Finding your subject matter and the voice to express it is the single most important thing you do as an artist. It not only establishes you creatively, but it defines your identity itself. How we get to this place, and how it changes over time, is what defines a compelling body of work. No two people have the same path but each and every one shares a single, unique roadblock that can hamstring you at the gate, stop you in your tracks or potentially derail you forever. The process of how we find our roadblock and what we do to get around it is the litmus test of a dedicated creative thinker determined to press forever forward and stay in motion.
I often hear of artists creating extreme lifestyles, engaging with dangerous subcultures or even chasing oblivion itself to get something called “subject matter.” I myself chased this chimera.
After spending well over a decade with every fucked-up character you can imagine on every level (street hustlers, prostitutes, bored rich-kid tourists, royalty, etc.) I did a real nice “artist retreat” in King County jail one summer to appease the courts for my latest body of work: a 6’4″, 140-pound demonic wreck with a Maker’s Mark pulse seeking to disappear in a dark, divorced, friendless and broke-ass empty apartment with a black hole soul. Not to mention this little thing called true oblivion. Good times.
. . .
Getting sober was the most pivotal event in my life.
Even the birth of my son ranks second because I was only able to fully comprehend his existence and meaning (and everyone else’s) after taking this primal act of preservation: attaching the oxygen mask to my face and breathing in. Until that moment I had been hiding in the fuselage of the aircraft that I had pointed straight towards the mountain cliffs, fueled by the single most destructive thing of all: fear.
This sensation is the root of all negative emotions and the most dangerous of all to creative people. Fear that you won’t complete your vision; your work is garbage; you won’t make it. This fear can take many forms, but essentially it’s the fear to realize yourself and thus your potential in whatever you decide to do.
This isn’t some “artist way” shit or a recipe to “become the artist you always wanted to be.” At the point I got sober I had already abandoned art for a long time. I didn’t choose to be sober to be a better anything except a human being. But it was this process of working on the fear of myself and becoming a better human being that holistically allowed me to become a better artist. It pointed me in the direction of realizing who I was, what I was here to do and what I was going to do about it.
. . .
After graduating college from the University of Georgia in Athens (also my hometown) at the age of 22, I moved to Seattle with intentions of eventually grounding myself in LA. Right away I began a divisive and meteoric arc: I was a visual artist, performer, curator, director of visual arts for a large multi-disciplinary nonprofit, provocateur, man-about-town. Nothing seemed out of reach and everything felt like I was in the right place, at the right time and had all the components of future stardom.
Except it was all wrong.
From 2001 to 2003 I made a considerable body of work documented in slides (remember those?) in an array of media. My work appeared in local institutions such as the Bellevue Art Museum and in many other group shows at galleries, pop-ups and alternative spaces. I had a clothing company/label. People were generally interested in who I was and what I was doing.
Somehow I convinced myself that this persona Gold Hick I had developed was a good idea. He was a glam rapper I invented based on Ziggy-era Bowie and the edge of early Wu-Tang; the name was lifted from track 14 on the Guided By Voices seminal masterpiece Alien Lanes.
I spent some two years assembling tracks in various home and professional recording studios around Seattle, fleshing out this character across a concept album titled Astral Projection. I would work my shitty restaurant jobs, try to care about making visual art and begrudgingly appear at show commitments — all the while carrying around stacks of CD-Rs I was working on and listening to in-progress versions of the album on my turquoise discman.
I remember paying The Lake City Vampire in meth just to finish the production on the title track.
When it was time to release the album I had lined up a solo show and even had an array of several group shows to follow. In a cosmic turn of events, due to a slew of things in and out of my control, the solo show got cancelled, the group shows got cancelled, the album flopped, my son was born and I was out of a job.
Slowly all the pieces weren’t coming together but slipping apart with every wedge of fear I summoned into my personal ecosystem.
. . .
Now, every hardened artist knows that to truly build something — whether a work or a body of work or indeed a career — you must slowly collect all the parts from many places to create this thing. Even if it’s a toss-off or a colossal undertaking, all the parts are like cells forming a whole.
If you’re an addict or alcoholic it works the same way. But in reverse.
All forms of rational, sane choice-making turn into, “Yeah dog, this shit is legit. I’m fucking charting the way into oblivion like a BOSS!” And of course it’s just you dissolving into nothing, one lie, one frame at a time.
If you’re like me, the curated disaster doesn’t just happen, until it does. You hit the last wall, the bottom bottom. All those little choices build a body of work defined by poison. It’s this poison that seeps into the cells and eventually you start to die.
