I first met Emile B. Klein three years ago while writing a story for the Lawrenceville Patch. Through the Rutgers SCILS email distribution list I learned about an artist traveling around the country on his bicycle, living with strangers as he recorded their stories and drew pictures of them in the classic Renaissance style. I pitched the story to my editor, who gratefully said yes, thus launching me on one of my all-time favorite stories to both research and write.
Emile and I met at Fedora's on Main Street in Lawrenceville -- already my go-to place when meeting a friend for lunch. He was so much fun to interview. He is a natural storyteller. His goal was to find someone to paint in every state, to learn their stories, to live with them, to get to know people at their core roots. His travels have taken him from the seediest of motels to a mansion -- in the same day. The name of his organization, which includes a team of support, is called You're U.S. It is a play on words that expresses many different thoughts into one larger message.
As he meets people he learns their stories. Some of these stories have been turned into segments on NPRs Snap Judgement.
As the months continue to pass I'd bump into him at odd places. I saw him in Princeton University's art museum, where he gave me an impromptu lesson in art history. I heard him speak at Adath Israel. One time I saw his bicycle parked in front of the Village Bakery and popped inside only to learn that was one of his headquarters, as he had befriended Bo and Karen, the owners, with his charm and openness.
This is a long introduction to say his art is now part of a traveling exhibit called A Hobo's America with Renaissance Roots. We saw it in Bedminster, NJ at the Center for Contemporary Art on our way to the Steampunk Festival.
When we first walked in, I saw his bicycle. It brought back a flood of memories. Walking around the exhibit I could practically hear his voice sharing the stories.
This picture is of Ken, and is the one he was working on in October 2011 when we met. Ken had cognitive loss as a result of cancer. He could no longer work. They were barely making ends meet. Today Ken is one of Emile's biggest supporters.
The exhibit included many small snapshots into the life Emile has led over the past few years. He lives simply -- often crashing on couches, or camping in his tent. His presence is huge. As someone commented on my story "the world needs more people like Emile B. Klein." Emile's exhibit is heading next to the Biggs Museum in Dover, DE (December 5-January 6). From there it is traveling up and down the East Coast. Click HERE for the tour schedule.
Our timing was such I thought the artist would be on site recording more histories. Unfortunately, he had a scheduling conflict and could not be there. I hope our paths do cross again.
Now that three years have past since our meeting, I wonder if his story is what placed the tiny spark in my what I hope turns into a career for me. Though I am not a trained artist in the Renaissance style, I do enjoy listening to people's stories. Nearly two years ago I wrote my first memoir, about a man named Andy who was a WWII vet. Andy had short-term memory loss that was so accute he would ask me several times in the same interview session "are you married? Do you have kids? What does your husband do? You're good looking." That conversation would repeat again between snippets of conversations. He died during the project. The idea, though, has remained with me. I want to become a professional memoir writer. After all, as Emile figured out long before I did, everyone has a story.