An Indian from Venezuela -portrait of Omar Vizquel

           I was with Omar Vizquel on a gorgeous summer day listening to loud Salsa music as we headed downtown into Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. Since Omar was from Venezuela I offered to introduce him to some fellow Venezuelan dancers from the Ballet San Jose. Omar drove his Porsche into the Playhouse’s parking lot, found a place to park, and I walked to the crosswalk while he paid the parking attendant. I had not gone far when he called me back. I turned around to see what was the problem.

           “¿Qué pasa?” –I asked him. With his trademark smile… but looking somewhat embarrassed, he replied: -“John, no tengo dinero!” I did not know if to break out in laughter or cry. This millionaire baseball legend and hero to millions of fans… had no money to pay for parking! All I did was give him a look, pull five dollars from my pocket and pay the fee. Then he had a good laugh as if this had been the greatest joke in the world.

           Before going into the ballet’s rehearsal hall, we stopped next door into Thinker’s Coffee House so that Omar could see the mural I had done the year before. Omar is also an amateur painter who practices abstract painting. Soon fans were coming to greet him and autographs were dispensed like papal blessings on the faithful. After more hellos and goodbyes, we finally made it into the rehearsal hall.

           Dennis Nahat was rehearsing his dancers for the world premiere of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, a highly acclaimed production that combined classical dance with classic rock in a one-act ballet danced to 36 master recordings of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits. This highly entertaining and lavish $1.2 million production featured 280 gorgeous costumes and 16 sets by Emmy award-winner and Oscar nominee designer Bob Mackie.

           Blue Suede Shoes went on to national prominence when it was broadcast by PBS. I went to the Cleveland Premiere and really loved the show. The highlight of the evening was during the scene where the dancers played army recruits undergoing a physical examination. While dancing in a row with their backs to the public, the dancers jump up and down exposing their derrières.

           My date for the evening, the sultry and always spontaneous Miss Jinni Fontana –and a great admirer of hard male buns, shot up from her seat, put her finger to her lips and started to whistle her approval. Immediately the rest of the ladies in the audience took her cue and the place erupted into gales of whistle, hooting and applause! This was definitely the best ballet I have ever been too and I owe it all to Jinni. Thanks babe!

           Omar had a great time seeing the rehearsals and then talking and joking with the cast. I introduced him to his fellow country artists and they were as charmed to meet him as he was to meet them. Dennis came over to great us and Omar got everyone tickets to the Indian’s game. He also got a kick when some of the dancer’s challenge him to do splits. We really had a wonderful time.

           During that same summer I did this oil painting of Omar. To represent his national roots, I painted the Iguazú Falls from Venezuela in the background. But the painting proved to be something of a dilemma. American Indians find ‘Chief Wahoo’ -the baseball team’s logo, offensive and demeaning. In view of this -and many protests and demonstrations by Indian organizations and other national groups, many sports teams have changed their representations of American Indians. But the Cleveland Indians baseball franchise has not followed suit.

           My problem was that I had many friends that were Indian American and many friends among the Indian players. So in other to achieve a compromise, I painted Omar in full Indian uniform, Chief Wahoo logo and all, but on a branch above his head, I painted a little bird native to Venezuela. And, if you look closely at the Chief Wahoo logo, you will notice what the bird did to it. Nothing like a little light humour to smooth out rough waters.

           I donated “An Indian from Venezuela” (that's the title of the painting) to the Cleveland Public Theatre for their yearly Art Auction Fundraiser. It was a fun painting to do, though not because of any love for baseball. In fact I’m not fan at all –in spite of baseball also being Puerto Rico’s national sport. But I admire athletes and what they achieve on the field. I think this painting shows it.

           Oh, one final note: Omar, if you ever read this… -“You still owe me five bucks!!!


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