The way the tight silver coils of George L. Gordon captured the light, one would have thought he was the Silver King of Lofton County, with his riches in silver sitting atop a forehead and face of bronze alloyed with bright copper, with furrows as if each of the sixty-seven years of his life had dug ore out of the riches of his handsome face.
Nonetheless, the years could not impoverish Mr. Gordon, for at the end of his tautly sinewed arm and toned hand and fingers was that thing by which he continued to enrich himself and the world.
The leaders of Tinyville, VA were charting a different course through the pandemic than most of the rest of Lofton County, VA – civic leaders were taking a creative approach to the unusually strict restrictions Lofton County had in place to control the pandemic. Businesses and indoor activities not providing absolute necessities were shut down, and people who could not prove they were going from their homes to take care of absolute necessities were subject to be harshly reminded by the sheriff's department that they needed to be at home.
Yet Tinyville's police department was run by Captain Ironwood Hamilton, a retired and decorated member of the army's Judge Advocate General wing. He read the public health restrictions carefully and found all the room there was for carefully staged outdoor activities. He had made his recommendations to the city council, and they had started to make moves to make Tinyville a national model for what could be done safely that still allowed a modestly robust business and civic life.
Captain Hamilton had also gotten it across to the sheriff's department that in Tinyville, their idea of public safety enforcement was not at all going to be what was done.
“I can just imagine the look on old Sheriff Nottingham's bright red face,” one councilman said to another on April 1, 2020, “when loose-limbed, gray-eyed, iron-haired, Sherlock-Holmes-with-mid-forties-Robert-E.-Lee-mixed-in Hamilton rolled him all the way out of the county court on a jurisdiction question.”
“Hamilton literally knows every inch of Tinyville,” the other councilman said. “I'm waiting for the sheriff to stop poking that bear – he ain't won a conflict since Captain Hamilton got here!”
Enter City Councilman John Swann, who spent much of his time working to keep the people and the reputation of Tinyville from sinking in spirit under the pandemic. Councilman Swann was prematurely gray, so it was always a surprise to meet him and see that white hair atop the vivid blue eyes and smooth alabaster face – still more to see the energy of his movements.
“He moves like a swan – his top is so mature and composed, but those little legs are just going and going and going – can anybody keep up with him?” a fellow councilman said.
Interestingly, Captain Hamilton could keep up with Councilman Swann, just marching double-time. Their minds, too, walked in tandem. The police officer knew that if the spirits of the people could be kept from desperation and despair, the town was less likely to see a surge in crime, and the local businesses would also be able to attract enough business from around the county to survive.
So, when John Swann opined about needing a way to brighten up the fronts of closed businesses on Market and Main Streets, Ironwood Hamilton had the answer ready.
“Call George L. Gordon, John.”
Nonetheless, the legacy of Virginia's past tried to get in the way at the outdoor meeting between the three men.
“I don't see it,” Councilman Swann said in his growly bass voice to Captain Hamilton. “I mean, he has no resume, no formal training, no references by any school – I mean, where's his evidence?”
Captain Hamilton just smiled. Councilman Swann was seeing the lack of Mr. Gordon being able, given his age, humble beginnings, and how long Jim Crow had lingered in Lofton County, to have access to the things other local artists with money could take for granted. Captain Hamilton did not address that, but instead pulled a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his heather-gray uniform.
“Mr. Gordon thanks you for the interview, and wanted you to have this,” he purred in his soft, pleasant baritone, and walked off while Councilman Swann nearly fell out.
Mr. Gordon had, in 20 minutes, drawn Councilman Swann, the bench he was sitting on, the trees, the sky, the flowers – all of it – in stunning detail, given the few strokes it had taken him to do that.
One week later, Mr. Gordon was standing in front of the full council – “Thank you very kindly for this opportunity to present, kind sirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs,” he purr-drawled in his deep voice and accent – to present large photographs of his work and the reactions of people to it.
“I use an old style of painting that the president appears to be named after – trump l'oeil – which I think means trick the eye and is what you did before 3D movies came out,” Mr. Gordon said, to the gentle laughter of all of the councilmen.
“He's a lot smarter than he looks and sounds,” one councilman whispered to another.
“And I hear better than you think I would at my age,” Mr. Gordon said, “but y'all's other favorite president said it is always good to be 'misunderestimated,' and I agree with him on that.”
Gentle embarrassment was met with a gentle smile and more laughter, after which Mr. Gordon finished his thought.
“They say art imitates life,” he says, “and that's true. It's also true, and how I work, is that good painting paints you – it shows you what you see in the world, shows you to others by your reaction, and thus causes curiosity, excitement, liveliness in people. It's just paint on a wall, until you realize: good art paints you.”
“That's a great slogan, too,” Councilman Swann said. “Come to Tinyville and see – in Tinyville, good painting paints you!”
“Oh, thank y'all very kindly,” Mr. Gordon said. “That's the nicest way I've been told I got the job in my whole life.”
Six months later, in time to be complete before the cold of the fall and the holidays arrived, Mr. Gordon had completed his work, and the blocks around the intersection of Main and Market Streets were completely transformed. Scenes of full and joyous town life now stood in almost palpable relief, everywhere a board over a door or a window could be whitewashed and painted.
But for pedestrians at pedestrian speed, there was a special treat – round the northeast corner of Main and Market, the artist himself stepped out to meet the walker or jogger in full 3D glory, six feet and six inches tall in baby blue shirt and denim overalls, silver hair shining like new money, bronze-copper skin glowing, huge pearly smile beaming, and his sinewy hand holding his richly detailed just at average eye level for an adult.
Just as soon as any pedestrian had recovered enough to try to re-orient, there stood Mr. Gordon in 3D again on the northwest corner, holding a Polaroid-type camera with the picture coming out. This was a joke given Tinyville's average age … folks remembered what it was like to be on Candid Camera!
People reacted differently to Mr. Gordon's sense of artistic humor – indeed, it drew the character of the person right out.
“Tinyville is making progress,” Councilman Quinn said to Captain Hamilton. “When our fathers were in power here, and he was young, he would have been in for serious consequences and so would our fathers for having put him in charge of downtown's civic character.”
“Downtown – all two blocks of it, anyway,” Captain Hamilton said.
“Ironwood, look, people will kill you over a dime in the wrong circumstances – but, most often, people are laughing their way though down here and enjoying it all, enjoying it all even in the grim circumstances we are all in. Indeed, Mr. Gordon has painted Tinyville, and we look like progress and hope!”