "We're still in touch."
We never know where our small decisions might lead. Maybe, all those years ago, my $50 helped Alix buy enough supplies to keep working or reinforced his faith in himself. Whatever the case, my investment paid off in more ways than one.
Wish I had bought that lion painting.
Carol Megathlin is a Savannah writer. Visit www.alixbaptiste.com to see Alix's work.