Contagious Happiness; A Farewell to Montell Payne.
I first met Montell when I came to interview for my original position as Volunteer Coordinator. I was doe-eyed and disoriented as Quinn led me through the gallery, to the kitchen, and into the café sharing bits and pieces of what he thought was important about the studio. Jake and Montell were eating in the café. Jake greeted me with a “What’s up, man?” and I think I was able to stammer out a reply. Mostly, I remember that both Jake and Montell wore sizeable smiles.
Later, Montell was a member of the committee who interviewed me. In the interview, Montell’s questions were pragmatic. His main concern was if I had experience supporting others with their eating and personal care. I had to answer that I did not, but I was opening to learning how. He appeared pleased with my answer; I think the openness was what mattered to him the most.
After close to five years at the Arts of Life, Montell’s living arrangements changed and, as a result, he is no longer able to be a part of our studio community. This is an indelible loss that happened quickly; and so, in commemoration, I took some time to gather stories and impressions from community members. No blog post or album of pictures can rightly encapsulate Montell’s time at the studio, but the following is some of the stories community members shared when they remembered Montell.
Most everyone commented on Montell’s contagious happiness and warm demeanor:
“He was a friendly guy, he had good art, he was nice to be around. He was really hilarious. He had a good sense of humor, he was good with people, he was really nice and kind. He had a nice smile and I miss delivering lunches with him and stuff. He was really funny. We did art together. The volunteers helped him out and stuff. He was a nice person. He was nice to be around. He was nice with us. He was really funny. He couldn’t say anything bad, but he was nice. He would make jokes by laughing, he would just laugh and laugh. I think it will be a little quieter with him gone, we all miss him.” – Phil Gazzolo, fellow artist
“When I think of Montell, what comes to mind is the brilliant light and warmth that he radiates. His smile lights up the room. His care and concern for the well-being of our studio community was constantly tangible through Montell's bold expression of emotion through physical gestures that translate boldly into his artwork. We will sorely miss Montell's leadership and artistic contributions, but his smile and warmth linger, having made an indelible impression on our culture.” – Megan Harrigan, North Shore Arts Coordinator
“In the short time, I got to know Montell it did not take long to catch his infectious spirit. His energy smile and passion are impossible to ignore.” –Grace Guillebeau, North Shore Volunteer Coordinator
“Montell lights up the room with his smile. When Montell arrives in the morning, he greets each of his friends with a bright and welcoming smile. To me, his smile says, ‘I am so excited to see you; thanks for being here.’ He is a classy, sensitive, and special man.” – Cindy Shanker, Art Talk Program Leader
“And I know it’s not just me that’s affected by Montell’s smiling - I had the joy of introducing him to my mom and some of my friends throughout the last year, as well as some strangers at the art fair last year, and he charmed all of them. I’m sure that Montell’s charisma was a huge contributor to the art sales at things like the art fair as well!” Rita Hirami, Volunteer, and Former Studio Assistant Intern
Other’s commented on the way Montell lives his life:
“Georgia O'Keefe once said, "I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for." I think of that often when I consider all that Montell has accomplished during his time at the Arts of Life. Despite being a man who operated mostly apart from audible language, I do believe his voice was perhaps the loudest of all. Artists long for finding that moment to have "something to say" with their work. This was never an obstacle for Montell. I remember the first painting he made at the studio. It was the first time in his life he had ever held a paintbrush. Watching him paint for the very first time was as if 55 years of desire exploded onto the canvas all at once. It was a tremendous privilege to share in that experience with Montell. It was beautiful and it changed me. As a fellow artist, bandmate, and most of all friend, I wish Montell many more years of letting his incredible voice be heard and impacting new communities in ways they could otherwise never imagine. Godspeed, good friend.” – John Sharp, Former North Shore Arts Coordinator
“Montel always positive person. What he face in his life he overcome to be the best man he can be. He is kind to everyone. His art show what is best of people. What he brought to the studio nobody can replace.” –Chris Viau, fellow artist
“My favorite Montell moment had to be sharing lunch with him this summer and talking about his upcoming camp experience. I have never witnessed such joy and enthusiasm in my life. He is persistent, determined and wholehearted in all of his expressions. It truly was a gift getting to know and interact with Montell this past year.” –Grace Guillebeau, North Shore Volunteer Coordinator
“I mean it sincerely when I say that I have truly never met a man who can light up a room with his smile like this one. My brief but joy-filled encounters with Montel over the past few years are so precious. I was more nervous of working with him and "getting it wrong" than of anyone else at the Arts of Life but he was always so gracious, forgiving, patient and encouraging with me. He is truly one in a hundred million- irreplaceable.” – Maria Palmer, Drama Program Leader
“I ended up spending a lot of time working with Montell throughout last summer, maybe more than any other artist at the studio, and it was incredibly enjoyable!
