You might not notice Robert Caruthers hunched over his small window-side table at the Origin’s Coffee House on Main Street were it not for his leather vest, wide-brimmed cowboy hat and the sound of furious scribbling.
“I can sit in here and I am at ease and comfortable,” said Caruthers. “I have a very difficult time being around a lot of people. This is the place.”
But he isn’t there for the homemade snickerdoodles or the half-café almond milk frappuccinos, it’s a place where the former law enforcement officer and life-long Christian can create his art, straight from the word of the Lord.
To turn a phrase, it has been a long and winding road for Caruthers, a former Great Bend police officer, father of four and grandfather to seven.
Born in Harper, he spent his professional life serving communities in rural Kansas, northern Colorado and the metro-Denver area as a police officer. “It’s what I always wanted to be,” he said.
In 1994 he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that causes moods of extreme highs and deep lows. He also suffers from short-term memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause anxiety and a laundry list of emotion complications as a result of a traumatic event.
“It was from professional and personal trauma,” said Caruthers, who was separated from his wife and four daughters soon after his diagnosis. “That was a great loss to me.”
Bouncing between treatment centers and hospitals, he asked for help a year ago while in a mental health facility in Wichita.
“Two weeks before I came to Haviland I spoke with one of my daughters,” he recalled. “I prayed about finding a place and two weeks later I was here. I came here for me and for my children. They were very scared that something would happen to me. I believe it eventually would have.”
Caruthers, who is a patient at a nearby residential mental health facility, says he believes he has found a place he feels comfortable, after many years of being in-and-out of institutions.
“Haviland is a wonderful town and it’s a godly town,” he said. “It has helped me immensely to be here. I’ve got to know a lot of people, they know who I am and what I do.”
He considers himself “unemployable,” but he says has kept busy doing work for the man upstairs.
Each day he finds a passage in the Bible, likely a passage mentioned in church on Sunday, and slowly, meticulously transcribes them onto sheets of paper.
Page 2 of 3 - The scripture and meandering passages make for a fascinating read and have a unique artistic aesthetic.
“I have difficulty writing my own things down,” said Caruthers. “When I do this though, my penmanship is very good and it just flows. I asked myself, what could I do to spread the word of God? He is my life. I’ve given up everything to do what he wants me to do, and right now I think he wants me to do this.”
He traces his interest in transcriptions back to a former job when he had a lot of free time.
“I was a security guard and I would watch cameras and walk around on patrol. In my down time I would transcribe scripture in a notebook to pass the time. I’d never done anything like this.”
Caruthers has a small group of people that have become fond of his writing, including Origin’s owner Hannah Kendall, who organized a showing of his work last week.
“Each piece is so unique and he’s really creative,” said Kendall. “He just goes from one verse to the other and I don’t think he knows what comes next. That makes them kind of improvised. I would put it with other calligraphy and penmanship type artworks.
We wanted to put them in frames and make them look nice.”
Kendall said Caruthers is at the coffee shop so often, he is literally the “artist in residence.”
On nice days he abandons his usual table for a spot on Main Street where he spends up to three hours on each piece.
He gives them away, but accepts donations to help pay for his paper and supplies and ask people to “give joyously what you can.”
“People really appreciate them,” he said. “They comment on my penmanship and think they are beautiful. They are a unique thing. Who else is doing something like this? Probably nobody. It is art and the Lord has given me the ability to do this. Here I am doing it. When I’m finished it is like I’ve accomplished something, that I’ve completed something important.”
If you ask politely, he might show you how to make the paper look “antiquish.”
“At first I was writing them and them crumpling them into a ball like this,” he said while demonstrating. “Then I would very carefully unwrinkle them and steam them flat again. I stopped doing it because it was a fire hazard. I tell people how to do it now.”
Page 3 of 3 - Travelers and nearby Barclay College students often chat with him about his artwork when they stop for a quick trip to the restroom or a jolt of black gold between classes.
He says he’s found some peace from a world that he says sometimes “feels like its closing in” on him.
He takes short trips to Greensburg or Pratt sometimes, but says he’s relieved whenever he gets back. “This is a special place.”
While he’s come around to the idea that what he makes is “art,” his primary purpose is to share his faith with others, a faith that has been the road map of his long and winding life.
“I’d like them to make people eager to read the bible. I want them to read the word of God. See, some of them just stop and it’s like ‘well, what else happens?’ If they want to know they can go to the bible and see where I’ve stopped. They can go ahead and read everything else.”