Remembering a Free Man in Paris

Robert F. Willis (May 12, 2023 – November 3. 1987)

A street artist in Montmartre made this sketch of my father, Bob Willis, in 2005. It’s based on a photo taken after the war which is tagged “Paris 1945.” I carried that photo in my pocket until I found a suitable artist. The challenge now in Montmartre is choosing just one while evading a flock of noisy and aggressive competitors. In commissioning this drawing I was completing a circle for me and my dad. He had carried a wedding photo of my mother throughout the war, and in Montmartre he found a street artist who turned the image into an oil painting. The price Bob negotiated was two cartons of cigarettes and a chocolate bar.

That portrait of my mother was the first painting I ever saw. I realize now that my first contact with something called “art” was also something that could be called “street art.” And, of course, it signified the first story in a long family narrative about a place called “Paris.”

I don’t know whether my father ever heard the Joni Mitchell song, “Free Man in Paris.” If he did, I know he would have smiled at the line, “I felt unfettered and alive.” In 1945 he wasn’t exactly a free man. He had another year of service in the U.S. Army before he could leave Europe and return to his young family. But I know he was grateful to be alive then. In his photo, and later in the drawing, I sense how absolutely happy he was in Paris. I know the same joy. I could devote the rest of my life to expressing it.

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