Why a Man Battling Addiction Painted 2,000 Angels

After a frightening encounter with cocaine, he experienced a divine intervention that inspired him to create art.

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- Posted on Jun 4, 2019

A close up of an artist painting on canvas.

I was celebrating with friends in our apartment complex on New Year’s Eve, 1986, when the turn in my life took place. It had been a good year. Only 26 years old and selling photographic equipment, I was doing just what I wanted with my life. Or so I thought. I was also doing a lot of drugs. I had started smoking marijuana at age 12. Later, in the Navy, I used hard narcotics. By New Year’s Eve, 1986, I was a serious drug user.

That night at the party I was freebasing cocaine. As usual, the drugs made me feel invincible. But suddenly, amid the music and raucous laughter, I felt strange. My heart raced, my body became numb; I was panicky. Desperately trying to maintain composure, I got up from my seat and waved to the others, calling, “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” I staggered down to my apartment. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Was I dying?

Gasping, I stumbled in the door and lurched into the shower. I turned on the cold water, ripped open my shirt under the splashing spray and, for the first time in years, I started to pray. “God, take me to heaven,” I pleaded. “I’m not a bad person.” Then I vowed that if he let me live I would never do drugs again. Please, God, help me.

Immediately I felt a warm sensation in my feet. A whirling rose around me, like a miniature tornado. It was then that I saw them, seven of them, twirling around me faster and faster. I thought they were taking me to heaven. They did not have wings or halos; I could see only forms. They put their arms around me. I felt wonderful, relaxed, at ease. So this is death.

I awoke in a hospital, early on New Year’s Day. Anxiously leaning over me was my party host. He said that for some reason he had decided to leave the party and go down to my apartment. He found the door ajar and me unconscious on the tile floor. “We rushed you here,” he said. “Your heart was barely beating.”

A week passed before I was able to return to work. By then I felt totally different. The urge to get stoned was gone. What had replaced it was an irresistible compulsion, a burning need to draw what I had seen in the shower on New Year’s Eve. For several years I worked hard at my job all day and drew my angels at night. Though I couldn’t explain it—I wasn’t an artist and I didn’t have any training in the field—the effort consumed me.

Andy Lakey circa 1995.

By 1989 I had drawn 227 sketches of the beings I had seen. I had saved enough money to buy a town house. Meanwhile I prayed for direction in my life. The answer I got was startling and always the same: Be an artist.

Acquaintances laughed when I said I had decided to become an artist. But one new friend, a Christian, told me, “Go for it, Andy.” I did. One day in the fall of 1989, I went to my boss to give notice. When I told him my plans, he leaned back in his chair and studied me quizzically.

“Are you on drugs?” he asked.

No, I told him, not since that New Year’s Eve. He said he wanted me to see a psychiatrist. That’s when I showed him my sketches. “They do look pretty good, Andy. Good luck.”

I bought some professional artists’ magazines to see what a real studio looked like. Then I went to an art store and loaded up on an assortment of items—airbrush equipment, projector, scopes—to transform my garage into a studio. I installed track lighting, plus a cassette player for musical inspiration. By mid-December it was completed and I sat down to paint. But when I tried to portray one of my angels in color, all I could manage was a crude outline. Frustrated, I gave up. Have I made a mistake quitting my job? I worried.

The next day I returned to the studio. I flipped on the music—and it happened. A bright light came through the wall and surrounded me with glowing intensity. Within the light stood three bearded men with long hair. I felt no fear. I communicated with them not in words, but in thoughts. Incredibly, I was told to paint 2000 angels by the year 2000. I sensed the beings would not only teach me to paint, but would arrange circumstances so the Lord would be honored. They said we would meet again in 10 years. Then the light faded and they were gone.

The music was still playing and everything looked normal. But the path before me was clear. I sat down at a canvas and let myself be guided by my angels. I lined up the tubes of acrylic paint and squeezed color after color onto my palette—vermilion, cerulean blue, chrome yellow. I laid out my brushes and began brushing on colors, each in different layers. It was impossible to portray the exact form of the celestial messengers who had embraced me that night in the shower. Still, I was capturing something of their benevolence, their essence. In a kaleidoscope of shimmering color and texture an angel came to life on my canvas.

By the end of January 1990, I had finished eight paintings. I wanted others to see them and asked a friend who managed a bank if he could display some there. He chose three and hung them in the bank’s customer area. A woman phoned later that day. She introduced herself as Pierrette Van Cleve, a Canadian art critic and owner of Art Cellar Exchange, an international fine art brokerage. She said she had been contacted by a man from Canada who had seen my paintings in the bank. He wanted to commission some large canvases for his home. “May I come to your studio and see your work?” she asked.

By then I had completed more paintings. Pierrette walked back and forth looking at them. When I told her I had been painting only a short time, she didn’t believe me. Finally, she turned to me and extended her hand. “I’m filled with wonder,” she said. Pierrette ran her fingers over the layers of color of one of my paintings. “I used to work with the blind,” she said, “and I’m intrigued by your relief work. Have you thought about sharing your creations with the visually impaired?” I hadn’t. Was this another circumstance fashioned by my three visitors?

One of my first showings was arranged by Pierrette at a San Diego gallery, and she invited some blind acquaintances. I took a lady’s hand and guided her fingertips over the painting’s surface, explaining the colors. “This is black ... and over here is a peach tone. Whenever you feel this particular level and texture above the others, that is the same peach color. Can you see?”

The woman’s face lit up. “I can see the angels ... and the colors!” TV newsman Peter Jennings donated one piece to the Lighthouse for the Blind in New York City. An art gallery asked to put one of my paintings on display; the first person who stepped into the gallery bought it. Today my paintings are in collections of museums, the Vatican, royal families, U.S. presidents and celebrities, “touching hearts,” as one critic said, “with the joy, love and wonder of heaven itself.”

I have completed 1350 angel paintings. On December 31, 1999, Painting Number 2000 will receive its finishing touches at midnight at a ceremony in New York City. I know the angels will come, as they did at the end of another year, when they changed the direction of my life.

What will happen to me then? I leave that to God.

Update: In 1998, Andy completed the 2000 angel paintings and signed the final Angel at a public event in San Francisco, California, on New Year's Eve.

This story first appeared in the November 1995 issue of Angels on Earth magazine.

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