Mr. President, after my grandfather died, I went into his painting studio. It was the first place I’d go any time we visited him. On his old easel there was a small canvas. The background was still white, but at the center he had sketched in an oily wash of reds and browns a single chicken, her head bent to the ground in search of food. It was the last thing he worked on before he died.
My grandfather was a car-salesman, hunter, fisherman, story-teller, whiskey drinker, smoker, and he built his own house. He could tell stories that made everyone in Macon, Georgia, laugh over and over, at the same stories told again and again. When I was little he would tell me a story about a squirrel that lived in the giant oak tree that shadowed his yard. He spoke in the voice of the squirrel, whose name was Charlie, and every time I’d look up to see if I could get a glimpse of Charlie up there, throwing acorns into the street.
He was also a painter. His art studio was set up in a screened sleeping porch. It smelled of turpentine. I went in there just to breathe the odors and see his palette. In the corner were old fishing rods and boxes of family photos. His paintings were of rivers and hunters, marshes and skies, birds and children, sometimes clowns and the country folk of middle Georgia. At age sixty he decided he wanted to make a six foot-diameter mosaic of the Creation of Adam, taken from Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel.” He worked in a little shed in the backyard. He made a maquette. He built a circular iron frame.He hunted for two years trying to track down Italian tiles.
I remember everyone talking about it, but I didn’t really understand what he was doing. He documented every step in writing. He finished the mosaic—it contained over 7000 tiles set in mastic. He donated it to the Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Macon, where it was installed in the gable-end of of a courtyard. It’s a beautiful work, a work for God and his city and his family.
When he was 83 my mother insisted on taking him to Italy. He was old, he didn’t want to go. Travel was frightening. But my mother got him to go. She wanted him to see the the world of Michelangelo.
They traveled to a little town outside Sienna. In a small chapel there were frescoes on the walls. My mother said that he looked up for a while and then said, “This is the closest I have ever felt to God.”
Six months later he died of a ruptured aneurism. My mother went to the nurse and told them he had always wanted to donate his eyes to someone. Those artist’s eyes. He had never worn glasses.
“How old is he?” the nurse said.
“Almost eighty four,” my mother answered.
“Oh, I’m sorry. We do not use them over eighty.”
“That is ridiculous. They are better than mine or yours.”
I have a few stray tiles in a box, with some of his old pastels and his palette knife. We have sketches and images of the things he saw. There was a man who made stories out of his life. There is a picture of God giving life to Man. He sanctified his world.
You don’t have to be Michelangelo, or even an artist. But I do hope that you will do something that sanctifies the world. I am not talking about tall buildings with your name in gold. I am talking about transmitting the spirit of god as it must live in you. Do something for somebody. Have eyes that can see and feel God in a wall in a little town near Sienna. And then, when it’s time, if you’re up for making good, give your eyes away.