A sur­vivor of vi­o­lence, he dreams of a world full of art

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Local & State - BY GLENN GARVIN [email protected]­ami­her­ald

Vernard Allen Jr. looks like a reg­u­lar 14-year-old kid, which he is. But he’s also a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the sad­dest, cru­elest side of South Florida — the in­dis­crim­i­nate crim­i­nal vi­o­lence that leaves scars that stretch through mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions. His fa­ther and his grand­mother were both mur­dered be­fore he was born.

“It’s not like I think about it ev­ery day,” says Vernard in a mea­sured tone, doo­dling with one of col­ored pen­cils that he uses to make sketches nearly round the clock. “But I know what hap­pened. I know.” And he quickly changes the sub­ject to his draw­ings.

“I’m all right,” he says of his sketch­ing abil­ity. “I can draw things pretty well. But I can’t draw peo­ple yet ... It’s the struc­ture of the face, the shape of the face, that gives me trou­ble. I can draw eyes and noses and stuff. But the shape of the face gives me trou­ble.”Lots of lit­tle kids draw and color things, of course. But the great-aunt who has raised Vernard nearly since his birth thinks his grow­ing in­ter­est in art (he has joined his high school band, and he has dis­played some sur­pris­ing in­stinct for por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy us­ing friends’ cell phones) sig­ni­fies some­thing more.

“He says not hav­ing a dad to go to fa­ther-and-son days at school ac­tiv­i­ties doesn’t bother him,” says Karen Wade, a Mi­amiDade ad­min­is­tra­tive worker who lives in the North River Drive neigh­bor­hood. “But I see him. I see a kind of a look and I know he’s think­ing about it. He calls my hus­band [Charles] Papa, and his un­cles help as much as they can, but I see him and I know. ...

“And I think the draw­ing and the other things, they take his mind off of it.”

As the Mi­ami Herald’s 2018 Wish Book cam­paign gets un­der way, Vernard is hop­ing it might bring him

some art sup­plies: the col­ored pen­cils and mark­ers he uses to draw, as well as sketch pads and an easel to mount them on. He also longs for a lap­top com­puter so he could ex­per­i­ment with de­sign pro­grams.

Wade was not al­ways ex­actly en­thu­si­as­tic about Vernard’s artis­tic ven­tures.

“He’d paint, and make the most aw­ful messes!” she re­calls. “Paint ev­ery­where! Paint all over the house! And I said, no more painting. But what he’s do­ing now is a lot more se­ri­ous. And a lot less messy, too.”

Even the painting didn’t bother her that much. Wade’s fam­ily has known too much gen­uine tragedy to be overly con­cerned about the oc­ca­sional odd splash of blue paint on a ta­ble.

It started in 1999, when Wade’s 37-year-old sis­ter Myrna Allen left her house to drop a friend at work and never came back. The next year, a jog­ger found her stran­gled body out in the Ever­glades. Po­lice sus­pected a jilted lover in the crime, but couldn’t find enough ev­i­dence to make the charge stick.Wade took in her sis­ter’s three youngest chil­dren, in­clud­ing the one who these days ev­ery­body re­mem­bers as Vernard Sr., then just 13. Four years later, visit­ing his fa­ther in the rough-and­tum­ble Lib­erty Square neigh­bor­hood, Vernard Sr. got caught in the mid­dle of a feud be­tween neigh­bors that reeled out of con­trol and ended with him be­ing fa­tally shot in the stom­ach.

He left be­hind a preg­nant 15-year-old girl who, sev­eral months later, gave birth to Vernard Jr. Af­ter a murky, trou­bled pe­riod of do­mes­tic dis­cord and dys­func­tional foster homes, a judge gave cus­tody of the boy to Wade, where he has stayed ever since.“I had my first baby in 1975,” she says with a laugh. “I never dreamed I’d still be rais­ing a child 43 years later. Seven of them I’ve raised!

But Vernard is the last one. My hus­band is pretty clear about that.”

Vernard doesn’t re­mem­ber any of the sketchy parts of his child­hood and just shrugs at any sug­ges­tion that they had any last­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect. He paints and takes pic­tures be­cause “it’s fun,” he says, and took up the bass drum in Mi­ami Cen­tral High’s march­ing band be­cause “it looked easy.” (Play­ing it was; lug­ging it around the field while march­ing, a lit­tle bit less so. He’s de­vel­op­ing an in­ter­est the cym­bals.)In the bound­lessly eclec­tic way of kids, Vernard says he might like to be a pho­tog­ra­pher some­day but also pos­si­bly a neu­ro­sur­geon. Don’t laugh at the lat­ter; with the aid of med­i­cal books ob­tained for him by his fam­ily, he can al­ready talk knowl­edge­ably about ependy­mal cells — you know, the ones lo­cated in the choroid plexuses of the ven­tri­cles of the brain — and cere­brospinal fluid.

But his chatty dis­cus­sions of the fu­ture some­times end abruptly and un­ex­pect­edly, laps­ing into long, in­scrutable si­lences where there is no clue to what he might be think­ing. Ex­cept for the last of his Wish­book hopes — a nice frame for a pic­ture of his fa­ther.

PATRICK FAR­RELL pfar­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

Vernard Allen out­side his mother’s house. Vernard’s fa­ther and grand­mother each were killed in neigh­bor­hood shoot­ings.

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