Performing artist motivates Tri-City students (w/ gallery)

RICHLAND -- The Richland High School auditorium was packed Thursday -- standing room only.

Anticipation charged the air.

Then the lights went down. Electronic beats shook the room.

When a young man leaped out onto the stage, the crowd of 1,800 teenagers erupted. Egging them on, David Garibaldi sounded the battle cry of hip-hop shows:

"Make some noise!" he shouted into the mic.

The teens readily obliged.

But when Garibaldi went to work, he didn't pick up a guitar or man a turntable. He reached for his paint brushes.

Performance artist, speed painter, motivational speaker, philanthropist -- the 28-year-old Garibaldi fills many paint-splattered roles.

This week, he came to the Tri-Cities at the behest of three high schools' senior classes.

Garibaldi performed at Kamiakin and Southridge high schools in Kennewick earlier in the week before coming to Richland. He left behind six paintings that will adorn the three schools.

Judging by Thursday's crowd reaction, he also left something intangible -- a sense of what's possible if you follow your dreams. At least that was the message Garibaldi delivered in stories throughout his show.

But first he painted.

Twisting and jerking his body to the rhythm of pulsating music filling the hall, Garibaldi attacked a black canvas suspended at center stage.

He splotched, splattered and sprayed earthy orange paint onto the dark surface using brushes clenched in both hands. He paused between strokes, jumped up, crouched down, dipped his brushes into pails on the floor and again pummeled the canvas.

The attack produced unintelligible swaths at first. Then Garibaldi dipped his hands into the paint and added a few accents using his fingertips.

And there, out of the chaos, a face emerged on the canvas. Just a few more strokes and a portrait of rapper Lil Wayne graced the stage.

Garibaldi accepted the standing ovation. And launched into his life story.

"I used to paint on an even bigger scale," he told the crowd. "Now -- it was graffiti and it was illegal, but..."

His voice trailed off to comic effect. But he didn't come to make light of criminal activities.

Garibaldi talked about his urge to create with paint when he was a freshman. How his friends were getting arrested for graffiti in Sacramento. And how a teacher later guided him toward animated art as a fruitful alternative to spraying buildings.

"I learned life lessons from Mr. Sullivan," Garibaldi said. "I learned how to go after things that are living in your heart."

But he got serious a little too late -- in his senior year, a counselor told him he couldn't graduate with his friends.

"I was devastated," Garibaldi said. "But I saw that it had everything to do with my decisions up to that point."

He was frustrated with the lack of direction in his life at the time, he said. He told himself to work harder for the things he wanted to achieve. He bought brushes and canvas, and taught himself to paint.

He still lacked direction -- until he saw a painting by Danny Dent, an Oakland artist who brought speed painting to concert stages in the 1980s and 90s.

"I was so inspired," Garibaldi said. "And so began this journey."

And with that, the man in the paint-splattered jeans and T-shirt created a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. to the sounds of King's "I have a dream" speech played over a thumping beat.

That painting is one of two that will stay at Richland High. The Associated Student Body bought it.

The other painting is included in Garibaldi's fee, which was paid by the senior class as their parting gift to the school, said class president Hannah Kimball.

The artist doesn't come cheap.

His fee is about $5,000, said ASB adviser Jim Qualheim. That's $15,000 Garibaldi took in this week in the Tri-Cities.

Add to that extra charges for Richland's King portrait and for two paintings the Southridge ASB bought -- one of King and one of Ludwig van Beethoven.

That would be a lot of money for a 28-year-old pop artist.

But Garibaldi doesn't pocket that money.

"Originally, I just wanted to entertain," he told the crowd. "But then I decided to use this platform to entertain and inspire."

And help. He has raised $700,000 for nonprofits such as the American Cancer Society and the Special Olympics, Garibaldi said.

Then he launched into the show's grand finale.

Initially, it seemed he finally had miscalculated the accuracy of his chaotic technique. The splatters didn't add up to anything like a human face.

After five minutes of furious work, Garibaldi stood back, satisfied. The work still looked like nothing more than a mess of paint.

But he grabbed the canvas and flipped it upside down -- revealing a perfect portrait of Albert Einstein.

A person's portrait is a representation of a human life to Garibaldi, he said.

"Each color is a desire, each stroke a decision and each splatter a mistake," he said. "Create your own self-portrait. Hopefully you can use your platform to inspire others."

A mob of kids crowded Garibaldi in the auditorium lobby long after the Richland show ended.

And at Kamiakin High School, the principal's secretary said many parents commented on how excited their children were after Tuesday's performance.

"He reached a lot of kids," said Bonnie Boehnke.

* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com.