Heaven's Personal Artist: Not of this world

posted Mar 16, 2020, 2:28 PM by Bruce Rowe

Costa Tile & Stone was a third-generation, family-owned business specializing in the installation of tile, stone, marble and granite. Located in Vista, California, it was well known for intricate and artful designs.

Angelo Costa was a true craftsman who learned his skills from his father, who had learned them from his father, an Italian immigrant. Angelo could create just about anything the customer wanted, sometimes just from a rough sketch or an idea. John Costa, his oldest son did not have quite the touch of his father but was only a notch or two below him in ability. Carl, the second son wasn’t the skilled journeyman that his father and brother were, but he had a good rapport with the installation crews, so he handled many of the exterior landscaping projects. Angelo’s wife, Sophia was in charge of customer service and his daughter, Jennifer was in charge of billing and receiving.

Michael, the youngest son, worked in the business from the time he was a little boy. He had artistic ability but was more creative than practical, with a tendency to see things differently than other people. School counselors and medical professionals misdiagnosed him with a minor case of attention deficit disorder (ADD) because of his inability to stay focused on one particular task for any length of time. In reality, Mike had a serious case of wanderlust down deep in his soul.

The family gave Mike a wide variety of jobs to keep him from getting bored, from working in the warehouse to making deliveries and working on the crews. Gifted with natural athletic abilities, Mike excelled at sports, although he struggled to stay focused and motivated during practices. His baseball and football coaches would catch him daydreaming and yell out, “Pay attention, Costa!”

The doctors prescribed the drug Adderall for Mike, but the side effects of weight loss, nausea and insomnia were too severe for Mike to function as a student and athlete. He never had a great passion for drawing—it was more of a natural instinct. Sometimes he would find himself doodling without realizing it. When he looked down, there would be an image of somebody or something. Once Mike realized drawing had a calming effect, he used it as his method of self–therapy whenever he felt restless or distracted. When there were times that it was inappropriate or not feasible to pull out a sketch pad, Mike would memorize every detail and file it away for further reference. Combining that with deep breathing exercises and meditation enabled Mike to get a handle on his problem. His grades improved and his family slowly began to notice a difference in his behavior. Mike’s drawings became his refuge, a sanctuary and secret place he could always go to feel safe.

Sophia approached her son as he sat in the backyard drawing. Mike quickly closed the cover and looked up, “Hi mom.”

 “Are you ever going show us what’s in your sketch book?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Have you ever had something in your life that you didn’t want anybody else’s opinion about? You didn’t want to know whether they liked it, didn’t like it or had no opinion at all. You just wanted it to be yours and yours alone. Does that sound selfish?”

“Not to me, we all have something that we feel that way about,” Sophia kissed her son on the cheek, “Drawing is something that comes from your heart, and it doesn’t matter what I think or anybody else does, it only matters what you feel.”

Mike finished his senior year at Vista High School and came to his parents with his plan, “I’d like to join the military.”

Angelo said, “The military has a lot of rules. You won’t be able to stop whenever you feel like it and go off by yourself until you feel better.”

“I thought about that and I think I’m up to the challenge. I need to know for sure.”

“What branch of service are you thinking about?” Sophia asked.

“The Marines,” Mike replied.

Angelo looked at his wife and the concern on their faces was evident.

*  *  *

Three months later, Mike was scheduled to leave for boot camp in San Diego. Before he left, he gave a sealed box to his mother, “Don’t open this until after I’m gone.”

Opening the box the next morning, Sophia found a dozen of Mike’s sketch books with his drawings on 11 by 17 sheets of paper. The drawings were powerful, emotional, and eerily realistic. Sophia spent the rest of the day looking at them, with more than a few bringing tears to her eyes. Especially the ones pertaining to the family.

It took a lot of willpower and determination, but Mike made it through boot camp because he was so busy. He didn’t have time to be restless and, by the end of the day, was too exhausted to be depressed. When he did get a chance to sleep, his imagination created pictures in his mind that were too vivid to be ordinary dreams.

*  *  *

Finished with Advanced Infantry Training, he received 20 days leave and went home to spend it with his family. He was shocked to see that his mother had framed each one of his sketches and prominently hung them side by side on the long entry hall in the company office.

“I hope you don’t mind. They are too beautiful and wonderful to keep hidden in a book.”

“Really, you like them?”

 “I love them, so does everybody else!”

“They’re yours to do with what you want.”

Mike shrugged and when he thought about it, they didn’t seem that important anymore. Those drawings were created in the past and his mind was focused on the here and now. Over the next three weeks, Mike drew 14 more sketches, most of which were of his time in training. He was an art creator, not an art collector and once Mike satisfied his urge to put something on paper, he was ready to move on.

