I met Bill Rousseau at the City Market Art Center. My family was walking through the studio galleries, marveling at the talent and weeping at the beauty we couldn’t bring home. Some of us wept inwardly while some of us, namely Emma, cried very outwardly at the injustice of not being able to buy watercolor portraits and masterpieces painted in acrylic.
But back to Bill.
Bill was upstairs in the Art Center in Studio 5, quietly looking down his nose through his large glasses as he painted a layer of dense shrubbery in front of an old Savannah home. The one-room gallery in which he sat was filled with framed oil portraits of historic homes. The studio smelled slightly of wet paint.
“Do we have budding artists here?” the white-haired man at the easel asked upon hearing Devin and Emma comment on the various portraits and beg for one to take home.
“We do,” I said.
The artist turned from his painting and leaned closer to Emma, who was obviously enthralled with the process. “Would you like to help me with this painting?” She nodded, and he handed her a brush tipped with fresh white paint. “Here,” he pointed to an area – a shockingly large area – on his developing masterpiece and instructed Emma to make small white dots where she thought flowers should go.
I held my breath in anticipation, a mixture of pride, joy and fear beating in my chest as I watched my daughter, the budding artist, leave her mark on this man’s work. When she finished, he thanked her and she grinned sheepishly. He turned to my son and asked if he, too, wanted to be an artist.
“I want to be a scientist.”
“Oh, that’s a very good thing,” said the artist. “I was a scientist.”
Devin’s eyes lit up and my instincts buzzed. An artist scientist?
A few minutes later, my family and I were leaving the gallery when my instincts tugged at me. “I, uh, I need to go back,” I told Jared. “I’ll catch up to you guys.” Devin, my budding scientist, followed me back.
I cautiously stepped into the studio, apprehensive about intruding on the artist’s space, time and life story. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but, uh…” how do you explain that you’re kind of obsessed with ordinary people who do extraordinary things? “I’m, uh, I’m a writer.” That always seems to be a good opening. After a little more stumbling and questioning on my part, the artist scientist began to tell me his story.
His name is Bill Rousseau and he began his working life as a scientist working in engineering and applied math. He didn’t hate it and wasn’t mediocre, which you might expect upon hearing he’s since become a painter. In fact, he was very good at being a scientist and engineer. He was the Director of Technologies for United Technologies, which equates to being a very big deal in the field.
“I had a very good career,” Bill said with a smile and not an ounce of resentment or regret.
And then, at 55, he retired and enrolled in art school.
In 2002, he and his wife moved from Syracuse, New York to Savannah, Georgia where Bill could enroll in the Savannah College of Art and Design. Bill had always enjoyed painting and figured it was time to do what he loved.
“Why would you go to school?” I asked. “Why not just paint if that’s what you liked to do?”
“I didn’t think I was good enough yet.”
Bill wanted to paint in the style of the old masters and SCAD, he said, has a very good program for teaching that style. He admitted that his former career had allowed him and his wife to save enough money to support the move and change in lifestyle. And yet as I spoke with him, he was sitting in front of a portrait that would be hopefully be sold for several hundred dollars in a gallery that requires rent and utilities and financial support.
“Why not just paint?” I asked again. “I mean, why turn it into a business?”
“I like meeting people and talking to people, but mostly I love the idea of someone else loving my work and hanging it in their home. The idea of my paintings being in someone’s home is a real thrill for me.”
We chatted a little more and then I thanked Bill for his time and went on to catch up with my family. Later that day, while we combed the shelves of a local art supply store for acrylic paint and canvas pads for the kids, I heard Devin marvel aloud at what he’d heard back in the art gallery.
“Man, he’s done everything I love. Science, math, and art. I didn’t know you could do all those things!”
“Baby, you can do whatever you want,” I told him. “And remember that you don’t have to do anything forever. It’s never too late to change your mind and do something different.”
He nodded and picked out a paint brush.
This story is featured in An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness.