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African American artist John Farrar's family finds his work a troubled legacy

Painter John Farrar was a troubled genius. For his family, his creative legacy could have meant comfort. Instead, it's meant more than a few troubles of their own.

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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010

What is one moment of fame worth?

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John Farrar was a country boy barely out of puberty when he won the Washington Times-Herald's outdoor art fair in 1942, quickly becoming one of the most promising black artists of his generation. Within a few years, his work would be exhibited alongside that of Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Loïs Mailou Jones. He would beat noted abstract artist Romare Bearden in a prestigious art competition in Atlanta. And his work would be included in a major exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century African American art in New York.

And then, just like that, he was never heard from again.

Farrar kept painting, but only when his alcoholism and schizophrenia permitted. He spent his adulthood as a ward of the state, either in prison or in insane asylums. On the rare occasions when he was free, he wandered the bars along U Street, channeling his substantial talent into drawings that he traded for drinks. When he died at St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1972 at 44, his personal belongings consisted of $1.30 and more than 60 paintings of unknown value.

His story would have ended there, a tragic footnote in some art history textbook. But it turned out to be a prologue to more misfortune and heartbreak for his niece and nephew, Sonja and Adrian McCoy, art world novices who took on the task of safeguarding his legacy.

Adrian McCoy is 56, divorced, and without a steady job or a permanent address. Last year he was evicted from his apartment in Northeast Washington and has been living with friends. An electrician, he has had a hard time finding work since the housing market collapsed more than two years ago. For months, the only jobs he could get -- crowd control at Wal-Mart, moving office furniture -- "didn't challenge my mental capacities," he grumbled. And the minimum wage pay was barely enough to keep him fed and put a few dollars' worth of gas in his truck. He gets by on humor. He is prone to long, funny rants about the origins of canola oil and the superiority of blues music. At 6 feet and 200 pounds, he can also be intimidating, especially when his temper gets the better of him.

Much of his spare time is spent trying to help his only sibling, Sonja, 57, who recently lost her double-wide trailer in Plymouth, N.C., to foreclosure. A tiny woman whose big brown eyes clearly mark her as Adrian's sister, Sonja suffered a stroke last year that has left her unable to work full time. Last year she turned to her neighbor's church to pay her electric bill. She has relied on Adrian to help cover her water bill. For a while she also lacked health insurance, which in her case is potentially life-threatening since she suffers from an aggressive form of diabetes. She is supposed to take insulin, but for months she rationed it for fear of running out.

While their Uncle John stayed with them from time to time, Sonja and Adrian's memories of him are hazy. Sonja recalls her mother fussing at him once to leave their house. She still has a poem he wrote for her when she was a baby. Adrian remembers when he was in grade school opening the front door to find Secret Service agents asking for his uncle. He learned only recently that his uncle had written threatening paranoid ramblings to the president, which earned him a White House case file and a routine Secret Service visit.

Brother and sister are more familiar with the paintings their uncle gave their mother, Maggie McCoy, especially the handful that hung on the walls of their Brightwood home when they were growing up. There was a somber rendering of "The Last Supper" over the mantel in the living room, and an image of a dour-looking baby in a halo called "Christ Child" in Sonja's bedroom. In the dining room was "Ola's Dolls," part of a series of brightly colored paintings featuring rag dolls with clownlike faces.

The pieces were products of one of their uncle's longer stints at St. Elizabeths. Before he was ill, he was known for his portraits of society figures, black and white, and for everyday street scenes that subtly captured life in segregated Washington. But later in life, Farrar turned inward, and his choice of subjects ranged from the religious to the bizarre. The weirder stuff -- such as a set of paintings of children with blurry faces rendered in short, angry brush strokes -- stayed in the basement, wrapped in newspaper. Whenever it rained heavily, Adrian remembers running downstairs to save them before the basement flooded.

Adrian and Sonja took charge of the paintings, 63 in all, when their mother died in 1972. For years, Sonja kept the paintings under her bed in her Silver Spring apartment. Then Adrian had them, stashed in a closet in his wife's house until his divorce in 2006. In 2007, Sonja left her job as a meeting planner and relocated to North Carolina to be closer to her son Sean and his two daughters. After she moved in with her son last year, Sean moved most of the paintings to Virginia Beach, while Adrian kept a few in Washington.

Most of the McCoys' paintings are not on par with the handful of Farrar pieces that belong to the seminal Barnett-Aden Collection of African American art, now owned by billionaire Robert Johnson. But theirs is the largest collection of Farrar's work. The rest of his considerable output is scattered, remnants of a disordered life.


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