He didn’t mind discussing what he was thinking at the time he did a particular drawing, but quickly lost interest when people told him how talented he was. The last thing Mike wanted to do was talk about himself. What really bored him though, was the technical discussions of his drawings. About three minutes into the conversation his mind would be drifting off and he would be evading questions with vague answers like, “I guess”, “I don’t know for sure” or “At the time it seemed like the right thing to do.”

*  *  *

His next duty station in the Marine Corps was in Afghanistan where his infantry company was sent to an isolated outpost in the Helmand Province. Two days after Bravo Company’s arrival they began receiving incoming fire from Taliban fighters in the area. Rocket propelled grenades and mortars routinely launched into the base from the surrounding mountains.

Angry with the situation, Sergeant Sean Bishop said, “Just in case anybody wants my opinion, never put an outpost in a place surrounded by mountains full of enemy fighters!”

“You have to look at it from command’s perspective,” Corporal Porter Hudson interjected. “If you don’t know where the enemy is hiding, what’s the best way to find out where they are?”

Mike replied, “Put a bunch of grunts in the line of fire and watch where the bullets are coming from.”

“Bingo! Give the ‘California Kid’ a prize for the correct answer,” Corporal Hudson smiled and continued filling sandbags.

A small contingent of Navy Seabees arrived to reinforce the infrastructure of Operating Base Panther. Over the next few weeks, Marines helped the Seabees do most of the manual labor on the construction projects at the outpost. Chief Petty Officer Logan Mallard ordered Mike to retrieve some metal construction stakes from one of five metal conex boxes (storage/shipping containers) onsite. Opening the wrong one, he saw stacks of five-gallon paint cans and boxes of brushes, then went to the correct one.

When he returned, he asked, “What’s all the paint for?”

“They sent the wrong materials for the job, but one thing I learned quickly being in the military is that once I started sending things back, the knuckleheads in supply stop sending me the stuff I need. I think it’s their way of telling me how much they hate restocking and being reminded they made a mistake.”

“Since you guys aren’t going to use it, can I have some of it?”

“Help yourself, what are you going to paint… sandbags?” Chief Petty Officer Mallard laughed.

“I’ve got a few other ideas.”

Mike’s use the construction grade material to create life-like action pictures on plywood sheets was miraculous. He used the faces of his fellow Marines and the Navy personnel as characters in his elaborate artwork. Before long, there were a dozen pictures posted around the outpost,  emitting a powerful aura.

There were times the Marines and Seabees imagined they saw the eyes of the characters in the pictures looking back at them when they walked past. The pictures brightened the dismal brown surroundings as well as the morale of those aboard the barren outpost. Lt. Colonel Weaver, commanding officer, saw no downside to Mike continuing with this endeavor. In fact, he even had a painting inside the command bunker with him as one of the subjects. It seemed to give him strength and guidance.

*  *  *

On a routine patrol, the Marine squad came under attack from a large enemy force. Three Americans were killed and four were wounded in the lengthy firefight.

Returning to base, Mike paused to look at one of paintings. He knew them well, so he quickly noticed that faces of the three dead Marines were no longer visible in a painting where they had been before. It was as if their deaths erased their images. Faces of the wounded Marines were fading as well. If this wasn’t strange enough, in the right corner of the paintings were the images of three angels entering a hole in the clouds. Mike knew something truly special was happening. He couldn’t define it with words or logic but felt it inside his heart. A force was changing his paintings and doing it exactly in his style. He also knew it was impossible for any human to change a painting without leaving the slightest trace of the corrections.

Two weeks later, word passed down that the wounded Marines survived and were medevac’d to Germany. Looking at the painting again, Mike could see the faces again, now clear and distinguishable.

Soon after, Military Intelligence intercepted radio communications that the enemy was planning a major offensive in the province. With Camp Panther on high alert, the Marines and Seabees fortified their positions. Mike was inspired to paint four pictures of Marines manning 50caliber machine guns on large sheets of plywood. He placed one on each side of the outpost, facing outward, just inside the concertina wire.

Heavily armed, the Taliban force outnumbered the Marines five to one. They attacked Camp Panther on a starless night, but never made it inside the wire. When daylight crept over the mountain tops, the Marines saw dozens of dead Taliban fighters lying on the ground. Mike saw empty shell casings were knee high to the Marine gunners in the paintings and smiled. He didn’t draw that part!

Luckily, he had lots of practice keeping secrets and this was just one more.

During his absence from California, a customer came into the Costa tile and stone business and noticed the drawings on the wall.

“Who drew these?” Walter Milburn inquired with great interest.

“My son,” Sophia replied.

