One Penny Per Jesus

 

 

The nicest of these photos are taken by Tarik Nunez – www.tariknunez.blogspot.com


 

 


Let me introduce you to one of my favorite artists….

Whenever I see a photo of Quito’s Church of San Francisco, I look a little closer.  It is a gorgeous piece of architecture dating back to the 1500’s, resplendent with golden saints and mischievous cherubs. But these are not what interest me.  I squint at photos and try to decipher the blurs, hoping to catch a glimpse of my beloved Fausto, and his thousand little Jesus’.

Fausto is an artist. Other people might use other words to describe him: beggar or lunatic, but to me he is simply and radiantly an artist. For years Fausto has sat in the shadow of San Francisco, drawing Jesus with a passion unrivalled by any artist I have ever known. All day long, rain or shine, you can find Fausto and his ballpoint pen, furiously scribbling portraits of Jesus.

 

Not only is he an artist, Fausto is a work of art.  On the rare occasions when Fausto looks up from his art and shyly smiles at me, my heart flutters a little bit.  His teeth are big and delightful, each one professing its individuality, like crooked tombstones in a neglected graveyard.  Often they are flecked with paint- Fausto’s rainbow smile.

 

For as long as anyone can remember, he has procured a distinct fashion code which he refuses to deviate from – flowered shirts and plaid pants – as many as possible at the same time. Fausto will pile on layer after layer of clothing, until the outermost shirt is stretched tight, and the innermost layers never again see the light of day. He looks like the Michelin man, or a birthday clown who ignored a WET PAINT sign and took a nap on a park bench.  When I first met him years ago he had a green felt hat.  That hat has weathered so many storms that now it looks like leather and has faded to an earthy brown, but no other hat will do.  He is so heartbreakingly beautiful that I just want to hug him, fleas be damned.

 

I don’t hug Fausto though.  Not because of the smell, but because he is so shy.  It took me weeks of visits to even coax a hello out of him. Fausto works with his head down, hiding from the world behind a big shield of papers which he clutches with his left hand.  On these pages are written messages to the people who cast him unfriendly glances. “I AM NOT CRAZY” “I AM NOT A BEGGAR” “THE PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS, THEY ONLY CRITICIZE”.  Every day he has a new sign which screams at the world, pasted on top of the dozens of signs that came before, like some dysfunctional epic poem.

 

All day long Fausto scribbles away.  Jesus after Jesus. Again and again and again and again…..hours upon hours, years upon years. Jesus Jesus Jesus. Most of his pictures are scratched maniacally on scraps of paper with ball point pen. His hand never stops. Cristo Cristo Cristo. Piles of Christs flutter around him like confetti. Sometimes he will take a giant piece of paper and divide it in to teeny crooked squares (1 inch by 1 inch) and scratch out hundreds of snaps of Jesus, like movie film.

Sometimes they are nothing more than the corner of Jesus’ shoulder as he disappears down corridors or the back of his head as he addresses a crowd of disciples. Sometimes they are huge, more classic portraits of Jesus, heavily loaded with paint and varnish, and whatever bits of debris that get stuck on them in the process. Fausto’s Jesus is always recognizable.  After drawing thousands and thousands of them, they have morphed into a pleasing, stylized icon that is unmistakably, preciously Fausto.

Every once in a blue moon, the record in Fausto’s head will skip, and instead of drawing Jesus, he will lapse into brief manias of drawing the romantic crooner, Luis Miguel.  These pictures are marvelous and all over the map. Luis Miguel as a child.  Luis Miguel on roller skates.  Luis Miguel with his girlfriend, Mariah Carey. Luis Miguel in a tuxedo, staring at you with an icy glare.  None of the drawings look very much like Luis Miguel, or like each other.  But there is an undeniable charm about them.

Among countless piles of drawings from Fausto, I have one precious, primary colored portrait of Menudo.  I smile every time I look at it and wonder where it came from.

Once I asked Fausto to draw my portrait.  He picked up some magic markers and began an intense study of the colorful embroidery of my pant leg.  My hair or face or arms did not seem to interest him.   All he was fixated on was my pant leg.  I watched him diligently select each color, and carefully apply them to his drawing.  Color after color, he was meticulous.  He put so many colors on that they turned brown and bled together and put a hole in the page.  My portrait is just a big blotchy hole with a head sticking out.  I love it.

 

What is most astounding about Fausto’s art is the sheer volume of it.  I could not begin to calculate. By this point I must have a thousand of his drawings, and that does not even represent a drop in the bucket.  I am sure he has drawn enough pictures of Jesus to decoupage the entire cathedral. I couldn’t begin to calculate. Nor can I imagine where these drawing end up.  He sells them for pennies a piece, though many of them just seem to get crumbled and disintegrate in his chaotic bundles of papers.

