Steven Ivory

*”It’s here,” Kevin says somberly into the phone, watching  from a window of his  third story apartment as  a U-haul van searches for parking down on Vermont Avenue.  Kevin is both elated and melancholy, for today he bids farewell to “Nihil Obstat.”

The dynamic, moody abstract, which stretched nearly a wall’s length of Kevin’s small living room, was the first thing the 32 year-old Chicago native painted  when  he arrived in Los Angeles the summer  of 2000.  He’d come west, he said, to escape something far more brutal than Windy City winters: a family of academic achievers who declared him insane for pursuing a career in the arts.

He’d been in L.A. two days when in an alley of his Los Feliz neighborhood he discovered the huge discarded white wooden panel–a spectacular surface on which to cast his emotions.  For $10, a homeless man helped him lug it the three blocks home.

They were negotiating the entrance to the 1940s apartment building, when up the street came a tiny, meticulously dressed solemn Latino lady, elderly but fit and determined in stride,  pulling a small wire cart of groceries.

When it was clear the woman’s destination was inside the apartment building, Kevin smiled and said they’d be done in a second.

The lady stood for a second or two, muttered “Nihil Obstat,” and impatiently edged herself past them and into the entrance. Kevin asked his homeless assistant, also Latino, what the lady had  said. “Nothing bad,” he assured. “Something like, ‘Nothing stands in the way.'”

Twice during the next week, Kevin, en route to his job as a waiter, ran into the lady in the apartment lobby.  He spoke; she didn’t.

However, one afternoon two weeks later, work on his painting was interrupted by a weak but urgent knock at his door. It was the obstinate lady. “I am Miss Garcia,” she announced with a half smile, and pushed a foil-covered paper plate into his chest.
Perplexed, Kevin lifted the aluminum and then graciously thanked her for the chicken and rice.  Miss Garcia didn’t hear him; looking around his  lean torso,  her attention was focused on his dramatic painting in progress,  which overwhelmed the room.
Sensing her interest, Kevin told her he was calling the work “Nihil Obstat,” the phrase the homeless man told him she’d uttered that day downstairs. Those words, he said, were now his motto: Absolutely nothing would stand in the way of what he wanted in this town.

His declaration was lost on Miss Garcia, who gazed at his painting a few  seconds more and abruptly left.

Kevin couldn’t blame her for running off. The painting had become his emotional albatross. In the brilliant splashes of color representing his courageous migration, Kevin also saw the lingering pain of his rejection and personal loss.

Nothing seemed to be working for him in L.A. The designs from a men’s clothing line he proposed evoked indifference among Neiman Marcus buyers. Fred Segal called regarding his woman’s jewelry samples–come get them.

Thus, a week later, when the man on the phone with a thick, deep German accent identified himself as the apartment building owner, Kevin, a day late with rent,  braced for the worse. The paint specks on Kevin’s living room hardwood floor, said the gentleman, would have to be cleaned.

As Kevin pondered how he knew about those, the man launched into apologies for entering Kevin’s apartment without notice.  He realized a law had been broken, but he had to go in–Miss Garcia insisted.

The old lady, he explained, once lived in that very apartment with Mr. Garcia, a mild-mannered oil painter who took his last breath there, succumbing to cancer. After insisting the businessman see for himself how Kevin had “abused the property,” the owner realized he’d been duped by Miss Garcia into viewing Kevin’s captivatingly expressive work.  The pesky woman believed the spirit of her late husband had a hand in creating the work.

Regardless, the gentleman said,  as an avid collector, which Miss Garcia knew, he was prepared to offer Kevin an equitable price for the piece.

Delightfully speechless, Kevin rebounded to inquire why the businessman simply didn’t ask to see the work; he would have been happy to show it to him.  “Because Miss Garcia said artists are ‘tender souls,'” said the collector.  “She did not want you to be hurt if I did not like it.”

A week after that phone call, Kevin, ambivalent about saying good-bye to “Nihil Obstat,” now understood he was letting go of more than a painting. Nothing, Kevin reaffirmed, would stand in his way–not even a beloved painting created in honor of his single-minded dedication. Whatever he was emotionally unable to put in perspective, the five-figure check did.

When I arrive at Kevin’s building, the buyer’s workmen already have the covered piece downstairs. They seem annoyed with the uncharacteristically gregarious Miss Garcia, who, having chastised Kevin for offering her a commission, gives the men unsolicited advice on how to do their job.

The U-haul slowly pulls into traffic down Vermont, gets to Franklin and makes a right. Kevin and Miss Garcia both silently watch the truck until it is positively out of sight, she waving good-bye to a loving past, and he welcoming a brilliant future. Sometimes, the emotions are the same.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].