One very hot summer, we had been running a Street Library painting workshop in a community garden outside a New York City housing project. Karen Hart remembers a boy named Harold there: “He spent two weeks on the outside of the garden watching us before joining us. He was a quiet guy but you don’t have to be a shrink to see when a person is interested in something! Anyway, he wanted to paint, but was very gun shy. Lots of kids were at that garden too, and watercolors are kind of hard. Anyway in all the confusion I watched Harold strain to paint. He really wanted to do a sunflower—which is pretty ambitious! He almost bailed a few times. I popped back and forth with a tip or so but it was all his. Anyway in the end he had done this beautiful picture. But then he looked at it a long while, crumpled it up and started leaving. I rescued it. I would not have if I did not see his face and the painting. He was not upset it was no good—he was upset because it was good. I stopped him and asked if it was okay if we put it in our book because it was good.”
“Our book” was the Tapori Encyclopedia. Long before Wikipedia—and in 1985 even before personal computers were in most homes—children in four low-income neighborhoods of New York collaborated on designing a computer database about everything they considered important. The dot-matrix print-outs of what they wrote were pasted in a giant wooden book along with their painted illustrations. There were entries about all kinds of animals, plants, places, objects—and Harold’s sunflower, which decades later remains the most vibrant image on the very first page.
It was just recently when we saw a photo of the cover of the Tapori Encyclopedia that Karen said, “There should be a wrinkled sunflower painting—one of the greatest lessons I ever learned in my life, taught to me by a boy named Harold.” So I asked her what the lesson was, and why she thought Harold was upset because the painting was good. She wrote:
This is of course my read in—I didn’t know Harold or anything about his life or thoughts, so this is only what I thought. But over the years since, I’ve seen many, many people who were so used to failing, or being told they are, that they could not even see the beautiful things they were doing. I’ve also seen people being uncomfortable with a success, for many reasons: unfamiliarity, fear of expectations—too low or too high, false praise, fearing that you can’t acknowledge a skill or ability because socially or practically it would be too hard to pursue. There are many, many reasons. Heck, we all do that to some point. But not self-deprecation or esteem issues—it’s different. It’s like being scared of… hope? Hope can be a big a huge liability. Harold taught me to be alert to that. (Harold would have seen in a minute if I was giving him a “participation trophy” by the way.) It’s hard to know some things—often it’s very hard to know good things. Nobody ever wakes up wonderful—but everyone has a sunflower in there waiting to be painted. Sorry, that doesn’t even begin to convey what Harold showed me. I guess though it helps me understand the odds, fear and a couple of other things. Somewhere in that boy was a good painter of sunflowers. Whether or not he consciously knew it, it was there. And to realize that cat was out of the bag must have been kind of scary.
What I learned from Harold helps me to back up a decision someone makes and to understand what a long task it is to reap benefits from his fight—and from the even longer journey for the world to catch up to him. It helps me understand that there is no need for false praise because there are real things to admire. So much more, and you know, it was also a really beautiful painting of a sunflower, that (eventually), made both of us smile.