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An Accidental Art Installation and the Memorialization Of A Great Furson

(Long read ahead. For the shorter version and the video: http://creativeclasstrumpsrulingclass.com/?p=1256

It was almost November of last year when Shane told me he wanted to move our living room around, he said it had bad feng shui. We sat and talked about the options of moving the couch. We also talked about a series of photos he’d been taking without even realizing it. He’d been taking photos with his iPad while sitting in his recliner with his feet up. The photo subjects were whomever happened to be sitting across from him at the time on our thrift store sofa. 

Talking to him about this was wonderful to me, for as long as I have known Shane, more than 20 years, he has always been a ball of energy. We met at the opening show of an art gallery he started in Chicago, the premiere show was the art of James O’Barr the creator of The Crow comic which spurred a movie, and I would imagine a multi-million dollar empire. It was also the only comic I’d ever read, and so I’d dragged my very pregnant sister and her 5 year old daughter on two trains and walking several blocks in the rain to go check it out.

Shane was already an active publisher then. At the time, I had no idea he was the publisher of a free local Zine called Naked Aggression, a friend had turned me onto it when I was about 19 and I’d seek out every issue, loving the interviews with bands, the politics, the anger, and the art. The favorite interview I recall, which had me laughing out loud, was an interview with the band Old Skull. The interviewer was so hilarious! I had no idea it was the guy who ushered us into the gallery, and certainly I had no idea that I’d just met my future husband.

For all of the years we have been together, we have worked at a furious pace on countless projects, well, Shane has worked at a furious pace and I’d run along side him for as long as I could keep up. He’d go for days without sleep if he was cranking away on a project, fueled by coffee and chocolate bars and weed. It would be difficult to list here all of the books, comics, posters, and other trinkets we published and produced while Michael Hunt Publishing was going as the quintessential publisher of the angry underground. We not only did the work to publish the books and comics, we did all of the press materials, we hounded journalists to cover the work, we put together elaborate book tours, we created a zine fest, we published a monthly newspaper for a while, we did a huge multi-day underground music and art festival – all to push the artists we published and our politics forth. Angry politics. I remember Shane telling journalists, “If you want to see flowers, then plant them, the people I publish are reflecting the world around them!”

To us it was underground, years later Shane would be featured in a book called ‘Art That Kills” in which the culture he was an integral part of was given a name, it was called “The Transgressive Art Movement”.

We have been through a lot in our marriage. Shane moved from publishing to podcasting and internet radio, doing the first 24-hour straight radio show online, not once but twice. He started making videos and taught himself to edit, he even reinvented himself at one point and founded a gourmet soda pop company. That is a long story for another time.

What I am trying to say is, he is always doing something, his productivity is amazing, more amazing than anyone I’ve ever known. He also had his dark times. He’d have what I called “one of his turns”, which were periods of anger and overindulgence, they usually came after a big project ended. You see, when you work so hard on something for three or six months straight and then you accomplish the goal you set out to do, first there is immediate celebration, but that is almost inevitably followed by a period of feeling lost, of depression. It is probably what new mothers experience after the birth of their baby, they call that Postpartum Depression. We just knew it as the sad time when the project was done. Or sometimes when things were just not going as we planned, like when we almost lost the building in Chicago and had to sell it and our dreams of our future with it.

In 2008, we landed on the Northwest coast, on the border of Washington and Oregon. We expected to stay for two weeks, that was nine years ago. It was a period of great rebirth for both of us, and given all the previous four or five years had given us, it was due. We loved the beach, our dog Cheyenne loved the beach, even our turtle Myrtle loved the beach. For some strange reason it felt like home, and we were in desperate need of a home. Of course that too is part of a much larger story.

Once we settled in, Shane began to make sculptures. It was something he’d toyed with in high school, but this was different. He said he didn’t feel like he could talk to people any more so he would reach them with this art. And, his art was incredible! He and Cheyenne would walk the beach everyday gathering odds and ends that he would put to use in various pieces. It began to take over our two-room beach shack, I guess it DID take over, so we rented a garage down the street as a studio, and he took off! Even our friend Dave Archer who had started him with the resin clay was shocked by his talent and his output!

