I don’t come from the kind of folk who commission portraits. Even a caricature is considered an egomaniacal option and questionable investment when you consider that you can get two full Chiavetta’s chicken dinners at the county fair for less than the cost of a sketch there.
But I did it.
The night I met Charlie Griggs, we talked about our respective daughters all night. That was the guy I feel for hard. Thus it initially surprised me when people described him as “scary” and “intimidating.” His job as a federal agent required he give away nothing about himself beyond his size and physical presence. He is a marshmallow when it comes to the people and pets he loves, but even all these years after his retirement, strangers don’t meet that guy. It’s no coincidence he loves John Wayne movies – The Duke is not effusive.
For most of our first two decades together we lived in Texas and Georgia – and travelled between his family in St. Louis and mine in Buffalo – as well as places our girls and my work required. There was no easy way to meet his cousin Buster – who lived with his wife Karen in Alaska – although other Griggs’ family members mentioned more than once that Buster “could draw some.”
Buster could also write a pretty good email and an excellent Christmas letter – but because he too is a retired fed I was more than startled when I found his website and discovered he is a trained and talented artist. He and Karen eventually moved back to the lower 48 and last fall Charlie and I finally headed out to their Colorado home. Our bedroom was downstairs off of his studio – giving me easy access to take a better look after everyone else was asleep. In the early a.m. silence, his characters were alive, even boisterous, in varying states of canvas completion. I enjoyed spending secret time with them.
The next day I met two friends of theirs with whom I felt an instant and almost excessive connection – more than déjà vu, I felt like I knew them well before either said a word. At night, I found them as subjects on canvas and realized it wasn’t simply their likeness I responded to, but the way Buster had managed to capture not simply what they look like, but who they are.
If anyone could decipher Charlie Griggs both as I see him and as the world sees him -- Buster could do it. We made our deal the next day and went into town to get Charlie a good cowboy hat to crown that image. When we went to see Buster and Karen this spring (turns out we really like them), Charlie patiently indulged Buster and I with an extended photo session – but his expression was generally not one for posterity.
Early this summer, a package arrived from Buster arrived unannounced with a large pencil sketch of Charlie – as Elvis. After I reminded myself to breathe, I remembered Buster’s sense of humor and sent back a message saying it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
Last week, again without warning, another package from Buster arrived. In case this was it, I videoed Charlie opening the package , yelped loudly when it was unveiled and shook so much with excitement that the video project had to be promptly abandoned.
It is more than I imagined and exactly who he is. I am delighted that our younger daughter will have this to share with her future children.
I knew Buster did this for a living, but what are the odds that a long-lost cousin is going to turn out to be this good? I’ve since done some homework on the topic of portrait commissioning – and it turns out Buster’s rates are an absolute bargain for his ability (even if you added in a plane ticket to go to him or have him come to you).
No, my family is not the type to commission portraits – but Buster and Karen are coming to visit us in Western New York this summer – so y’all might want to give it some thought.