Slowly, ever so slowly I began to realize this and that my performance/installation self-portrait called a life was nothing but a shit show with no one even watching. I knew I wanted sobriety but I was afraid. All the flashing lights were there telling me I needed it very strongly, like life or death — right before the flashing blue lights were telling me that my first stop on this new trip would be jail.
. . .
I got sober on February 3, 2011 because of yes, my last arrest. And yes, it was all the meetings in the rooms. The one-on-one and group intensive rehab summer spent with a former hippie meth biker now sober for 30+ years. It was totally envisioning a new worldview and going for it Robert Downey Jr. style. Yes, I got to know people in treatment who died, saw men and women fall prey to their demons, supersede them, reinvent themselves. And yes, I did another lengthy, but relatively short, time in jail due to all the probation violations I stacked up.
And finally yes, I broke the romance of the gothic vagabond artist, the illusion of the tortured artist. I finally understood that there is a future worth fighting for, a present pregnant with opportunity defined by a choice, and a past possessed by the mirror of all these.
The biggest revelation: There are other people out there too. And they have feelings and you can hurt them or respect them. Wow, holy shit. Like a whole planet appeared before my eyes. I finally saw my fear for what it was and faced it. But how did it make me make me a better artist?
It was December of 2011 and I had just taken down my solo exhibition THE CONVERSATION. My first show in a decade, the installation was a meta-narrative about the last 20 years of my life in a self-created black hole of drugs and alcohol, almost dying and how I got to sobriety. How I chose to live.
Sitting there in the coffeeshop listening to 50 Cent’s “Many Men Wish Death On Me” I thought to myself, “I’m here for a real fucking reason, I’m alive, and every moment is now, a chance to act.”
It was this electric power I felt that I wanted to communicate, to broadcast.
I wanted to create a monumental work that captured exactly what I felt and what I knew everyone else feels, at some point. It’s the idea of a brighter future but you know you have this past, always in the wings, having just left the stage. It sometimes haunts you with dim, but very impactful arias.
So, I drew these rainbows with gray reflections as a way to render this image. Like the object and its counterpart. Later it would be called “NOW” but then it was just a 3″x 3″ digital watercolor I made on the iPad. I started showing it to people. It resonated. I described it as the bright part being our expectations of the future, the dark lower half as our memories, and the event horizon of the empty center as just now. Where we always are, infinitely. People would just be taken with this. Again and again, getting the vibe. I was blown away.
Things moved quick after this. I had already submitted a completely different project to the Bumbershoot Festival. The art director and curator Chris Weber liked what I entered, but came for a studio visit and asked what this small drawing was when he saw my iPad open. I was just like, “Oh, it’s just a B-side, an idea, a little sketch.” He asked what it meant and I told him the story. He said, “This is it man.” I knew it too.
That was in January of 2012. Six months later “NOW” debuted in front of 125,000 people.
Created in collaboration with Western Neon and a core creative team over a six-month period, “NOW” appeared at the Bumbershoot festival site, in the official program, in the video sequences at all main stages, and in an array of social, digital and print media.
It was to be a direct confrontation of fear itself. I was taking the model of addiction and seeing it as a human cycle. Our need for a brighter future, the specter of the past and the awestruck fervor or crippling complacency that drives the present experience. There was never a moment in my past — even when I sensed this procession, the inevitable march of Time’s Arrow — that I could have conceived of and created a monument like this.
It’s as if every past life experience since being born had pointed me in this direction where I actually got to be the idols I always looked up to. The David Bowies, Lou Reeds and Iggy Pops who lived through the insanity to now drink mineral water, do yoga and try to stop smoking. Like you go down into the mine — all the way down to see and feel the abyss — and make it back.
. . .
For me, as a late-stage alcoholic involved in the shit I was doing every day, I had three choices: prison, death, or sobriety. OK. I chose.
And it’s that choosing that defines it. That’s all an artist does.
You have the full capacities gleaned from all that training to effectively choose something and stand behind it with even the thinnest confidence. And since this path is defined by looking at it one day at a time, the empire that awaits is all in your hands. One choice, one day at a time. But all of this is bullshit if you do it in any way whatsoever gripped by fear.
It’s a listening process. To yourself and others. A process that asks you to look, really look at a total situation that you are both in and that you create. How did I get here, what is here, what can I do here? You have to ask these questions, answer them and engage fear without fear. That’s the trick I think.
Being over two years sober today is not a shock to me. I inhabit this skin very comfortably, more than ever in fact. I haven’t yet done my greatest work and know that only great work lays before me because I don’t shoot for anything but doing what I think is quality and keeping it in motion.
And when it gets rugged, I know that this too shall pass.