With a jazz version of "Summertime" playing on the radio, Jerrold McCain begins a portrait of his school principal, Maurice Eldridge of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. It will be McCain's last work before heading for the prestigious Pratt Institute of Art in New York next week, where he has received a four-year scholarship.
"Okay, Mr. E., you have to stare at something -- concentrate," says the 18-year-old. "And I'll tell you when you can't talk."
"A real novelty for you to tell me to shut up," the principal laughs, settling into a seat at the artist's studio.
As Eldridge's form takes shape with charcoal on paper, McCain explains that this portrait is a gift, a token of appreciation for a man who has helped him realize his potential.
"I didn't ask for this," said Eldridge, whose school is located at 35th and R streets NW.
"I know," says McCain. "But I believe that when someone goes out of their way to help you, you should show appreciation."
The depth of a special relationship emerges with each stroke of McCain's hand.
"What I'm seeing is a real professional," the artist says, bearing in on the eyes of his subject. "A lot of people have been helpful to me in terms of my development, and the head of the school is one of them."
Raised by his grandparents on Sixth Street NW, McCain lived in a world where the idea of becoming an artist sometimes seemed alien. There were peer pressures and drugs and alcohol to avoid. When McCain needed encouragement, he could always talk to Mr. E.
When he needed a place to work, Eldridge found him a spot in the Ellington School annex.
Working late into the night during much of the summer, McCain encountered school janitors who wanted him to close up shop so they could do their work. Thanks to Eldridge, they eventually left the young artist alone.
A year ago, college seemed a distant dream to McCain. His family was too poor to afford it. Not only that, college recruiters had said his portfolio was not broad enough, since he had focused almost exclusively on fashion designs.
More hard work lay ahead for him, including maintenance of a job as salesman at the downtown Woodward & Lothrop department store to pay for his art supplies. On top of that, he had been elected president of the school's student government association.
"There was a lot of pressure," McCain recalled. "But it was one of those things: if I wanted to go to college, I just had to do it all." With confidence that belies his young age, he declared with pride, "And I did."
By the end of his senior year, he had received scholarships from four of the nation's top art schools totaling $100,000.
With one hand on his hip and the other holding a flesh-tone charcoal stick as if it were a pointer, McCain concentrates on Eldridge's face. When he is in a bad mood, his art work is dominated by dark colors. The opposite is true when he is feeling fine, and this day Eldridge comes alive with reds and purples and blue.
"When I look into his face, I see an explosion of color," McCain says with admiration. "I paint the colors I feel."
Before he leaves for college, McCain will try to sell some of his paintings. Friends will host a rooftop party and show for him at 8 p.m. Friday at 1200 N Street NW, (apartment 315). While his scholarship pays for room and board, he must pay for books and supplies. He says he hopes he can earn enough money to prevent having to take a full-time job.
The evidence that this young man has the right stuff lies not so much in his artwork as in his heart. In the lives of any successful person, it is not uncommon to find someone who was a believer from the beginning, who pushed a little harder and gave a little more than the rest.
What is rare is when the recipient remembers long enough to say thanks.