Despite all of his kidding, Montell was inspiring and incredible about advocating for his needs and letting me know if he wanted me to do something different, but in a way that was understanding and patient and friendly and funny. And beyond his personality, his art has such a joy and life to it as well - I am the proud owner of a Montell masterpiece, which is currently hanging in my room and makes me smile every time I look at it. “ – Rita Hiram, Volunteer, and Former Studio Assistant Intern
Many relayed stories about how Montell played jokes:
“He has an amazing sense of humor and is such a bright spirit. It was amazing how funny he could be without saying a word out loud - I would be asking him questions, all concerned about what he needed, and he would just say no, no, no with his hand until there were no more options left. For example: “Are you all set?” “No” “Do you need to be closer to the canvas?” “No” “Do you need to be further away?” “No” “Do you need to be turned differently?” “No” “Montell, there are no options left!!” and then a smile would also sneak across his face as I would be all flustered and he would start cracking up, laughing at me. His laugh is the most infectious laugh I’ve ever seen - It is impossible not to smile when Montell is smiling, and he smiles with his whole body!” – Rita Hirami, Volunteer, and Former Studio Assistant Intern
“One day, Montel was mad with me. I spent some time anxiously trying to work out why I was in the dog house. Turned out he didn't want to watch the video excerpt I brought in to start the session...He wanted to get on with the acting! I thought that was brilliant! He certainly seems to enjoy everyone's performances. And secretly, I think the costumes may have been a favourite for him too!” – Maria Palmer, Drama Program Leader
“When he would deliver lunches. Just coming by to give me my lunch and then bug me at the end of the trip because he would sit right across from me and we would laugh and joke. In the studio when I walked by he'd be all amped up to see me. If there was a frown on his face, I'd turn right-side-up and he would laugh and smile. And band practice. How I would sing whether it was rock n roll, country, in my Jamaican voice or just my regular voice. He'd just get excited to hear Tennessee, Time Machine or Heartless Man. Or how he would always just sit there and wiggle in his Dynavox that "John was the coolest"! Or also how he would side with Hilary whenever I'd go by her office and we'd talk. All three of us. He'd side with her! Oh yeah, that Halloween when he was me for Halloween! I mean, really! I didn't think anyone would ever be me for Halloween! Or I think everybody's favorite memory, when he was a rocking caterpillar with the bandana on his head... the shades. I'd think his favorite was when he was "Pastor Montell". He had a nice shirt on with the cross. I think it was at a party we had. He was dressed up and snazzy. I'll never forget that last day, though, I got my butt full of blue paint. I was talking to him and he was wiggling his arm and "poof" I backed into the blue paint on his canvas! Montell was laughing a lot. You know Montell can't get out a little laugh... it's gotta all come out! ‘Hector, why you feelin' so blue? What? Your keister is blue!’ “ – Hector Jones, fellow artist.
It is funny how, when someone is missing, it is natural to attempt to conjure up an anecdote that someone captures a person’s fullness. In the end, however, it is the small, everyday, banal things that really make up a person.
“My favorite memories of Montell was going on the bus with him. He would smile a lot. He always falls asleep a lot. Sometimes he would sit by me on the bus. When I would get off the bus he would smile at me and I would say, “I will miss you a real lot” I hope he will be back sometime. I remember he moved away and it made me very sad, a lot. I love that he would laugh a lot. I love that he would smile a lot. The studio will be different because he is not here anymore. The people miss him because he is gone every morning.” – Rebecca Kubica, fellow artist
“Oh yeah, Montell used to come in the morning, the bus used to always bring him in the wheelchair. They used to come in and used to put his lunch in the fridge and you guys would have to prepare it for him. He was always laughing and joking with people and swinging his arms like this. He comes in a wheelchair every day. He was laughing, I said to him, ‘Montell if you have any problems let me know or let Hilary know’ and he said, ‘That’s fine.’ We would all go to Drama with Maria. We did that skit at the Fancy. He sure was happy, I guess.” – Ed Rawski, fellow artist
“One time when Quinn wasn’t particularly feeling well he came to art talk and sat next to Montell. Montell must have seen that his friend was not doing his best. He wiggled his arm onto Quinn’s back and rubbed his back for the remainder of the hour.” – Cindy Shanker, Art Talk Program Leader
“I also soon found out that I could make him laugh by singing the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” or “I Feel Good” by James Brown, so I would sing those a lot (because of course I wanted to see Montell laughing!). We would also play like 20 Questions, where he would think of a person or thing and I would ask him yes or no questions to figure out who or what he was thinking of. He usually won, and then would crack up when I was having trouble figuring it out.” – Rita Hirami, Volunteer, and Former Studio Assistant Intern
Now, I am the Studio Coordinator at the North Shore and have some experience under my belt. The time I got to spend with Montell feels paradoxically long and short. I am grateful that he and I got to know each other over the past year and a half, but sometimes that doesn’t feel like any time at all. I can’t help but be curious about all the pieces of Montell that I did not get the chance to know.
I agree with Phil that the studio is quieter with Montell gone. His absence is widely felt and our community is still adjusting. This is a celebration of Montell, but there is an unavoidable melancholy to times like this, and that was present in all the conversations I had. I am not as doe-eyed as I once was, but–lately–I again find myself wandering–disoriented–around the cafe and studio as we begin to get our bearings in this new norm.