 

 

Sometimes I wonder how many other people who walk by him see more than a beggar.  How many people recognize what a treasure he is, and frame his pictures on their walls? So often when I sit with him, someone will walk by and cluck, “Such a pity,” and suggest that it is a shame that Fausto never went to art school.  I immediately jump to Fausto’s defense.  I think he is perfect, and his art is so pure and unpretentious that any true artist would recognize its value at once.  The freedom and fanatical manner with which Fausto approaches his trade are so enviable.
He could not care less if hands have six fingers, or Jesus’s head is completely out of proportion to his body. Fausto just draws and the spirit comes thru him. He doesn’t deliberate or hesitate, he just draws. I have learned a lot by watching him, and sometimes I try to channel his passion when I am doing my own artwork.

My friend once said of Fausto, “He almost doesn’t exist”.  It is as though he inhabits the outermost orbit of reality. He is so simple and repetitive, but perplexing at the same time.  Moreover, Fausto is us.  He is what happens when passion carries you away. I see my own mania in him. If life were different, and I were less lucky, or maybe more lucky, I could be him.  Though maybe I flatter myself.

It took several visits before I could even coax a smile out of Fausto.  This made him all the more intriguing.  Over the years I have gotten little pieces of his puzzle revealed to me.  I know he is 32 and from Ibarra.  He lives in a small room up the hill from the church that is donated to him “Una Senora” whose name he forgot. He doesn’t ever remember my name, but he calls me “Senorita Gringa” and seems happy when I sit down next to him. Fausto’s last name is Imbacuan, but he has so much charisma that he can carry off the one-name thing: Madonna. Cher. Charo, Fausto.

I like to go and draw next to Fausto. I even wear plaid pants and a flowered shirt sometimes, just for fun.  Once someone mistook me for a beggar and gave me 50 cents. Always, a small crowd forms.  Shy children lean on each others shoulders and smile and stare.  The churchyard loonies limp over and watch us like television.  The police strut forward to investigate what the fuss is about. Fausto just ignores the paparazzi.

I recall one afternoon that I sat with Fausto.  He began to show me his most recent Jesuses. There must have been over a thousand, ranging from the size of a matchbox, to poster-size. He narrated EVERY SINGLE ONE. It was a soft, rhythmic cadence, “Jesus (hey zoos!), Jesus con dicipulos, Jesus caminando, Jesus tirando semillas a los aves del cielo, Jesus lleva la cruz, Jesus y Saul, Jesus y Pedro, Jesus habla con Pilato……” it took nearly two hours for him to work his way through each tiny Jesus. I wanted to record his voice, it was a soothing mantra.

First the children gathered in curiosity. No one has any shame about lingering to stare at a gringa. Next came the bored churchyard ruffians, then a few tourists, and soon there was a regular crowd surrounding us. I don’t know why they were interested to hear Fausto go on and on about his drawings. Maybe they were just bored. Maybe a crowd just draws a crowd.

We were basking in the bliss of the moment, and awkwardly shouldering the attention of the rather large crowd, when inevitably a little rain had to fall on our parade. A stiff, angry policeman came and demanded to see Fausto’s permit to sell. The mere request was ridiculous. You just have to look at Fausto to know that nowhere on his person would there ever be a laminated permit from the municipality. Come on! The belligerent intrusion of the cop was ruining it was our magic moment. But the crowd was fabulous. Immediately we were being valiantly defended. People started shouting at the police. More police arrived. The chaos swelled. People started shoving….I sat there in disbelief that this moment had the potential to cause a riot. There was s much hostility exchanged. I was so touched that the crowd would stand up for us, for Fausto.

Of course, beautiful Fausto sat through the whole drama as placid as an angel. He kept looking at me with a soft smile, and didn’t even raise his voice to overcome the noise, or break the roll of his Jesus lullaby. It was if nothing were happening around him. He simply didn’t feel the shoving, or register my nervousness.

A miraculous thing happened. The crowd won! The police retreated with their tails between there legs. I could hardly believe it as I watched them put their billy-clubs away and stride off, as though their pride weren’t actually hurt. That never happens! Usually a bunch of people get arrested, and the police always win. What a strange moment!

The crowd murmured its pleasure with the outcome, and then all eyes turned back to me and the un-phased Fausto. I had utterly no idea what to do. Several dozen pairs of eyes were on us, awaiting the next move. I stood up with a shy smile. I kissed Fausto’s paint speckled cheek, and whispered a humble thank you to the crowd. I walked to the stairs with my bagful of Jesus’, wondering if the crowd’s eyes were still on my back. A hundred yard away I turned to have a final glimpse of the scene that just transpired. Not a single person remained standing there. Fausto sat contentedly scribbling Jesus, as if nothing had happened at all.

