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Pick of the day: 'Paint and Suffering'

By J. Freedom du Lac

"What is one moment of fame worth?"

My colleague Annys Shin asks that question in the lead of her terrific Sunday Arts and Style piece about John Farrar and the late painter's family.

Farrarr "was a country boy barely out of puberty when he won the Washington Times-Herald's outdoor art fair in 1942, quickly becoming one of the most promising black artists of his generation." Acclaim and success came quickly. "And then, just like that, he was never heard from again," Shin writes.

He painted "only when his alcoholism and schizophrenia permitted. He spent his adulthood as a ward of the state, either in prison or in insane asylums. On the rare occasions when he was free, he wandered the bars along U Street, channeling his substantial talent into drawings that he traded for drinks. When he died at St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1972 at 44, his personal belongings consisted of $1.30 and more than 60 paintings of unknown value."

Heartbreaking stuff. But it gets worse, Shin writes: "His story would have ended there, a tragic footnote in some art history textbook. But it turned out to be a prologue to more misfortune and heartbreak for his niece and nephew, Sonja and Adrian McCoy, art world novices who took on the task of safeguarding his legacy."

The McCoys are broke, but they aren't in any hurry to sell any of their uncle's pieces -- some of which have gone missing, which may or may not be the work of Sonja McCoy's own son, which, in turn, of course, has sunk Sonja and her brother even deeper into despair.

Shin's telling of the story is delightful, even if it's not exactly about the sunniest of subjects. Highly recommended.

By J. Freedom du Lac  | November 8, 2010; 8:10 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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