Part I: The Story of Sandy and Eddie
The story of my life begins its best chapters on the day I met Sandy Cotton. Everything up until then prepared me for the moment and amplified its importance.
Prelude to Sandy
I had spent the previous 9 years living on South Street. It was the art and music center of Philadelphia. While I had spent those years growing as an artist, I had also spent them drowning in the party atmosphere typically associated with art centers of the day. It was a substance abuse Mardi Gras and I had often been consumed by it. I had pulled myself from it repeatedly and was always at risk of relapse. Self esteem had seen many all time lows.
During my last two years in the city, I discovered some things; those things opened a door to better days. A series of events slammed the gate on my struggle with commercial art. I had never been successful in that mode. Overnight things shifted. I began to draw painterly inspiration directly from the world around me and to paint it with a passion I had never felt while working to please others. I discovered something akin to empathy that flowed through my hands and left its spirit breathing in the watercolored fibers of the page. A plentiful source of inspiration pulsed in the abandoned people and buildings which peppered the streets just outside my door. To my surprise, I uncovered an impressive knack for translating the detail, very quickly, accurately, and almost unconsciously into watercolor. Many years of life-drawing practice seemed to gel at once. The paintings felt alive. I had hit a motherlode of inspiration and for the first time felt a calling. Along with all this, I discovered my love for plein air painting ...working outside in crowds of people. Having onlookers peering from over my shoulder was a thrill. I felt most at home there. I was performing and I too was impressed with the work pouring through. These new developments ignited a long overdue spark of confidence. I began to hope for a brighter future. It became evident that leaving Philadelphia would give me a chance to start again clean.
On March 4th, 1985 with $100.00 to my name, I boarded a one-way flight for Maui, Hawaii. It was a day chosen to March Forth. Two weeks earlier I thought Maui was somewhere near Jamaica. I knew nothing at all about it. I was 29 years old and knew this would be my last chance. If I stayed focused, I believed this new work would be a way to justify my existence. My goals were: paint constantly and stay healthy. I had no idea of the magic that was moving into place before me.
The Stars Are Aligning
To my delight, Paia, Maui was as rich a source of inspiration as I could have possibly wished. It was still relatively undiscovered and unaffected by progress. Everything was rusty, crooked, and animated. My first day saw the completion of two fine watercolors: The Horiuchi Market and its neighbor, an abandoned Chevron station. The butcher and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Horiuchi, crossed Baldwin Avenue together to have a look. By the day's end I had traded both paintings to the Horiuchis for sandwiches. I'd made friends, and been invited to camp in a fire-gutted building at the top of town with some hospitable European windsurfers. I drifted off to sleep smiling, protected from the swarming bugs by a mosquito coil glowing beside me on the floor.
For a short and blurry period of days, determined to stay busy, I moved from scene to scene capturing Paia and its characters as if it all might quickly disappear. I didn't dare rest for even a day. I had momentum and could not risk losing it. The paintings were accumulating. A few were traded away for food, others sold for $20 dollars and less. A woman named Janet stepped forward. She suggested a commissioned painting, a house on the other side, a gift for its owner. She promised to pay me 75 dollars. Janet owned a gallery in The Lahaina Wharf called Artisans of Hawaii. She asked that I deliver the painting there when finished.
THE ABSOLUTE LUCKIEST DAY OF MY LIFE
To my good fortune, the day I brought the finished piece, anxious to collect my pay, Janet was out. Instead I had the divine pleasure of meeting a radiant and welcoming Miss Sandra Lee Cotton. Sandy was a twelve percent owner at Artisans. "What do you have there?" she asked. Several of my recent Paia paintings were under my arm, backed with cardboard and wrapped in seal-a-meal bags. She asked to see them, was I hoping to sell them? If so for how much? "These three are fifteen and this twenty," I said. She smiled and asked to hold them for the weekend, saying, "Let me see what I can do. Can you check back Monday?"
The weekend passed. I hitched my way back to Lahaina. Sandy shined her glorious angel smile my way as I stepped into her shop. "Well hello, Eddie Flotte, I have something for you." She counted out: "One, two, three, four, five, six, hundred and ten, twenty, thirty, forty dollars." With two hands, she held forth the neatly faced bills. She seemed to be as thrilled as I. I was stunned. This was more than I could have imagined "People like your stuff," she said "Do you have any more?" Although my manic confidence was often fleeting, at that moment it was soaring. I told her with great conviction that I was a force of nature, a phenomenon, my work was about to explode. Sandy took what I said as the Gospel truth and she lived her life in support of my claim from that moment forth. "I'll bring you everything I do," I said. She agreed and we instantly became and have always remained partners.
