LeRoy Foster was missing.

LeRoy, a short, black, gay, 66  year old, blind, artist with two useless legs lived in a dilapidated, abandoned theater on Livernois in Detroit.   He was my friend and I used to visit him and sometimes we’d go on small adventures.  In the winter of  1992 I called and knocked on his door repeatedly without any response. I dialed a phone number of another friend of his and got a hospital address.  When I got to the hospital I was told, “Oh, he died”.  Distraught, I called another number he had given me and was told he had not died quite yet but had been transferred to another hospital.  On my way there I wondered how I would find him if I would find him.  A flood of memories rushed back.

I first met LeRoy in the mid 1980s when we both worked for Omniarts. Omniarts was an organization of artists who visited elementary schools in Detroit. Actors, musicians, magicians, storytellers, Flamenco dancers, puppeteers, and a few visual artists like LeRoy and me would demonstrate our stuff for mostly adoring children. It was a great gig.  Since LeRoy was without transportation it was arranged that I would pick him up and we would travel as a team. He had his sight and his legs back then but I sometimes grew impatient with him as he slowly meandered down the hallways.  I didn’t get that he was taking it all in on his own personal time clock. While I cranked out cartoon after cartoon LeRoy would spend two hours on one meticulous portrait of a child. The portrait was of course brilliant. Every portrait he created found the dignity of its sitter.  I suppose that I was a bit jealous of both his talent and of that insistence he had of doing things his way.  There was a lot for me to learn.

LeRoy had just moved into that little, old theater.  He had been burned out of his previous home and had lost a lot of paintings and two cats to the fire.  He was much more upset about the loss of the cats than anything else.  These small, independent creatures with a love to be touched when they wanted to be touched were the animals he bonded with.

Beside his bed, which was in the middle of the one big room he called home, was a larger than life muscular, portrait of Paul Robeson. It was typical of the portrait he most liked to create.  Angry and powerful the eyes glared at you and dared you to come close and smell the paint.  Go see the “Frederick Douglas” mural at Detroit’s Frederick Douglas Branch of the Detroit Public Library to witness the epic quality of LeRoy’s  passion.  Some of this came from  being a black, gay man who grew up poor and remained without much in the way of any lasting physical comforts.  Some of it came from a simple lust for life.

LeRoy loved more than arts and cats. One of his great pleasures was conversation.  In a gentle voice that belied his art he could speak on any subject and listened intently. Once an art student at the Academie de la Grande Chaumeire in Paris I could picture him holding his own with anyone who might show up at a sidewalk cafe. While roaming the halls of the Louvre, where he said he learned more than in any art school, I’m sure that more than once he was shushed.

Sometimes he relished the freedom of playing at being someone else. Though I never attended I heard about his famous costumed parties. The more outrageous the better. LeRoy could invent his own fun. He would call me up with the damnedest requests. More than once he asked for a particular brownie from a particular bakery. “LeRoy!”, I finally said, ” You’ve got diabetes. I can’t do it!”  He was mad at me for awhile after that.  Couldn’t I understand that just for a moment he wanted the taste of a forbidden pleasure?  Just for this moment he wanted to forget he was disabled by a relentless disease.

One of our adventures was to find the perfect rose for his garden. He was blind then and I was his eyes. Except for the ride I hardly felt necessary. I swear he could see the rose’s blood red color with his hands. The entire nursery was charmed and amazed by the time I wheeled him out with his prize.  Another time he asked me to bring him a used manikin that he could turn into an angel.  He might have been blind but he could still damn well feel.  The female manikin I found was perfect.  It was so beautiful I fell in love with it, hell it was halfway an angel already.

I could hardly wait to see what he would do.

Before he could get started the manikin was stolen by a homeless man that LeRoy took in.  The man had a drug problem and wiped LeRoy out of the few possessions he had left.  He took the stove, he took the tape recorder I had given him to record his memories.

One of the last times I saw LeRoy he was crying.  God knows there was plenty of reason for him to be in this state but I had never seen it before.  “Its okay”, he said, “I’m just remembering the first time I went to the Sistine Chapel.  I looked up at that ceiling and fell to my knees”.

When I arrived at the second hospital in search of the elusive Mr. Foster I felt like I was prepared for anything.  I got more than I hoped for.  When I walked into the hospital room there he was sitting up in bed with a grin on his face eating a ham sandwich.  He asked me if I had time to read him a little of “Job” from the Bible.

Though he had more lives than his cats his time finally ran out just before his 68th birthday in 1993.

LeRoy Foster was a great artist.  His work should be hanging in the Detroit Institute of Arts. He was also a great man and should be equally remembered for that.

LeRoy Foster is missed.