In 2010, we moved to the Oregon side of the river, into a real house, with a real yard. Our dog Cheyenne had never had a fenced in yard, at first she couldn’t understand why she was outside alone? Someone had always been out with her or we’d be walking her, and suddenly she was just outside by herself. It took a few months, but she grew to love the freedom, not that our yard was large or anything, but she was able to be outside by herself for as long as she wanted to be, this was unheard of! Of course by this time she was getting older, and we could see she was having a harder and harder time. We took her to the vet every week for special injections, we gave her fish oil and other pills and vitamin supplements, we did whatever we could, but the end finally did come. Overnight on June 13th, 2013, Cheyenne took her last breath. We buried her the next afternoon in a special place and planted a fruit tree, apple or pear atop her.

We mourned.

About 6 weeks later I was offered a job, a real job, doing graphic design, web design, and social media marketing for a small local cooperative, it was all the things I’d done throughout our career together but someone else would be paying for it. How could I say no? Things had gotten increasingly difficult financially. It was hard for two underground urbanites to make a living in a rural place hours from a city. We’d done our best, but the struggle was so hard, to the point I had to take on various part-time jobs, some really shitty ones, and now here was someone wanting to pay me a decent wage with full insurance and a 401k! I figured, even if it only lasted 6 months we could at least see a dentist after 20 years and go to a doctor.

I was extremely concerned about what this would mean to our marriage, we worked together always, we were a team, creative partners! But, we said to ourselves, its just 40 hours a week – that’s nothing! So off I went. With Cheyenne gone, and now me gone too, Shane was left to his own devices. Shortly after, weed went legal in Washington State and later Oregon.

Months went by and Shane was not sculpting, he said he didn’t like working in the basement. He smoked more and more weed. Often he just sat in the recliner asleep like a heroin addict while I was home. He gained a lot of weight. Of course, being us, even in this very un-Shane state, many people wanted to visit. Shane began taking photos of people while they visited, the photos were taken with his iPad so most people thought he was just checking Facebook, or something, his feet were always in the reclined position, and the person was always on the sofa across from him, a coffee table divided the space.

We began to have some marital issues, neither of us were really happy with the way things were going. Sure, Shane was doing stuff still, he created a whole line of patches and pins, some art, some wacky mash-ups, he did a few sculptures, including a piece made from a bear head for the cover of a small book by an area poet, and he began wood-burning or pyrography which he incorporated in to various three dimensional art pieces. Oh, and he almost had a show on Showtime. But, the fact is, even in the wake of all that productivity, it was nothing compared to the feats we used to achieve when working together. Sure one person can do the job of two or three people, but two people with a singular goal can do the work of ten or twelve! He just wasn’t himself. He was very sad and brooding, he was often unpleasant, he talked a lot about dying. I was very concerned, but I just didn’t know how to help, nothing was working to get him out of his funk.

The big change came when Shane had incredible pain in his foot, he could not walk on it. He was in utter misery. We headed to the ER where a great ER Doctor named Paula King told him he had gout. She said he needed to lose weight, and to walk “in nature” everyday, and she gave him the name of a good doctor to see for follow-up care. As Shane’s foot healed, it seemed so did the rest of him. He began to see the recommended doctor, getting tests done and getting on good medicine. We utilized a benefit through my job for him to see a counselor for a handful of free visits, and then he went to see a psychiatrist in Portland who diagnosed him with the “worst case of non-combat PTSD” she’d ever seen, she gave him some prescriptions, and over the course of a few months Shane developed back into Shane again! Maybe even better than before! He lost 70 pounds, he did an art show in Portland, we got him a phone and he was actually talking to a few friends on it, and he wasn’t smoking weed anymore. 

So, when he said he wanted to move our living room around one day last fall I was all for it. He said, “You know, I’ve been taking these photos from the recliner of people between my feet. I think it might be an art project at this point.” I agreed, I hadn’t see nt eh pictures, but If I knew Shane, they would be compelling at the least. 

Then he asked, “I’ve been doing this since we moved here, right?” 

I sighed. I explained, he had not been doing these photos ever since we’d moved into this house. Actually, we’d moved the furniture just a few days after Cheyenne died because he could not stand to see the empty space where her cushion was.

His jaw dropped. We sat in silence for a while, both of us taking in the weight of it all.

“I want to get rid of this sofa and these recliners”, he said finally.

“No!” I responded. If this has become an art project, then certainly the sofa and the recliner are part of it. Cheyenne’s cushions were still in the basement too – perhaps a bigger part of Shane’s disdain for working down there.  We discussed what Shane’s vision of this thing might be.

