The influence of a line drawing and the life of a billionaire

Yesterday over at the LA Times site I noticed this story, a couple of key paragraphs of which I’ll copy here:

The joshing at a Manhattan gathering would have been nothing out of the ordinary except that the man pulling a worn blue blazer over his head in mock modesty was none other than the onetime billionaire, Chuck Feeney.

Never heard of him? No surprise there.

Over the years, the frugal 76-year-old has made a fetish out of anonymity. He declined to name his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, after himself, registering the $8-billion behemoth in Bermuda to avoid U.S. disclosure laws. He lavishes hundreds of millions of dollars on universities and hospitals but won’t allow even a small plaque identifying him as a donor.

“We just didn’t want to be blowing our horn,” he explains in a rare interview at his daughter’s Upper East Side apartment.

The whole story is of interest (and among other things explains the origins of a company I’d always idly wondered about on my trips overseas, Duty Free Shoppers aka DFS). But this quote, in particular, puts me in mind of a very quietly profound moment in my life many years ago that has stayed with me to this day.

As I’ve mentioned before, we moved a fair amount over the years when growing up — not constantly, but often enough to know the routines and the certain things to expect while on the road, or as was often the case waiting in Navy housing while our own house was being made ready. Once it was a Quonset hut over at Mare Island, but a spot we ended up at over the years was the Navy Lodge at North Island Naval Air Base, which forms the northern and larger half of Coronado Island (the southern being the actual town itself). I’d say we only stayed there a total three to four times, but we did so often enough that I can remember the (to me) rare views of looking well down Ocean Beach towards the Hotel Del or being able to walk from ‘home’ to the beach by means of four steps or so. It was just a motel for Navy folks and their families, and served a purpose that I am happy for.

As is so often the case, there was a Bible to be found in a desk drawer of the room — and of the many hotels and motels I’ve seen, more often than not it’s thanks to the Gideons (I still remember being intrigued at the discovery of the Book of Mormon in a motel in Alberta when I was nine as part of a visit to Montana to see my mom’s parents). But sometimes it was another Bible and during this stay in particular, which I’d place either in 1981 or 1982, it was something I’d encountered briefly before and since — the Good News Bible.

Wikipedia’s entry on this particular edition, allowing for the caveat as always that it is just that rather than a final authoritative history, outlines some of the reasons why this edition might have caught my eye — having been generally familiar with abbreviated kid’s versions of the Bible while growing up, this one was meant to cover the whole thing, but in a fashion that would be easily readable and immediately appealing. A key reason, to quote that entry, is this:

Unlike most other translations, the GNT contains line drawings of Biblical events with a snippet of text. The line drawings were done by Annie Vallotton. However, Vallotton is credited with doing the drawings only in certain editions of the GNT — in others, the drawings are simply credited to “a Swiss artist”. There are introductions to each book of the Bible.

This BBC profile discusses Vallotton a bit, as well as provided some examples of her work — and even if you’re not fond of the results, you can probably sense why they do work, and they actually work for me still. The vocabulary for art discussion as such is not my area of expertise, but what we see in her is a balance of practicality (this is, after all, meant to be commissioned work for cheap mass production — black and white line drawings are therefore perfect for this) and surprising grace and detail. The most common feature about her figures is another reason for their general appeal — their facelessness, where merely ovals with the barest of details stand in for faces or even caricatures a good amount of the time, at other points showing only eyes. Rather than being off-putting, they allow a viewer to fill in the blanks, however appropriately — a wise decision, I’d say.

One verse, in particular, provided one illustration that has always remained with me. I am not sure of the exact verse, but I believe it is Matthew 6:2, various translations of which you can find here — the general intent of the verse is clear enough, to quote the first provided: “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men.”

Vallotton’s illustration, whether of this or of a similar verse elsewhere, shows a background of a crowd of people watching the event in the foreground — a man kneels, his face marked only by eyes and eyebrows, showing him to be sad, beaten down, wretched, wearing torn clothes. He’s receiving a handout of money or something similar from someone clearly well-off, well-fed — and who is not looking at him, but looking to the crowd instead, his eyes amused and pleased, his mouth a smirk.

Subtle? No. But pointed and memorable? Certainly, or why else would I recall it? (I’ve seen it a few times since then, but it’s been some years since I have.) And something about it has always stayed with me, as an admonition and as a pointed reminder — when one helps out those who are less fortunate, or gives something back, why is it done, and what are you trying to do? In its own straightforward way, the illustration encapsulates a slew of issues rather than necessarily providing a final answer — for charity is not simply a matter of giving alms to the poor, the point of the verse itself notwithstanding.

Wrestling with the issue of giving, charity, using one position to call attention to issues, these are all things I’d not feel qualified enough to discuss in detail here, or, honestly, I would feel embarrassed about, for the reasons I’ve just touched on. To talk briefly through my own lens as I can, then — everything from the monumental spectacle of the Band Aid/Live Aid/USA for Africa efforts in the mid-eighties to far lower key familial advice and examples to considerations of how best to raise consciousness on issues in a way to bring attention to abuses and injustices feeds into my thoughts on this matter. Hovering over it all has been that image of the man who gives in order to win attention for himself rather than because he seeks to do good — and often my thought turns back to the question, to borrow from a proverb, on the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him to fish, of one-time assistance versus helping someone stand on their own feet — or, alternately, the difference between donating money and donating time.

I could go on. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to how one should best conduct oneself on these fronts, and I’m of the firm belief that some people are more ready and apt to assist in ways that others cannot, and that square pegs cannot be forced into round holes — the tenor, the nature, the place of what we give back, how we give it back, what we hope results, is a crazy-quilt patchwork, not a hard and fast rule. Yet Vallotton’s illustration stays with me, and so I say nothing about what small efforts I have done over the years beyond the bare statement of acknowledgement.

But seeing Feeney’s approach, noting how he has made his own decisions, clearly deals with questions and apparent contradictions and resolves them in a way that might not be perfect but are meant to address what he sees as important, I recognize someone at a great remove who is still a kindred spirit given this small point of indirect contact. What more I could do, what I have done so far, these are the things I would rather wrestle with privately rather than put on display. Presumably Feeney would love nothing better, and that it takes a public story to put it all in the open, and there to puzzle over and reflect on, just makes it that much more tangled. And human, and understandable.