Abe and Irene Douglas are back in town, full of love and rage.
At Farragut Square the other day, Irene, who is 71 now, clambered painfully up onto a bandstand to unfurl her 16-by-6-foot oil painting, ablaze with faces that weep and shout, a chained Liberty, robed figures mourning. It protests what she calls an administration without heart or soul or mercy.
"Our Social Security is down to $420 a month," she said. "Our food stamps were cut to $13 a month. I decided I was going to Washington on my broomstick and tell that man off."
So far they haven't seen President Reagan, though this doesn't appear to worry them terribly. At that, they probably couldn't get past the gate because they are just a little unconventional, and more than a little grimy. They are heading back to their home in Pinellas County, Fla., after two weeks on the road, mostly living in their old Volvo.
"We spent the night in the car down by the Trailways station, and when we woke up there were three guys sitting on the hood," said Abe. Abe is 68. He is working on an epic poem. Sometimes when he is telling you about his life he slips into poetry: I love the song of the open road And the music of the steel. To sit by the door of an open freight And rock from head to heel.
The Volvo is one of a series. Professional vagabonds, Abe and Irene drove here in 1972 in an 11-year-old Fairlane with a huge florid angel face painted on the hood and a flag painted on the roof with "Love Is the Power" done in gilt on the bumpers. The Smithsonian didn't want it so they took it back to Florida.
A self-taught artist who painted a face on her mother's skirt at the age of 4, Irene works in oils on heavy wrapping paper patched with silver gaffer tape. Sometimes she pastes newspaper headlines on the work. Sometimes she paints watercolors around newspaper headlines.
Front page, The Clearwater Sun: "Ex-Beatle Slain." A melancholy sketch of John Lennon covers most of the page except for a smaller headline that shows through: "Soviets Mobilize." And two words from a partly blocked-out line: "Fate. . . .closer . . . "
Other front-page art evokes the Holocaust, the PLO, the Klan, an execution with a drawing of a sobbing mother. "My son, my son!" read the painted words. Headline: "Legs on Fire, Marine, 19, Cries to Die."
"It's a propaganda medium," Irene Douglas said. "It's slaying the mind of the masses. With these video game computers they have to push a button to get an emotional or intellectual experience. We're going to have a race of sterile creatures."
Just by the way they live, Irene and Abe Douglas raise the fist not merely against Reaganomics but against the whole polite, clean-fingernailed world of uncaring people who have forgotten why they are here on the planet. She sold papers at the age of 10 in Jersey City, ran away at 14, made a living in Arizona by sketching people for anything from 25 cents to $20. He started in Brooklyn, rode boxcars as a hobo in the early '30s, drove a cab in Los Angeles, manufactured hats in New York.
They met in 1947. "I was interested in yoga," she said. "You were interested in sex. I said, 'Get lost.' "
Then in 1955 they met again, in Greenwich Village. She was lecturing on comparative religion in the park, but he called her away and said he would buy her a spaghetti dinner.
"No," she said. "I'm buying. You bought the spaghetti dinner last time."
"In that case," he said, "let's get married."
They were married the next day.
"We're together 24 hours a day," she said. "What he doesn't know, I know, and what I don't know, he knows. Sometimes we both don't know, and then we're in trouble."
She told him he was a poet, an artist like her, so he quit his good job and they headed for Florida where they bought a house with their last $3,800. They still live in it, with income from her pictures and his sign painting. On the way north, just as they were getting sick of sleeping in the Volvo, he traded a sign job for two nights in a Selma motel. It was $200 worth of work, he said, but oh well.
They have done volunteer work in mental hospitals, sketching portraits of the inmates. They have visited Washington many times, once bumped into Jacqueline Kennedy, once met Drew Pearson, who sent them to Frank Getlein, then the Washington Star art critic. Getlein gave them a good review.
But the fact is, you can't say much about the work of artists like Abe and Irene Douglas. Because their art isn't really on the paper or the canvas at all. It's in the way they embrace the days, and you can't review that.
"We've gone beyond hurt," she says. "We're not afraid of dying. We're not afraid of living, either."
"I see all experience as poetry," he says.