There are hundreds of pens and pencils spread out on the table in front of Isaac Canady. They are a parade of plastic, of thin strips of color; some are metallic, and many look like they’ve seen better days. He stores them all in a large, battered Ziploc bag. These are his tools, collected carefully and painstakingly through the years, through homelessness and starvation, mental illness and hospitalization. He calls them tools because it is through them that he earns an income, unsteady as it may be. It is because of them that he has food to eat and a place to sleep. With these pens and pencils, he’s built himself a home.
Isaac’s work lines the windows of the Starbucks on the corner of Chapel and High streets. Simply rendered—almost primitive in form—the colorful drawings pique the interest of passersby. Isaac, a regular fixture at a corner table inside the store, is himself a curious sight, his long, thin body bent over his work as sunlight streams in around him, his fingers furiously dotting at the paper. His cheeks are sunken and his gaze is intense, focused. His clothes are drab but clean. He is completely, utterly engrossed in his work.
Isaac is 48 years old, but he started drawing just 15 years ago. He was in the hospital at the time—“I had a lot of…issues,” he says evasively, “a lot of anger and resentment.” Later, he clarifies: “I have a very abusive history—sexually, physically, emotionally. At the time, my mental health was falling to pieces, my marriage was falling to pieces. I had quit my job because I was so sick.” He and his wife owned a farmhouse on 99 acres of land in Oxford, Connecticut, but a few years after quitting his job he lost everything. His job, incidentally, was with the Connecticut Department of Mental Health. “I was in just as bad a predicament as the people I was treating,” he says, his hands tented around his mouth. So he had checked himself in. For four months, he had nothing but paper and a few pencils to relieve his boredom.
That drawing came naturally to Isaac was both expected and unexpected. He’d been involved in the arts since he was just a boy, but almost exclusively in the performing arts. He had started with piano, then moved on to sax, xylophone, and dance. But doodling during his hospital stay, Isaac found his passion. Sketching was also a way to channel and calm his anger. “I prayed to my higher power to help me with my issues, and little did I know he’d help me through my artistic ability. When I started doodling that’s exactly how the healing process took place,” he says. His art is abstract and organic, and wrought with symbolism: He uses pear-like shapes to represent women, roots for history and ancestry, and colors, lots of colors, to show the interconnectedness of people. “My work is not about blacks, it’s about all cultures. All of us have the same issues, the same problems.” Being able to safely express his emotions is therapeutic, but his art is also an exercise in self-restraint. “I do pointillism —my art form is pointillism—and it’s an art form that takes a lot of patience. And if you work hard at it, it develops patience.” Pointillism is a term he learned while homeless and drawing on the New Haven Green. “This woman came by one day and said, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?’ And I’m like, I’m doing art! And she’s like, ‘Yeah, but do you know what art form you’re doing?’ And I said no. And she said, ‘I’m going to write down a couple of things for you. You look it up. I’ll be by here again, you let me know what art form it is.’ And she wrote down Seurat, and a couple of other pointillists. Sure enough, I ran into her about a month later, and she said, ‘Did you find out?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it’s pointillism. Seurat is amazing.’ And he is!”
Isaac doesn’t talk much about his fouryear stint of homelessness. “I don’t want to say too much about it. Homelessness was…an inconvenience. It was frightening, because people view you as separate from society. It was sad at times—but I can’t say it was the most unhappiest time of my life. You know why? Because I’m so creative, I adapt to situations, I refuse to be miserable.” He carried his pens with him in a backpack everywhere he went, usually drawing on the Green, or in Starbucks if it was raining. Six years ago, Starbucks’ then-manager Rick Ford noticed how Isaac’s drawings drew people into the store. “I told him he could sit here and do his work, if he promised to get his act together. And he did,” Ford said.
Today, he has an apartment in Westville that he pays for by selling his drawings, and he’s thinking about going back to school. Maybe college, maybe art classes. He’s also considering finding another day job, although that possibility, he says, “scares the shit out of me.” In the old days, he was in Starbucks the minute it opened because he had nowhere else to be, but now he goes to museums every day, hangs out in other coffee shops (he particularly likes Koffee on Audubon), watches science fiction movies—and isn’t kicked out of a shelter at five in the morning. His daughter, Chiara Ocean Canady— just a baby when Isaac was in the hospital —goes to school at the Educational Center for the Arts and drops by Starbucks to visit him on her way home. She has long, curly black hair and a light, tan complexion—her mother is Italian—and though she moves with the shy awkwardness of a 15-year-old, she exudes self-con- fidence. “She’s so focused she scares me. I’m just waiting for all hell to break loose,” Isaac says proudly. “We talk a lot about how she can do whatever she wants, and doesn’t need a man for anything.” In a way, Isaac chose to be poor— chose, even, to be homeless. He recognized that he wasn’t happy with where he was in life and made a drastic decision to effect a change. Now, his art has begun to gain him recognition within the local community. He has sold drawings for as much as five hundred dollars and says that, because of the diversity of the people who congregate around Yale, his work has disseminated to countries all over the world.
But those sales are few and far between, and his prosperity is more psychological than financial. Still, though life is hard as a struggling artist—“I say struggling, not starving, although that’s part of it”— he’s happy. “If I die today, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I thank God that I have the stick-to-it-iveness and the zeal and all that to keep going regardless of the money,” he says. “I truly believe that I will be a recognized artist one day, probably after I die. But I’m going to try to beat that, I’m going to try to do it while I’m living.” Digging his fingers into the pile before him, the plastic pens gently clicking in his hands, Isaac says, “I may be poor, but my work doesn’t have to look poor.” No longer collecting old pens off the street, he has added a few more expensive tools to his collection—India ink, some felt-tipped markers. But he still relies on his grimy ballpoints and gel pens and highlighters, because they are what he’s used to, because he knows how to wield them well, because he’s not the type to forget where he came from.
Laura Yao is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.