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Preacher Boyle's Driving Vision

An artist's long return from skid row



By Fred Camper

Though he's only been painting for a decade, the art of 63-year-old Frank "Preacher" Boyle is deeply rooted in his childhood.

"I stammered very bad," says Boyle, who currently has an exhibit at Around the Coyote Gallery in Wicker Park. "I used to do all my spelling tests on the blackboard because of that; the other kids laughed at me." So Boyle invented an imaginary playmate named Poingley Ping Ghost Ping. "We began this relationship and it got so real to me that I wouldn't care to play with other children because I knew they was going to mock me. My mama gave me this old quilt, and under the house I made me a little river and a little boat and got some water and filled it. That's where I would play with Poingley Ping. My older brother would say, 'Mama, you know there's something weird about Frank. There ain't no Poingley Ping Ghost Ping; you ought to whip him about that.' But it began to be real to me. And something else happened." As early as age five, Boyle began seeing a blue, birdlike shape he came to call his "vision angel," which he still sees today. "Even during the time I was druggin' and drinkin' I saw that little image up in the clouds."

Working as a shoeshine boy in downtown Memphis during the late 30s and 40s, Boyle fell under the spell of blues singers performing in W.C. Handy Park, on Beale Street. He heard B.B. King, Memphis Slim--and street-corner singers repeating, "If you got a nickel, I got a dime / Let's get together and drink a little wine."

"In those days guys who couldn't afford a guitar would take an old washtub and a broomstick and a string and play juice-harps while singin' the blues," he says. There were no amplifiers then; just megaphones. "I liked it. It was for real. But Mama always said, 'I don't want you on Beale Street; it will get in you in trouble someday.' Now I understand what she meant." But the music he heard was "from the soul. It had no special tune. I would say 99 percent of the blues singers, if you put some music before them they couldn't read it and really don't care to try. A music writer would have to let them play and try to write the notes to what they're playing." Boyle links this spontaneity with creativity: "B.B. King don't sound like John Lee Hooker, who don't sound like Muddy Waters. It's their individuality--just like my art is from the soul. I saw this sign in Chicago, 'Soul Food Kitchen.' I never saw my grandmother or mother or auntie pick up no recipe to make nothing."

When Boyle was 15, he got a job waiting tables at the tony Peabody Hotel. This suddenly gave him spending money--as much as $20 a night in tips. He would only work until nine on school nights, but when he got off he'd go to stage shows at the Palace Theater, where "they started bringing in big names." But this was still in the days of Jim Crow, and the audiences on Beale Street were mostly black. The police would stop a stray white, Boyle says, "and they would say, 'Evidently you're from out of the city. It's better if you go up to Main Street.' I've seen them go as far as put them in the car and take them off the street. But sometimes you would catch white sailors and marines. They would tell the police, 'We down here,' and the police would call the shore patrol. They'd say, 'Look, man, we're in the service; two or three of my best friends is Negroes, so what's the problem?' I've seen the shore patrol physically throw them in trucks." Boyle recalls all this without bitterness: "I never did have a race problem."

Boyle had been living at home, and "if you stay in that house, you are going to church." But when his mother died in 1955, "I kind of got into that 'poor little pitiful me, God took my mama when she was young' attitude. I really started drinking heavier. I had a good friend who had gone to Chicago, a waiter at the Palmer House, and he was doing good and said 'C'mon.'" Though Boyle lived in an integrated neighborhood in Hyde Park, he didn't notice that much difference from Memphis. "I worked with white waiters in the Palmer House, but when we got off we all went south side, like to the Sutherland Lounge at 47th and Drexel. All the blues singers, jazz musicians, Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, all of them used to come through the Sutherland Lounge and Club DeLisa. Chicago is some kind of city. It impressed me more than Memphis. It's a doable, flexible city; whatever you are into, you can get into it in Chicago. I met the same blues singers that came through Memphis, but there were more clubs. I discovered that many of your northern and midwestern black blues singers don't even come south." He first heard Chico Hamilton and Duke Ellington at the Blue Note in the Loop.

But Boyle was getting into other things in Chicago. "I was changing jobs so much, I was getting in trouble drinking." Being in a union helped; it offered security he didn't have in Memphis. "The money was much better, and a lot of waiters and captains drink in Chicago," so they were understanding. He worked at the Rumpus Room, which had "the best Chinese food on the south side. That's where I saw Billie Holiday, Ralph Abernathy, Joe Lewis, Jesse Owens--all of them would come through there. We didn't close till 5 AM," so musicians leaving clubs on the north side would go there. That's where Boyle discovered drugs--marijuana, cocaine, and later various prescription medicines--given to him by musicians who were passing through. He attended many "Blue Monday" parties, where musicians took advantage of their day off. These parties often began at 2 or 3 AM Sunday and continued all day Monday, even into Tuesday, with everyone eating, drinking, and performing.