She asked where I was staying. I told her about my corner of the burned-out building in Paia. Again with a quick roll of her eyes, she smiled. She told me her mother, Shirley, had a room for rent in Makawao, seventy five dollars a month, was I interested? She gave me the number and address... Shirley would be expecting my call. At that moment we had spent less than twenty minutes in each other's company.
Two days later I still hadn't called. I was on a pay phone in Paia as early dusk settled in. Sandy appeared next to me. "Why haven't you called my mother?" she asked. While I stumbled for a response she interrupted, "I'm headed there now... Ya coming?"
SANDY, SHIRLEY, AND THEIR BLUE BUNGALOW
I don't remember how the bungalow looked as we pulled into the drive, or feeling nervous climbing the steps to the back screen door. But I do remember enjoying the brisk, seven mile climb to Makawao and the radiant woman at the wheel bringing me home to meet her mother. I can picture her ponytail blowing, and her smiling glance of reassurance each time her eyes left the winding road. I remember seeing the inside of their precious house for the very first time, full of sweet personal treasures. I've never forgotten her mother Shirley's bashful grin as she stepped forward to say hello and shake my hand. I can picture Sandy dusting off her old forty fives and pulling out her little snake skin record player. I remember how we became acquainted picking out our favorite songs. We felt instant kinship knowing the lyrics and singing along. As I looked at her photos and a few of her favorite things, I knew I was welcome here in the sweetest place I could have ever dreamed. This was my new family. I felt a light begin to fill me with security I had never noticed missing. We all seemed to agree... I was home.
Thus began the friendship, the love affair, the bond that would sustain my joy, that would burn like a bright blue flame inside me from that day forward. Having Sandy Cotton on my side, I soon found out, was a direct line to heaven. Because she believed in me, I became real. I am certain that without her, my newly found resolve would have run its course and fizzled like so many times before. I shudder to imagine where this story would have led. I know in my bones that had I not met Sandy, there would have been no story. I would have been lost.
The Eddie Flotte Store
Our days at Artisans, while they lasted, were prosperous. I often took the ride across the isthmus over the Pali and along the breaking waves to the other side of the island. Sandy sold my paintings as fast as I could paint them. She loved each piece and when people came to her gallery, it was this love that translated to sales. Never trying to sell, she simply shared. People understood. Sandy was treating them to something she sincerely believed to be precious. She raised the prices quickly because the work sold too fast. She was trying to find a range that was fair to us and the collectors.
Eventually Sandy undid her partnership at Artisans and we took our new business back to the other side, much closer to home. My plein air painter visibility in Paiatown was like free advertisement. We opened our gallery there. In a tiny plantation style shack, down a shoulder-width path, surrounded by banana plants and bougainvillea, we tidied up and hung the work. A hand-painted sign swung at the path entrance leading from the Hana Highway. It read, "The Eddie Flotte Store." Brave visitors found us immediately. I painted Paia, end to end: the buildings, the people, the rusty cars at Mr. Brown's. Meanwhile, Sandy's joy, her faith in me, her love for my watercolors, felt as if I'd been given the keys to the universe. My confidence solidified. We were in business and we thrived. It was Sandy's glowing kindness and dedication that made the difference. Many great artists and many galleries populated Maui but no one had what we had. It was so unarguably authentic. Customers knew they had found the real thing. Sandy's sincerity was radiant. Those who visited often left knowing they were leaving with a treasure.
The work we've done since those early days speaks for itself. The body of watercolors is enormous and continues to grow. Our meeting each other had to have been written in the stars. It had to be her and it had to be me. Her being is the catalyst that made everything possible... she is the energy, the glue, and stability that made our life together a story worth telling. Sandy is my muse, the love of my life, my best friend, and the very best thing this life has ever brought my way. I thank God each day for the angel who wrapped her beautiful heart around mine and worked tirelessly to see our dreams come true. I love you, Sandy Cotton, for all eternity.
Above is Part I of my autobiography. Please also see Part II of my autobiography.