By Jessica Bassett Of the St. Louis American
“If you were a white man down there, you were either an undercover police or a customer to get drugs,” Jovan said.
But Bob was neither one. He was an architectural professor at Wash. U. who had volunteered to start a summer drawing class called City Faces, for children living in the south city projects - an area riddled with drugs and gang activity. Jovan was one of the kids who showed up.
He was a poor kid who seemed to be headed nowhere. But his fate made a sharp turn when he met an unlikely stranger who had already survived a 10-year-battle with melanoma. Now, Javon’s teaching art lessons to a new generation of artists.
“He didn’t know that in the summer of ’93 that one guy would walk into the projects and would become his father,” Bob said. “And I didn’t know he would become his son.”
Murder within the first week
In the early days of City Faces, there were some catastrophic setbacks. Fistfights broke out everyday and there was a murder within the first week, they recalled. But Bob kept coming back.
“I couldn’t see why he did it,” Jovan said.
“One of my philosophies is that if you see a problem, run towards it and not away from it,” Bob said. “I had made a commitment and that’s what I was going to do.”
Some of the kids in the program ended up learning, most were in jail and several were dead.
But the death of Jovan’s best friend - Jermaine Roberts - in 1996 turned the program around. Jermaine was the only person Jovan knew in the neighborhood who didn’t sell drugs or belong to a gang. And everyone respected him.
“Jermaine was the glue of the program,” Jovan recalled. “Right around the time when things started to go good, he passed away from sickle cell, and I started doing things I wouldn’t normally do like hanging around the wrong crowd.”
Bob stopped drawing and Jovan joined a neighborhood gang. His older brother, Toriano, got locked up for allegedly robbing a woman in Cape Girardeau.
It seemed like the program had fallen apart for good. But, ironically, Jermaine’s death was glue that brought it back together after four months. The group had decided to put on an art show in memory of their beloved friend.
“Some of the kids wrote things like ‘I would give my life to see him again,’” Bob recalled. “It was certainly not the stereotype of black boys in the projects.”
The show winded up winning City Faces national recognition. Their work hung up in several galleries, as well as in bus shelters and MetroLink stops. They won a Missouri Arts Council award and even took a trip to Jefferson City to be honored by former Gov. Mel Carnahan.
But by evening, they were back in the projects. So Jovan turned to the only person he could trust - Bob. He asked him if he could stay with him in Affton.
“I just wanted to get out of the projects,” Jovan said.
A father figure
Over the years, Bob’s home has become a halfway house for kids in the program. For Jovan, one night in Bob’s basement turned into a permanent stay. His mother at first didn’t agree, but eventually realized Bob could offer him a better chance.
Life in the suburbs was much safer, but not without its obstacles, Jovan said. Once, someone called Family Services to investigate them. He was frequently stopped by police, sometimes up to four times a day, and when he tried to attend an alternative school, other students yelled racial slurs at him.
Still, Jovan prayed that Bob wouldn’t ask him to leave.
“Years later, he told me that he would sit behind the door and pray that I wouldn’t throw him out because all he ever wanted growing up was a father,” Bob said.
Jovan lived with his mother, but he wasn’t close to her. He never knew his father. Bob had no family to speak of, either.
After a while, Jovan had worked up the nerve to ask Bob “if you ever thought about adopting me?”
Bob replied, “Sure. But I never knew how you felt about it.”
On May 15, 2002, they made it official in family court. Jovan took his father’s last name, and now celebrates his birthday on the day he was adopted.
The adoption didn’t change much, Jovan said. The kids in the program had already looked at Bob as a father figure. They turned to him when the gas was shut off, when a relative needed to be bailed out of jail, or when they just needed someone to talk to.
“I didn’t need a piece of paper to tell me that I was Bob’s son,” Jovan said. They now live in an apartment near Jovan’s studio.
A new generation of artists
Art is Jovan’s way of repaying his father back for all he’s done. He credits Bob for saving his life. But Bob says, Jovan saved his own life.
“You can’t plant seeds on barren ground,” Bob said. “The miracle is not what Jovan did since we’ve met, it’s that he hung in there long enough for us to meet.”
Out of his studio at 6265 Delmar Avenue, Jovan commissions artwork from customers. And business is pretty good for the 27-year-old. He has about 10 projects lined up right now. But his favorite piece is of his younger brother.
“I developed my own style and realized I was a pretty good artist,” Jovan said.
Along with the studio came a lot of media coverage. Shortly after Bob and Jovan were featured on “CBS Evening News,” they received a call from a director looking to turn their story into a movie. Most recently, “People Magazine” contacted them for an upcoming issue on families changing the world.
Last summer, Jovan went back to his roots and restarted City Faces in the Clinton-Peabody Projects to give kids there hope for a better life.
“I am so impressed with him, he’s like my role model,” Bob, 60, said of Jovan’s ability to survive harsh conditions that could easily break the spirit, but has made Jovan more giving. It’s a trait that he adopted from his father, who teaches Wash. U. students how to redevelop neighborhoods throughout St. Louis City and County.
“I’ve been in the projects since I was 2 years old and now I’m 27,” Jovan said. “People down there know me from being bad to the change I’ve made.”
City Faces is free for children 10 to 18 years old. Lessons take place from 12 to 3 p.m. Saturdays and 3 to 5 p.m. Sundays at the old Guardian Angel food pantry at 14th and Choteau. The program is completely funded by donations and fundraising efforts by Wash. U students. The next fundraiser is at 6 p.m. Aug. 14 at the Regional Arts Commission. For more information call 314-863-1400 or 314-458-2598, email email@example.com, or go to www.facesintheloop.net.