"I put myself in the category of an alcoholic addict. You would never see me buy drugs first. First, I'm gonna get drunk. I couldn't have got hooked on heroin because I'm scared of the needle, but I would get drunk, and someone would say, 'You ought to try this to mellow yourself down.' I wasn't too particular about putting anything up my nose, but I would only do it drunk. When Robitussin came on the market then, I got into that--cough syrup--and the uppers and the downers. You might take some uppers and then you might need a downer to bring you back down."

Boyle had been working summers as a waiter on a dining car for the Santa Fe Railroad between Chicago and Los Angeles; in 1972 they offered him full-time work if he would move to the west coast. Even though he was told the job might last as little as a year, it was "time for me to get out of Chicago anyway." But after getting laid off from the railroad, "I started really drinking. 'Who cares?' The self-pity bag and all that. That's when I hit skid row. I even drank myself out of a flophouse. I slept outside; it was warm. I'd hear winos say, 'It's about time for the snowbirds to hit,' and I thought I'll wait and see what they're talking about--white dudes? But then I would hear white guys on skid row say, 'Well, man, the snowbirds will be here in a minute.'" The "snowbirds" were the guys Boyle used to hear in Chicago saying "I'm going to hobo to Los Angeles and Florida" for the winter. "Skid row was the only place I found no segregation at all. If people would take a lesson from the way those people get along so good they would get over all these racial problems." Working sporadically, Boyle would panhandle, paying $7.50 a week at the Greyhound bus station to store his clothes. "I ate at missions. In Los Angeles you have so many top stars who are recovered alcoholics and put money into AA programs, into missions, to help."

In a 1990 self-published booklet titled Satan the Sifter, Boyle recounts that he was in a detox room in LA when "I really discovered that GOD did not go on vacation....I watched a little ant pull a fly up a brick wall and about the time he got to the top where his house was, he would fall back to the ground." He saw the ant fall repeatedly, and "said to myself, if GOD gives the little ant the faith, power and the determination to try that hard...I know He will deliver me from drugs and alcohol." But there were some lapses. "I stayed sober about 9 days after that; went back to work, got me some more money, got another room right in the same hotel, and before I know it I'm drunk again. A good friend of mine said, 'Maybe we do better in Las Vegas.' I liked Las Vegas, that nightlife, that strip, bright lights, all kinds of music." He remembers hearing Kenny Rogers: "Country and western tells a story, man; it's based on the same stories as blues--it's from the heart.

"I got really sober in Las Vegas," he says, but not before he went through years of drinking and time in and out of jail. "That stretch on skid row taught me there's no way in hell that I can have me three drinks and stop like other people. I discovered what I didn't know: You cannot hang in blues clubs and jazz joints and not drink for too long. It puts you in that mood; they go together."

By 1985, 11 years after moving to Las Vegas, Boyle had already started a street ministry, preaching to fellow alcoholics and drug users. Then he heard of a new drug: crack. One friend whose son was on crack called him, and said, "You know my son came in this house and took all of the appliances, sold the TV, anything he could sell." A friend from AA called him one day and said he'd been on crack for two days. "He'd smoked up his car title, gave it to the drug man. I said, 'Huh?' I knew he idolized cars." Already drinking again, Boyle decided, "I got to try this drug." Later the same day, he was almost killed in a car wreck. He hasn't had a drink since. "I always say when I talk in AA or cocaine meetings, 'Hey, the world is not going to change, so you have to accept the world as it is. You change to cope with the world.'"

In 1988, Boyle returned to Memphis to help his sick father. He began making clay sculptures of Bible scenes, but "they didn't take off at all." Then in 1993, he was working as a waiter when he learned he had to have a hernia operation. "I wasn't going to be able to wait no more tables, can't pick up no more trays," he says. "As I was getting well I saw this vision in this tree, a poplar in a parking lot outside of the apartment building where I lived, this painted beer bottle as real as we are talking here. It was painted with a face, and I closed my eyes because it was so powerful. I opened them and saw a different face on this same bottle. Those are two faces I've painted for a long time now.