 

In my youth, I’d spent a great deal of time in art museums, first with my parents and school field trips, and then when I began working downtown after high school, I made a point to go to the Art Institute every single Tuesday when the entry was free. One thing I knew for sure, what Shane was describing as his vision for an “Art Project” was certainly a museum quality art installation.

A month or two went by, then a conversation at our local coffee shop with Caitlyn, a girl who runs the tiny art gallery at the indoor skatepark inside Astoria’s Armory, offered Shane the room for the August Art-walk. “The Art-walk” was a Astoria-wide event held every second Saturday of the month where the local galleries would open new shows and serve wine and cheese, and people would walk up and down the streets looking at what in Astoria was mostly mediocre abstracts by retired upper crust or art school renderings from those who could not make it in a big metropolitan area. The Armory however had some of the best art in town, kids too young to care about earning a living off art, kids who created for the love of doing it. It was our favorite Art Walk stop ever since we’d learned of its existence. The room was a small white room, not much larger than a living room, so it seemed perfect for the installation.

Shane set to work immediately gathering the video elements and recording himself reading blog entries and other writings from the period surrounding Cheyenne’s passing. Some of the recordings are painful to hear, with the quivering sound of tears in his voice. He even put together what started out as a small zine and became a full-color book of the show photos and the writings.

The installation had become Shane’s total focus, and it was exciting and emotional. It was a hard road to travel, and especially difficult for someone who’d just come out of a very dark two years. I was concerned he might fall backwards, but his strength, passion, and determination held, and he persevered.

I found a videographer to come and help document the one day event, so it would be more than memories when it was over. Photos can only do so much, this needed a moving 360 degree representation, and I found the perfect guy to work with in Keith Apland.

The installation really captured the emotion and the struggle Shane had been through. We did a run through on the night before the show, and at some point we just sat down and took it all in. It was amazing! We were both really excited. Shane said it captured exactly what was going on his head during that period of time. It was set up with the sofa and chair, our coffee table, another side table next to the recliner, and Cheyenne’s cushions. Two videos played simultaneously next to each other on the wall behind the sofa. The audio of Shane reading played in the corner from under the cushions. On top of Cheyenne’s cushions sat a large photo of her taken while she happily laid on those very cushions, it was displayed in a thick gold frame, the kind that surround paintings by Dutch masters in museums. Shane said the frame was integral to the installation and symbolized life.  

The pictures of the people were framed and hung in clusters on either side of the couch, several photos Shane took of himself sitting in the recliner at the peak of his depression, the kind of pictures most people would delete or even burn, hung on the post in the center of the room. His bear head sculpture on the coffee table, another half-bear half-man piece sat on a table just outside the room, and next to the recliner sat a clear box containing all of the many recreational marijuana packages Shane had meticulously saved during his binge. Words in gold leaf on the outside of the box told of Shane’s regrets and included several lyrics to a Cheech & Chong song. Next to the “Weed Box”, dozens of plain Hershey chocolate bars lined the table next to the recliner. A sign on the wall by the chair said to sit in the chair, take a photo, eat a chocolate bar AND throw the wrapper on the floor, which many relished doing during the installation, and which Shane had done for weeks in the peak of his misery.

A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $1300 to help cover costs. The turnout was bigger than we or the skatepark had imagined, some people left in tears, more than a few actually. Shane received a handful of touching notes afterwards. It moved so many, and isn’t that truly what art is about – Moving people and making them feel? It’s not about matching the couch, or looking good on the wall, it’s about telling a story, no matter how sad or how painful, it’s about capturing emotions, especially those that are so difficult to express. This installation did all of that, it gave a deep and true look into depression and mourning, it offered an inside out minds-eye view of mental illness, and it brought up conversation, not about the wine or the cheese, but about the delicacy of humanity, the frailty of our being, even for someone so strong and known for such harshness and brutal honesty as Shane.

I am so proud of this work, and of Shane’s work to get back to living life. I see the sun in his eyes again, and right now, as I put these words down, Shane is downstairs working on a new project, inspired and unable to stop, with his magical singular focus returned. We’re taking walks and eating better, and while we have not added a furry pal to our lives yet, and I am still working the job that finally afforded us some decent medical care, we are trying to do things differently. Our time together is together, and we try to work together creatively whenever we can. I think we will be okay. I am just so very hopeful this installation can go somewhere to reach other people who may feel alone in their pain, or to help others gain a perspective on depression. It deserves a home, and I am hopeful and determined to find a worthy museum to take it forever. I am sure it’s just a matter of time!