The year was 1922, and in the crowded Syrian-Lebanese immigrant community of Boston's South End, a boy was born who family and neighbors knew would be remarkable. He had been born with a caul—that is, with part of the fetal membrane over his head—and, since at least Roman times, superstition in the Mediterranean world has held that the caul is a sign of special talents.
The baby's cousin, 39-year-old poet Kahlil Gibran (See Aramco World, March/April 1983), asked to be the boy's godfather. Thus bonded with his young namesake, Gibran—who would publish The Prophet, his most famous work, a year later—began to encourage his godson's talents. It was the beginning of a remarkable life.
"As a child, I used to crawl around my cousin's studio," says the younger Gibran, now 73. "When I was about seven, he promised me a five-dollar gold piece if I could dismantle a clock and put it back together in working order. I did. That gold piece was the shiniest thing I'd ever seen," he adds with a laugh.
Today, Kahlil Gibran is a wide-ranging painter, sculptor, inventor and craftsman whose work is not easily categorized. Living in a Victorian town-house in his native South End, he has designed a thermite-fueled furnace that gives off only water and oxygen, and an aluminum tripod so light, sleek and functional that the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought three for its collection. He makes violins that world-class musicians have played, and has built a vihuela, a 17th-century Spanish stringed instrument, inlaid with lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl.
"Everything interests me," he says with enthusiasm, talking with large, expressive hands.
By his mid-20's, Gibran had mounted several one-man shows of his paintings, and had turned down an award that would have given him three years of study in France. Though he was artistically restless—and eager to distinguish his work from that of his famous cousin, who also painted—he wanted to remain part of the town that he feels is a part of him.
He turned to sculpture. When he found he could not afford the thousands of dollars it cost to cast his work in bronze, he took up the welder's torch. One of his most famous sculptures, a gaunt figure of a desert dweller which he titled "John the Baptist," was welded from baling wire Gibran salvaged from a Boston wharf. Like much of his work, Gibran calls that sculpture spiritual rather than religious. "Artists mirror their time. My Pieta isn't a religious theme—it's about a mother losing a son," he explains.
A founding member of the Copley Society, Boston's oldest cooperative gallery, Gibran has donated an annual scholarship for artists affiliated with the Society. He continues to exhibit his work and recently has returned to painting after a long hiatus. Although he has won two Guggenheim Fellowships and has exhibited at New York's Whitney Museum and other museums around the world, he says he works for himself, not for recognition.
"There is such an abundance of art that no one can view it all. It has to be for yourself, or you'd be too depressed about who pays attention, who respects your work," he says. "People say art helps refine humanity. I say it refines the individual in the process."
Laura White is a free-lance journalist who lives in Boston.
Ilene Perlman, also Boston-based, has photographed forAramco World on three continents.