"I say thanks be to God for this art work, because I can always wake up and do something. If I don't have any images and visions I can go pick up some bottles, go wash some more, and spray 'em and let 'em dry. I pick up the bottles with an old grocery cart. If you don't know me you might mistake me for a homeless person. I dress just like them; I know the garbage pickup schedule; I know what areas to go to, where people drink." Referring to his liquor bottles, Boyle says, "The thing that God curses you with is the same thing as he blesses you with. God has a plan: I used to drink 'em, now I paint 'em. I take the money from selling them and put it into God's work." Boyle has what he calls a "placemat ministry," handing out laminated placemats bearing Bible verses on the streets of Memphis.

Boyle points out the two faces from the tree among the works on view. There's a stylized visage he's named the "Egyptian king," and another, mouth open wide, called the "happy face." The painted bottles are often topped with objects. One bottle with an image of a sad golfer is topped by a golf ball; the golfer is crying, Boyle says, because "he sees Chi Chi Rodriguez and Greg Norman on the golf course" and knows he's going to lose. A series called "King of the Courts" depicts Chicago Bulls players on one side of each bottle with the Egyptian king on the other; a toy basketball sits on top. Some show two faces of the same person on opposite sides, because "everybody's got at least two faces." Each work begins after Boyle spray paints the bottle a solid color; he then tries to "see a vision in it--a vision that comes from your subconscious mind. When I get an image I try to paint as many as I can, because once the image leaves it might not come back till next year; it might never come back."

Boyle's flat paintings are mostly on cloth, board, or napkins. "I still had a few napkins around the house from waiting tables--not intentionally 'cause who needs it, but you're working, you put one in your pocket, you forget it's there. I had eight or ten napkins, so I said, 'Let me see how this paints.' Now when I go to the Salvation Army I buy every napkin I see." Many of these paintings are of musicians. In one called The Blues Singers, four faces with different expressions surround a guitar in the middle. One face is elderly: "He's old, but he's still singing the blues." The guitar is dancing and has a face on it, almost as human as each of the singers. For A Tribute to Jimmie Hendrix, "I turned the guitar upside down; it's dancing upside down." The singer's facial expression is meant to say, "'C'mon, here, y'all, let's go get high. I'm gonna play this guitar so we can get going; I'm gonna make you feel good with this music; we all goin' to get high,'" Boyle explains "He's playing to us with all of the charisma he's got. Maybe I related to him because he was an addict and alcoholic like me." Hendrix spelled his name Jimi, but Boyle prefers "Jimmie." He says, "Jimi might sound like a female name to me."

In two paintings, each titled The Mad Magician, there are painted notes that look like little legs. "The guitar is dancing, just like onstage when a man is playing the guitar he's also dancing; and the notes he's making are coming out the guitar, so why not let the guitar dance?" But Boyle's "vision angel" is here too, now called JoWiz, a name that came to him only recently: "I was painting a bottle and all of a sudden this image was right there, and I say, 'That's JoWiz!'" This is the angel Boyle still sees in the sky. "It's the most beautiful thing. I stand up and talk to JoWiz. Some nights I look up and say, 'There you is, man.' When I'm walking down the street, I say, 'Hey Jo, let me follow you today, I'm going to see how long.' Sometimes I clock it and see how long I can see it--maybe five minutes, but never over five. All of a sudden he's gone.' In Chasing the Rainbow, seven JoWiz figures are looking to their right for a pot of gold, which sits at their left.

Boyle paints mostly at night; he's tried painting by day, but he can't stand the noise and other distractions. Instead he sleeps with the TV on low and wakes up to Leno or Letterman. Then he turns off the TV and the phone and gets to work. Recently he turned down a teaching job in which he would paint in class. Boyle says he needs "total seclusion, 100 percent concentration" when trying to paint his visions.

Thinking back to his years in Chicago, Boyle remembers an incident, involving "the trumpet player Miles Davis in the Sutherland Lounge. It was a fact that Miles Davis would stop playing if you got loud. I came in the club, and I was drunk, and I sat and I said 'Play, Miles, play.' He was playing whatever tune it was, and he'd hit that note, and I'd say, 'Blow, Miles, blow!' The captain came over, and said, 'Hey, man, quiet down.' But Miles had walked off of the stage. They said Miles won't be back tonight; somebody else started playing. The next day I went and bought a cold bottle of champagne and took it to Miles in his hotel room. I said, 'Look, Miles, I'm so sorry about what happened. I didn't mean no harm.' He said, 'I understand, but I just can't blow.' I didn't understand why Miles Davis would do that until I got into this art work." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frank "Preacher" Boyle photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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