“He’s very, very good. I would love to meet with him to discuss his work”

“He’s serving with the Marines.”

Pulling out a business card and handing it to Sophia, Milburn said, “I’m an international art dealer. Tell your son to contact me anytime. I’m sure I can help him sell his work.”

*  *  *

With his deployment finished and four-year enlistment completed, Mike headed back to the states. He knew there was a different calling for him, and that it had to do with his painting. Back home in Vista, his mother gave him Milburn’s business card, “This man liked your artwork. He said he could help you sell it.”

Mike felt compelled to make the call. He met with Walter Milburn at his palatial home in Rancho Santa Fe. The exterior was meticulously maintained with multi-colored flowerbeds and bushes shaped into animals. The interior could have been a museum with paintings on the walls and works of art throughout the home.

Mike commented, “You must really love art.”

“I don’t have a bit of artistic ability, but at the risk of sounding immodest, there is no one who is a better judge of talent or how to make money from that talent,” Walter Milburn said matter of factly.

“You think I have talent?”

“You know you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have called me.”

“I never thought about selling my paintings and sketches.”

“Very few artists do. They have no concept of the value of their work, that’s where I come in.”

“How does this work?”

“You bring something for me to sell and we’ll go from there.”

“What’s your commission?”

“Nothing…at first.”

“What does that mean?”

“Look around, I don’t need to make a few thousand dollars. I’ve been known to spend that on a good dinner or a custom suit. With my high overhead, I want to make several millions or tens of millions. Until you’re making good money, then you might as well keep whatever your art sells for. It will give you some working capital to get established. Your mom told me you were in the military.”

“I was until a couple of weeks ago.”

“Thank you for your service. Are you ready to become a wealthy man?” Walter smiled.

It wasn’t about the money as much as it was about making a living. Over the next week, Mike painted five pictures; three were landscapes and the other two depicting Marines in combat.

Walter was pleasantly surprised when he received a call from the former Marine a week later saying he had something. Mike drove up in one of the family’s work trucks and stepped out as Walter exited his front door, “Did you bring me a good one?”

“I brought you five.”

“You sketched five things?”

“I’ve kind of moved on from sketches to painting.”

When Walter looked at the paintings, he was amazed at how truly special and unique they were. When he composed himself, he told Mike, “Wait here,” and went inside. When he returned, he handed Mike a check for a hundred thousand dollars.”

“What’s this for?”

“I don’t need to find a buyer, I want these for myself.”

Mike leased a warehouse near his family business and stocked it with painting supplies. He also turned one section of it into his living quarters. It wasn’t usual for him to get up in the middle of the night and paint for several hours. When he got sleepy, he would rest for a few hours. Waking, he’d go to the gym or a long run to clear his head, then get something to eat and repeat the process.

Many of Mike’s painting were inspired by current events. Walter showed up at Mike’s studio one afternoon with the inevitable question and visibly shaken, “What the hell is going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“I told you that I’ve got keen eyes and a photographic memory for art. I come into my den where your painting about a forest fire approaching a neighborhood is hanging on the wall. When I look at it again, there’s a super tanker dropping water on the blaze that wasn’t there before. Don’t tell me I overlooked it. How is it possible for a picture to change?”

“I don’t have answers that your mind can comprehend. I was chosen or destined to draw these pictures. Why me, I don’t know. I do know why they change. They change to help and save people. If God is adding things then I can’t think of a better editor, contributor, and partner. He’s the one who gives me the inspirations in the first place, so basically they belong to him. I’m just a hand with a brush.

“You can walk away if this freaks you out too much. I won’t blame you. He must have reasons for me coming to you. Maybe someday we’ll both find out. You now know what I know. I’m all in; you make your own decision,” Mike said.

Walter’s eyes turned upward as he pondered what to do, then smiled broadly, “So in a roundabout way, God would be my client too. I can live with that arrangement.”

Walking to where one of Mike’s paintings on a stand, he was surprised to see a young girl held hostage in an underground bunker. He turned to look back at Mike with a questioning look on his face.

*  *  *

Later that night, with an assault rifle nestled on his shoulder and his finger curled around the trigger, Mike walked through dense brush in the hills between Fallbrook and Rainbow, California. When he came to an isolated area, Mike felt it was the place to stop. He bent down and pushed leaves and branches away to expose a trapdoor. Opening it, he went down a ladder into a tunnel. He followed the tunnel for 30 feet to an underground bunker where he shot three armed kidnappers and freed a girl from her restraints.

At that precise moment, the painting at his Vista studio now showed two images climbing up the ladder to safety. Michael Angelo Costa was Heaven’s personal artist and his paintings were not of this world.

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