I have a cat because of Fausto. Before heading off on a long hitchhiking journey several years ago, I stopped by to say goodbye to him.   I sat beside him as he scratched away with his ball-point pen..  A woman at theater was singing her love to God perfectly off key.  Her creepy hymns provided the surreal soundtrack to that moment. In staggered one of the churchyard drunks, walking at that peculiar angle that only professional drunks can manage, all cockeyed and slurry.  On his sleeve was a wide eyed kitty, wobbling silently.  Shaky, skinny little thing.  My eyes grew big and I was flushed with that sense of urgency when you just have to have something.  “Un dollar…”  He proclaimed drunkenly, holding out the teensy kitten, daring me to fall in love with it.  I handed the drunk a dollar.  Kitty!

I was happily absorbed in loving the kitty for a few moments.  Fausto was still obsessing over Christ, his world impervious to change.   And the drunk decided to return and reclaim his cat.  “Mi gatita!”  He slurred and pointed.  He tried to yank the kitty back, but my motherly intentions had already kicked in and I was ready to be dramatic and noble to defend my little cat.

At the slightest scent of skirmish, all the churchyard lunatics scrambled to their feet and hobbled over to surround us, happy to take sides without having the slightest idea what was going on.  Within seconds I was seated in the middle of a circus of pointed fingers and indecipherable shouting.  Lawyers from both sides were debating who was the rightful owner of the kitten.  The woman at the alter was still shrieking off-key with the dusty organ.  It all started to swirl together into a hostile jumble.  I was about ready to just run away with the cat when a steady voice of reason calmed the crowd.  “THE CAT BELONGS TO THE GIRL!”

Almost instantly, as though they had received marching orders from Moses himself, the crowd dissolved.  I was in utter disbelief.  That voice had been Fausto.  Crazy, whispering, pathologically shy Fausto.  In that moment he had been loud and commanding.  The voice of order and sanity.  For a second we looked at each other with a twinkle, as though the world was upside down. As if I had glimpsed something I was not meant to see.  I was in the presence of greatness and lucidity. Then he continued drawing Jesus, as though nothing had occurred.
I asked Fausto what he thought the kitty’s name should be, expecting him to say something along the lines of ‘fluffy” or whatnot.  In one final moment of clarity, he said definitively “Carmella”.  Carmella!  I whispered a thousand thank-yous and rushed out of the church with kitty safely tucked in my sleeve.  Carmella.  The name was so endearing.  But little Carmella was a boy. So, months later, I found myself telling people that the cat’s name is Fausto. That cat hitchhiked with me all the way back to New York.

Fausto has given me so much.  What he asks for in return is comparatively so little.  He only charges pennies for his work.  Sometimes just five cents a page, though his multiplication is a little funky.  Long after Ecuador had Dollarized, Fausto was still charging defunct Sucres for his art. And the concept of inflation seemed to pass him by. Though his prices have gone up slightly now, for a good long while he was asking only about a penny per Jesus. He always managed to charm me out of every cent I had on me.

What Fausto wants most in life are more art supplies.  Better pain, finer brushes, bigger paper.  He never seems to tire of writing lists of the materials he needs.  More pens, fluorescent colors, notebooks. He never gives up hope. He does not beg for money or food, or give you a sob story about his poverty.  All he wants is more art supplies.  And maybe some more plaid pants and flowered shirts.  And once he asked me for birthday cake.   I always bring him what I can, and he uses it all up right away.
Once, through a series of strange and delightful events, I was given a small sum of money by the singer Manu Chao. I didn’t really feel comfortable taking this money, until I decided that I would use it to take Fausto on a shopping spree.  I had visions of letting Fausto loose in an art store, telling him to choose whatever he wanted.  I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to invite him.  But then, Fausto surprised me again.  He didn’t want to go on my fantasy shopping spree.  He was afraid I would take him somewhere and leave him.  He had no interest in coming with me.  He just wanted to sit and draw Jesus, and told me to go to the store by myself.  So, I bought him a big bag of everything he asked for (except birthday cake) and he seemed very pleased.  He didn’t know who Manu Chao was, but he painted his portrait and wrote him a thank-you note anyway.  He got Manu’s name confused though, and wrote the note to “Chicago”.

I wish I could always give Fausto everything he asks for.  But I think his insatiable requests are just part of his mania.  He will never have enough art supplies.  He can always use more.  Sometimes I fantasize that I can have a big exhibition of his art in New York, and sell his drawings, and use the money to shower him with the finest of paints and brushes and plaid pants and flowered shirts and birthday cake for everyone.  I would love to do that for him.  I would love to give him that plume in his cap, the legitimacy of having had an exhibition in New York. But other than giving him what he asks for, I wouldn’t want to change anything about him.  I don’t want him to get cleaned up and change his clothes.  I don’t want him to go to art school.  I don’t want him to go to a doctor and get medicated.  He is so delicate. An angel.  So perfect just how he is.

 

Many of these photos were lifted from my friend Tarik’s beautiful blog. Check it out: tariknunez.blogspot.com

*NEW* – check out Fausto’s website!  www.infaustos.blogspot.com

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