BROOKSVILLE — The community rallied around the boy who had been born, it seemed, with a silver paintbrush in his hand.
Solomon Gavin came from a poor family and had a learning disability so severe he still could not read by the time he left Springstead High School in 1983. But Gavin showed so much promise as an artist — and as a person — that a School Board member helped raise some $8,000 to help him attend the Ringling School of Art and Design (now called Ringling College of Art and Design) in Sarasota.
"Without that guarantee, Solomon could wind up back on welfare, doing sidewalk drawings for a penny a throw," board member Joe DeLena told a reporter at the time.
On Monday, Gavin, now 46, sat in his High Point home flipping through yellowed newspaper clippings that chronicled his promising start as an artist.
He still can't read them.
He receives about $675 a month in disability benefits and sells a painting every couple of months or so to bring in extra money. While he's not working on the sidewalk, the great career so many envisioned for him has not materialized.
That may be changing.
Gavin has become the first artist client of Dream House Marketing, founded by Hernando County businessman Gus Guadagnino, who spoke of the potential in Gavin that hasn't been realized.
"He's just one of those wonderful human beings who got lost in the cracks," said Guadagnino.
After years of financial struggles and the recent loss of his mother, Gavin hopes it's not too late to take off as an artist — or to learn how to read.
"It's really like I'm starting over, in a way," he said. "This is the time for me to grow up a little bit more."
• • •
The oldest of six children, Gavin was born in Quitman, Ga., south of Valdosta. His parents worked the tobacco and cotton fields and, at times, so did he.
Gavin recalls struggling with written words as early as kindergarten. Students would laugh as he stood at a chalkboard; later, he would convey those feelings in a self-portrait as a boy standing before a board with a hand over his face.
Gavin's father left the family, and his mother Bulah Scriblon brought the kids to Brooksville, he said. As a shy kid, he spent a lot of time indoors. To distract him from the television, Bulah gave him pencils and markers.
Gavin's neurological impairment makes it difficult to dial a phone or make change, and his timidity and learning disability made his years at Springstead difficult.
"But that didn't keep me from going," recalled Gavin, who speaks with a lisp. "I think it's because I knew I would wind up in art class."
Exceptional education teachers tried in vain to teach Gavin to read. He graduated with an exceptional education diploma and earned a scholarship to a community college in Palatka, but administrators there reneged when they found out he was considered mentally disabled — an erroneous label, Springstead officials would say later.
Ringling's president looked at his portfolio and accepted him on the spot. At Ringling, Gavin used a color-coded schedule to find his way to class. He worked at the school art store, advising students about techniques and materials, graduating from the school in 1986.
He bonded with a student named Tom Sawyer when a teacher held up their drawings and told the rest of the class to aspire to that kind of work.
"Once he felt comfortable, he would open up and talk to you," said Sawyer, 51, now living in Floral City.
Gavin has changed over the years and especially recently, Sawyer said.
"People have been real interested in knowing more about him through his work," Sawyer said. "I think he's discovering people to be accepting of him, and he's being himself a little bit more."
But Gavin was frank this week when asked about his literacy skills. As an adult, he continued to find refuge in painting and avoided written words.
"Over time, I just gave up."
• • •
Gavin moved in with his mother in Brooksville, picking oranges and doing some paintings on commission to make ends meet. Some of his work was featured in a show at Pasco-Hernando Community College's Brooksville campus.
He met Lewis Watkins, a Brooksville arts advocate and event promoter, who put him to work doing pen and ink drawings of local historic buildings. He also commissioned him to do paintings of baseball star Ted Williams, who was living in Citrus County at the time.
According to Gavin, Watkins made prints of those paintings and signed his own name to them. Some wound up in the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Citrus County, which Watkins had helped establish.
Watkins quit a 1988 race for the Hernando County Commission after he was criticized for signing another artist's work.
Gavin's work has appeared as part of exhibits in Tampa Bay over the years. His "meticulous realism" got top billing in a show of African American artists in St. Petersburg in 1990. In 1993, Sawyer and Gavin combined their work for a show at a Tampa gallery. Gavin even worked for a time as an artist in residence at Busch Gardens, and Anheuser-Busch commissioned him to do a series of paintings for charity.
"He has the unique ability to capture not only the likeness of his subjects, but also their souls," said Lynne Simone, director of the People of Passion arts advocacy group, which was launched with support from Guadagnino and shares a Brooksville building with his marketing firm.
In the mid 1990s, Gavin met the Rev. Andrew John Winchek, a missionary who commissioned Gavin to do several pieces. The two became friends, and Winchek tried to promote Gavin.
Bulah's health had started to decline and her nurse said she should move into a place with central heat and air. In 2000, Gavin agreed to paint 59 portraits of Mother Teresa from a photograph in return for a house in High Point for which Winchek had paid $45,000, property records show. Gavin and his mother moved in that year.
Winchek says he gave one of the Mother Teresa paintings to actor Mel Gibson to get Gavin noticed. Actor Martin Sheen bought one, Winchek said, though he would not say for how much. Winchek also made prints of the paintings and sold them for as much as $350.
Winchek says he has passed along to Gavin plenty of the proceeds from the art sales over the years. He says he has about 45 of the original Mother Teresa portraits left, and his will bequeaths to Gavin whatever paintings he has left upon his death.
"My hope for Solomon is someone with a little bit of money and expertise will take him underneath their wing and develop his talents," Winchek said. "I just can't do it anymore."
• • •
Gavin and his mother did just about everything together. "You can call me a mommy's boy, in a way," he said, smiling.
Bulah, petite but tough, helped him navigate the mundane chores of life that, to him, were challenges. At times, she would refuse to do something for Gavin that she thought he could do. "I won't always be here," she would say.
Before Bulah died in November at the age of 61, Gavin started a portrait of one of her favorite women, Oprah Winfrey. She never saw the finished piece.
Gavin wants to get the portrait to Winfrey. She could make him a famous artist, he figures, and help fund programs for artists with disabilities like his. He dreams of telling Winfrey his story as a literate man, but admits he still wonders if learning to read is even possible.
Guadagnino, who was introduced to Gavin by a friend who had commissioned a painting, isn't ready to promise Gavin an audience with Oprah, just whatever help his fledgling marketing firm can provide. "I want to put Gavin in the places he needs to be recognized and appreciated," he said.
Just as he has doubts about reading, Gavin says he wonders if his talent is good enough to be a household name like his heroes, artists James Rosenquist and Salvador Dali. Those doubts, he said, are melting away, too.
"I have confidence good things are going to happen for me."
Times research Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.