One sultry summer night in college, my husband and I, newly married, were invited to visit friends at their duplex, which was in a collection of Victorian houses facing a courtyard—one of the many quirky housing options for students in our corner of Texas. Heading across the courtyard, we passed a balcony where a shadowy figure was smoking a cigarette. He shouted down to us, “You there! Come and see my paintings!” Peering up in surprise, we recognized an acquaintance—a friend of a friend, really. This fellow was a fixture at the local coffee shop—slim built with wild, long dark hair and a New York accent that was striking among the Central Texas drawls. Let’s call him Justin. Though we had never been formally introduced, he had recognized us and was insisting that we see his art.
What compelled us to obey? Good manners? Curiosity? I can hardly remember. But I know we didn’t hesitate and started climbing the stairs. Wondering if we had somehow found ourselves in a Central Texas version of Brideshead Revisited, our Anthony Blanche-esque host showed us inside. I had heard that Justin was a painter and, having pegged him as a free-spirit who would experiment with all the latest modern trends, we expected something bizarre.
And we couldn’t have been more mistaken. Entering the bright apartment, we gasped in wonder. Before us was a floor-to-ceiling painting of the Crucifixion of St. Peter, as startling as a Caravaggio—and as beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. In the center of the enormous canvas was St. Peter, his feet in the air, being nailed to a cross while upside-down. Overwhelming darkness contrasted with dazzling light shining on his naked flesh as he was martyred. The size of the painting, the unexpected brilliance of it, and the grotesque beauty left us speechless. We realized we were in the presence of the most talented artist either of us had ever met.