Steve Kaufman walks into a warehouse-like work area at Opportunity Village and, to his surprise, is greeted with nearly instantaneous applause. Granted, Kaufman -- more than 6 feet 7 inches tall with an open, expressive face topped by a forest of long, black hair-is a hard guy to miss. And that's even before he puts on his long leather coat adorned with his own paintings of such pop-culture icons as Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Mickey Mouse, Spider Man and other pop icons.
Kaufman has forged an international reputation as a pop artist. He's been Andy Warhol's assistant, was official artist of Woodstock redux, has done portraits of stars for "Saturday Night Live" and sells his work in galleries around the world. But when Kaufman arrived at Opportunity Village last week, he planned to let the paintbrush do the talking.
Kaufman spread out twenty huge blank canvases 20 feet long on the tables at Opportunity Village-which serves people with mental and physical disabilities-then
asked the organization's clients to take the paints he had brought and fill the canvases with whichever colors and designs they wished. Kaufman then would take the canvases back to his Los Angeles studio and finish the paintings Opportunity Village's artists (clients) had begun. The completed paintings then will be returned to Opportunity Village to be displayed at their location. Not surprisingly, Opportunity Village's budding artists enthusiastically embraced the project-brushing, dabbing, smearing and dripping water based paint all over the canvases. Next to a man who methodically applied a nearly solid patch of deep maroon, a woman gleefully swiped dabs of blue-green, while across the table another woman laid on simple, discrete patches of cobalt blue.
Kaufman spent a moment or two with nearly every artist, shaking hands, accepting occasional hugs, offering encouragement and making sure everybody had chance to make his or her mark on a canvas.
"You're doing good. You are doing very good," he tells one smiling women.
"This is beautiful", he says to another. "A beautiful sky blue."
"Jackson Pollock would be out of a job," he tells a few painters who are letting dribbles of yellow paint fall onto the canvas.
And, in an aside to a visitor, a beaming Kaufman confides, "This is wild."
One painter interrupts his own work to question Kaufman about why he's an artist. Kaufman takes a stab at an answer.
"It's what I love to do," he begins. "Why do you breathe? That's why you become an artist. It's because you have no other choice…….." Too late. Kaufman's questioner has resumed painting. Kaufman laughs, both at his student's sudden lack of interest and his own answer.
"I don't even know where it comes from," he says, still laughing. Manger, Kaufman's says Kaufman routinely donates his work and efforts to charitable causes.
"Last year, we probably gave away close to $3 million in artwork," Manger says.
Kaufman adds That during the past six years more than 500 youths-many of them former gang members, and all of whom have crossed paths with the law-have been hired to work as assistants at his Los Angeles studio.
"The only criteria is if you have a criminal record, "Kaufman says."It's the carrot and the stick: I say I’ll call your parole officer if you screw up. I'm not going to call your mom and dad."
Opportunity Village project stemmed from a visit Kaufman made to Las Vegas about a year ago. Kaufman learned about Opportunity Village through contacts he made in Las Vegas. Linda Smith, Opportunity Village's resource development director, says Kaufman called the organization about a month ago. "He said, 'Well, maybe I'll come out and paint with you. We'll bring canvas out,'" Smith says.
We thought he'd forget about us, he called the next day saying, 'OK, so what date can we set up?'" Smith says one of the canvases that result from last week's effort may be auctioned off at an Opportunity Village fund-raiser, while the others will be on displayed at the organization. When the painting session was over, Kaufman received an enthusiastic round of applause from his colleague’s for-the-day. "I do 176 causes a year and I’ll tell you, this is one of the most worthy/groups/I've seen in all my life," he says later.
"When you look at these faces, each face tells a story, you know? It's like a mystery, and you have to figure it out." It was, he adds, an experience different from similar efforts he's done with troubled youths. "Well, I usually have kids with attitudes, "Kaufman says, smiling.”Here, I can let my guard down, because they're just being angels.”