My mother told me when I was three months old, my biological father attempted to suffocate me while she was out shopping. She left him and relocated to NYC, where she re-married a Marine who had just completed a tour of duty in Vietnam. I was raised in tenements and housing projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I was exposed to asbestos and lead poisoning. I was categorized as a “have not,” I attended Head Start, I hated school, I was sent to schools that taught me just enough. My neighbors were Chinese, Jews, Italians, Hispanics; I was physically abused by my stepfather until I was 16 years old, when I ran away from home. I slept in 24-hour movie theaters on 42nd street, park benches on the FDR drive, rooftops of housing projects, and trains. I was exposed to petty criminal elements during my informative years. I was lost, I had no skills to survive in a capitalist regime; my role models were actors, athletes and Jesus. I was called a nigger; I watched MTV 24 hours a day. My stepfather kept pornography and sex tools in the house, I witnessed my stepfather physically and mentally abuse my mother. I wanted to kill him; I didn’t love myself. I played basketball but I knew I wasn’t going pro, so I sold drugs. I started gaining weight. I went to church on Sundays but I lost my faith in God daily; my step father smoked crack, my biological father never attempted to contact me, my parents didn’t tell me about my biological father until I was 18. My favorite cousin and uncle raped my sister when she was 14 or younger and now she’s a lesbian, a crack addict and prostitute—she’s in jail for the fourth time as I write this letter. I wanted to be a priest, I wanted to be rich and famous, I lived to want. I dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. I went to jail for a week.

I served celebrities at nightclubs, and I met Jean Michel Basquiat when I was 16. I joined the Army at 18 because drug dealers were attempting to kill me; I started smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol and snorting cocaine—but I became best friends with Alexander Venet, the son of Conceptual Artist Benar Venet, when I was 21. I was exposed to the blueprint and philosophy of contemporary art. I was a lead singer of an East Village band in the 90s. I slept with one eye open. I got married and had a son. I stole my ex-mother-in-law’s camera and began documenting my surroundings; I sat in on classes at Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. I was becoming my stepfather so I got a divorce. I had made so many mistakes but I wanted to change my life because it seemed I was running in circles.

I forgave my mother for not leaving my stepfather; I wanted my son to respect me. I raised money for homeless families, I went to the public library everyday from opening to closing and read every art book they had on the shelves and what I couldn’t find I found on the Internet, and I traveled and visited galleries and museums all over the world. I began to express myself through photography, painting, mixed media, poetry, film and stage plays. (I’m a quick learner—I taught myself to play chess by watching the men in Washington Square Park.)

In retrospect, I never gave up on myself, I didn’t want to be a slave or live in fear any longer. I didn’t want to walk amongst the walking dead. I am an Artist and my son attended The Cooper Union and now is known Worldwide as noted artist Lucien Smith. Art and Art alone saved my life; it completes me. It is my therapy, my weapon of choice; it helps me to cope with the day-to-day struggles of being a human being. My contribution to humanity will be my art, my voice, and in this is the reason I am alive. 

Terrence Sanders-Smith