My mother and father always referred to him as “Cousin Gary.” I’m not sure why the family-tree relationship became a permanent part of his moniker. Perhaps it was a reminder that his father and my father’s father were cousins.

It may also have referenced the improbability of his friendship with my father. My father had voted for Richard Nixon in every presidential election until 1980 when he switched his vote for Ronald Reagan thereafter (and to this day). Cousin Gary proudly voted for George McGovern. And (not so proudly) Michael Dukakis. Nevertheless, Cousin Gary and my father recognized something in each other and Cousin Gary was a familiar presence at family gatherings.

As a child, I recognized Cousin Gary was subversive with a distinct, but appropriately subtle, distaste for authority of all kinds. During one summer visit, he came bearing gifts for me and my siblings. My mother nearly had a heart attack when I received an archery set.

Never mind that the arrows were tipped with large suction cups.

“I don’t want you using that when I’m not around,” she warned.

“Okay, Mom.”

Of course, my brother and I used the bow and arrows when she wasn’t around. To do otherwise would have felt like an insult to Cousin Gary. In fact, I’m pretty sure he anticipated my mother’s reaction to the set when he bought it.

I think my father was jealous of the gift.

Cousin Gary was the first bohemian I knew. And, until I moved to Los Angeles, he was the only individual I knew personally who actually earned a living in entertainment. He was a popular on-air personality for years in Pennsylvania. If you ever heard his distinctly deep and gravelly voice – finely-tuned by a lifetime of chain smoking Marlboros – you’d know why.

I still get the pleasure of hearing his voice on the telephone:

“How ya doin’, babe?”

He’s the only person I know who can say that uber-biz phrase with total sincerity.

Cousin Gary is the most creative person I know. He creates constantly. You’ve likely never heard of him – unless you followed the CLIOs and the ADDYs years ago – but awards have never mattered to Cousin Gary. He creates because he must. He oil paints. Actual objects, not abstracts. He draws. He creates whimsical characters and children’s stories for them to inhabit. One sports the splendid title Calliope Wood. He writes. He has blogged as a sex-starved, world-weary canine.

And, as with all ad folks, Cousin Gary is cleverly facile with language. This includes very bold and very specific use of the f-word in the defense of artistic vision:

“Kev, if they don’t get what you’re doin’, fuck’em. Do what you feel is right.”

Not “Do what you think is right” but “Do what you feel is right.”

There’s a difference and, as I say, Cousin Gary is meticulous with words.

Now, it’s one thing to aggressively tell the uninitiated to – ahem – “take a hike” in the name of artistic integrity when one is a teenager. Youthful bravado is a time-honored – even tolerated – attitude. But when someone is pushing into his eighth decade of solar revolutions, that’s quite another thing. Because many so-called “creators” will stop creating without the accolades, without the applause, without the acknowledgement.

Not Cousin Gary.

Late in life, Renoir painted in the face of painful arthritis. Matisse turned to cut-outs when painting and sculpture became too physically challenging. The artist creates art. They must.

Cousin Gary’s eyesight is failing these days. He still draws, however, using Photoshop. A sophisticated piece of software he taught himself to use at an age when many of his peers are wondering whatever happened to VHS tapes. And Cousin Gary still writes. Even though he now requires a magnifying glass to further enlarge the large fonts on his monitor.

But he still creates.

And you can hear it in his voice – that large, magnificent voice that still booms just as it did when I was a child. It’s not the sound of an old man. It’s the sound of boisterous wonderment and life.

“So, tell me what you are up to, baby.”

And I do. Sometimes it’s about my science. Often it’s about my writing. And when I ask for his critique, he won’t provide platitudes like my suction-cup-fearing mother. Instead, on a particular piece, or passage, or phrase, he’ll say:

“This isn’t working for me. But what the fuck do I know? I’m just one opinion. Do what you feel is right.”

To find your audience requires more than perseverance and talent. It requires all the world to align into a singular moment for which you’ve faithfully prepared. It requires luck. Cousin Gary hasn’t been lucky. But I’m lucky. I know Cousin Gary.

He creates with no more purpose than to pursue a vision with integrity. An artist. He does what he feels is right. And will continue to do so until he cannot. It’s a life-affirming action worthy of acknowledgement, applause, and accolades.

I relish the sound of his powerfully reverberating voice at the end of each phone call: “Love ya, kid!”

Love you, too, Gary.


Originally published September 29, 2015 in Footlights.