The eyes belong to a warrior princess, protective and piercing. Dreadlocks fall from a crown of dark hair, framing strength and beauty. A tailored haori jacket hugs confident shoulders. A katana extends from a sure grip, Japanese weaponry in the hand of an African American sentry.
The woman stands in front of a chain-link fence, a playground with white lines and an orange hoop behind her. She sets a watchful gaze away from the court, empty save for a basketball, her features a compelling blend of light and shadow.
On the ground floor of the McNay Art Museum, a tall man approaches as I study the acrylic portrait. “Do you know who painted this?” he asks. I shake my head, my eyes riveted on the execution and color. “A security guard who works here.”
Michael Patterson Jr. is a late bloomer. A once aspiring pro basketball player, he practiced with two future NBA players at Wagner High School — Jordan Clarkson and André Roberson — but did not perform up to his expectations. A 5-foot-10 guard on the junior varsity, he sank into depression and quit the game. Patterson drifted, looking for another passion. He moved in and out of two community colleges and took up painting. At the age of 30, he left a part-time job with FedEx to join security at the McNay, figuring, “I’m gonna get paid to look at art.”
In a span of four months, Patterson transformed from anonymous watchman to featured artist. Patrons gathered in the Zoch Gallery to view his work. The chief curator interviewed him for a McNay audience. A docent had him address visiting art students. He talked about two acrylics on display and the influences behind them. Left untold — because no one asked — was a story as surreal as Dalí’s melted watch. A little boy admired his father. After the boy grew up, father and son grew apart. The distance widened. Estrangement hardened. Paint and brush broke the silence. A portrait created warmth. An artist felt stirrings of power.
A basketball court of dreams
The artist’s father could ball. Exceptionally quick and athletic, Michael Patterson Sr. could jump, defend and score. A 6-foot-1 combo guard, he was known to drop 25 points on future Division I players at Rucker Park, the New York City playground that spawned movies and legends. Julius Erving secured the nickname “Dr. J” at Rucker Park. Senior never got a nickname or played high school ball. He dropped out in 10th grade and ran dice games. Then he delivered paintings for a global broker of fine art, Sotheby’s. In his 20s, Patterson sold merchandise on the streets, married and moved into an apartment across from Frederick Douglass Playground, not far from Rucker Park. He became a father.
A visit to the playground formed an impression. A quarter century later, it inspired a portrait, Protectors of Memory: Court of Dreams. The painting merges reality and fantasy: the hoop and ball recalling an afternoon in Harlem, the warrior princess springing from imagination, a composite of fiction and flesh. Through steely eyes, the woman conveys a warning, a glint of intimidation, guarding a treasure not to be taken.
When the family moved, 9-year-old Michael Patterson Jr. carried the memory from New York to San Antonio: dribbling and shooting, rising to the rim in the hands of his father, dropping a ball through the hoop. The imagery released a chemical, a current of joy that warmed his soul. It spilled into a well of creativity, a reservoir that grew, imperceptibly, through the drama and angst of adolescence.
Michael, pay attention! The mind of an artist wanders, drifting from the dull presentation of facts to the splendor of dreams. Young Michael wrestled with focus. He did not do well in math or English. His gift remained hidden until he completed a middle school art assignment. A photo-realistic piece of Air Jordan sneakers impressed his teacher. His mother gasped.
“This is amazing,” Alesia Patterson told her son. “How did you do that?” He dismissed the art with a shrug. “His dream,” Alesia explains, “was to be an NBA star.”
Art came naturally. Basketball did not. Bigs grew taller. Guards got faster. Junior’s shot hit iron. The court became a rectangle of frustration. He wanted to quit but didn’t want to disappoint his father. When, at last, he turned in his jersey, relief came in waves. Junior began to sketch. He learned to paint with acrylics and created portraits of Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, selling them for $250 each. He applied for a program at the McNay — Artists Looking at Art — but was not accepted.
Undeterred, the younger Patterson visited the McNay often. He walked across the lush, picturesque grounds, past palm trees and sculptures, through the front doors of the Spanish Colonial-revival mansion. He studied the technique and execution of Kehinde Wiley, his favorite artist. He drew inspiration from Vignette #10, an acrylic by Kerry James Marshall, a virtuoso. He grew so connected to the galleries they felt like home. His imagination soared: What if my art could hang here?
A gripping portrait
The artist is a gentle soul, soft-spoken with a luminous smile. He is quick to respond to queries on social media. I found him on Facebook and asked for an interview. “That would be amazing,” he said.
His story spills over breakfast near his Northside apartment. After starting his security job at the McNay, he showed his work to the security chief, who connected him with René Paul Barilleaux, head of curatorial affairs. Barilleaux recognized him as a previous applicant for Artists Looking at Art, a program that celebrates local artists. He also recognized remarkable progress. After a review of two acrylics on canvas, Protectors of Memory: Court of Dreams and Protectors of Memory: Charlene, (Reimagined), the security guard joined the program. His mother wept. “I have no idea where he gets this gift from,” says Alesia, a first grade teacher. “I can’t even draw a straight line.”
Alesia’s son was on duty when the paintings went up. Hung on the right, Charlene represents the memory of a childhood friend, last seen at a train station in the Bronx. People clustered around the series. Patterson heard soft chatter. Whispers. He approached the gathering and introduced himself. Eyes widened. Faces registered wonder. A security guard was getting paid to watch patrons admire his art. How would Dalí paint that?
The artist speaks freely, excitedly, about a range of subjects but turns quiet on one. His father. The relationship is broken. “We don’t talk,” he says, without offering details. The father, a truck driver separated from his son’s mother, adds little else: “It’s been a while since we’ve spoken.”
Junior cares about the silence. He cares about the man who inspired his art. He cares about race and messaging and the dominant figure in Court of Dreams. Tired of watching black women being sexualized, he clothed the warrior princess to the neck in layers of fabric and color. “I wanted her to convey strength,” he says. “A very powerful resolve.”
Hauntingly beautiful, the portrait grips. One observer posted a review. “A glimpse of art caught our eye at the elevator,” Samuel Garcia wrote. “We started admiring it when Michael Patterson, who works there, saw us admiring his work. We were shocked that it was his art which made the experience all the better. … We hope to see more of his art at McNay in the future!”
The head curator commends the originality and depth. “Michael’s painting communicates a lot of information in a visual way,” Barilleaux says. “He has a unique way of blending his own story and experience with these fictions that he creates.”
The eyes fill with wonder. Three months earlier, the artist was loading boxes for FedEx, earning a little over minimum wage. Now events are breaking his way, propelling him forward. Even a car accident worked to his benefit. Without transportation, he had to work from home. No problem. A video game company hired him as a concept artist with a substantial increase in pay. “This is something,” he says, “that can fund my art for a long time.”
Michael Patterson Jr. paints out of a small bedroom in an apartment he shares with his mother and 22-year-old brother, Maurice. Crammed with furniture and artist tools, the studio space is tight. The door opens only halfway. Alesia wants a large space that befits her son’s talent: a house with a garage for a studio. “His art is going to become famous where the whole world will see,” she says. “They don’t know it yet.”
A next step, Barilleaux says, is for Patterson to participate in exhibitions, to enter jury competitions and develop a strong online presence. For now, another matter occupies attention. Five days after our interview, the son texted the father. A phone call followed. Flesh and blood spoke for more than an hour, filling the son with gratitude. Art created a bridge. A portrait melted stubbornness and dissolved distance. “When I see a new painting by our son,” the father says, “it connects the family.”
The father is preparing a turkey for Thanksgiving. He will carve and serve on a dinner table in his apartment. A seat is waiting for his son.