By Steve Weinstein
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Haile King Rubie's paintings are lovely. Considering the subject matter (stick figures, balloons, simplistically rendered buildings), the lines, and the rich use of color, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the artist is a precociously talented grade-schooler. Some of it is moving, some of it isn't. But this third-grader, you might think, has a big future ahead of him.
Rubie, however, isn't a child in grade school. He's actually 17 years old and living with Down syndrome. It's inspiring that he loves to paint and that his parents encourage him so much.
But is a Rubie painting really worth $1,200?
On a rainy afternoon, Bernardo Rubie is glowing as he shows off his son's artwork. "This one is about global warming," he says. A deep red sky conveys the heat, wilting a double line of smudgy trees. Childlike? Sure, but it seems to make its point. And it's making that point in, of all places, a bank lobby: a North Fork branch on 145th Street in Harlem.
As to how a teenager with Down syndrome is selling his paintings at a local bank, that brings us back to Bernardo and his wife, Audrey. The couple acknowledge that they promote Haile's art in the hopes that financial success will bring him independence. (Haile's a high-school junior at the Manhattan Occupational Training Center and is looking forward to attending college.) And what promotion: a website (hailesimoart.com), the bank show, press releases, greeting cards, even a clothing line.
"Painting is something that he loves," says Audrey. "I don't know if he is looking at it the way we are looking at it for him. He will sit there and just paint, and that is what we want him to do." Sales have ranged from $500 to over $1,200 for a Haile original.
They were moving so well, in fact, that Audrey decided to freeze all sales of originals or they'd be gone too soon. "I would like to hold onto his original pieces until he or his work gain some more recognition," she says.
Sensitive to the question of whether they're using him as a cash cow, Audrey and Bernardo insist that Haile only paints when he wants to. And, they point out, he has other talents as well—he practices martial arts, plays the drums, and loves to cook—but painting has turned out to be the most profitable. That was a surprise they weren't expecting when they paired Haile with fellow artist Carl Thelemaque three years ago. Since then, Thelemaque has become Haile's mentor and collaborator.
"If you've met Haile, you don't really know him until you see him in his art environment," says the Haitian-born artist. "You have to act like a buddy to him. He'll open up, and you won't realize that he has a disability."
Thelemaque works with Haile at his studio in the Malcolm Shabazz Market on 116th Street, but says he gets no financial compensation from the Rubies. "The easier you make it for people to get to know his work, the more valuable his work is going to be," he says. "For the vision his parents have for him, this is a way for Haile to live forever. That is their dream for him."
Hugo Donaldson paid $800 for one of Haile's paintings after coming across his work at an artHarlem show. He says that "Haile's talent goes beyond his disability. When you look at the work, it makes you forget that he's disabled. . . . I am not an art expert, but I was able to understand his feeling and projection."
Bernardo, meanwhile, says the family is looking to have Haile's work appear in other galleries. "He's received letters from the Studio Museum and showed in artHarlem and Casa Frela. They love his work." Back at the family brownstone, Haile's paintings adorn the walls, as do a few framed newspaper stories. Bernardo is an economist and worked for some years in commodities trading with West Africa; Audrey runs a day-care center in their home.
As a child, Haile underwent heart surgery to correct irregular valves. Since then, he's enjoyed relatively good health—until just recently. Last week, after a bout with pneumonia, Haile underwent another open-heart surgery. Heart disease affects many with Down syndrome, shortening their lives.
Before his illness, Haile showed a reporter around his home studio. Although his speech is impaired, it was clear that his favorite paintings are one that he did of his father and another that he did of a gorilla after seeing King Kong. He said that he'd like to attend a historically black college, as his older sister did, and also that he'd like to open a pizza parlor.
At his shows, Haile makes sure that visitors sign his guestbook, and he sells autographed posters of his prints for $20 each. "He collects the money," explains Audrey. "He'll stuff it in his pocket. He likes money."