Derek Hess – 31 Days in MayTuesday, 8th May 2018
Even if you aren’t directly aware of the visual art icon Derek Hess, chances are you have seen his work through covers of albums within the hard rock and metal scenes (Sepultura, In Flames, and Unearth, to name a few) as well as his Cleveland area fliers. He has built up quite a resume over the years for his distinctive style. But in more recent years, he’s also become quite open about his struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction (Dual Diagnosis). A documentary about him, Forced Perspective, brought this issue to the public eye.
The reaction to Forced Perspective led to him doing a series of pictures on social media last year titled 31 Days in May, where he not only posted artwork, but described his journey and battles with Dual Diagnosis and the link between creativity and mental health. Some of the topics included relationships, suicide, loneliness, and depression. The images and words were collected (along with some more material) and pressed into a book of the same title. Hess is currently embarking on a tour to discuss the book across the country, so we spoke with him about all of these topics, his own well-being, and some of the good he has been doing in spreading awareness of mental illness and addiction.
Dead Rhetoric: One of the things that really struck me when looking through the book, was the piece about how people would complement your art, but not ask how you were doing as a person. So I just wanted to start by asking, “How you are doing with your own struggles?”
Derek Hess: That’s a good opening question. I’m doing well – I’m taking care of myself. I’m baseline, which is that I’m not up, I’m not down. I’m even-keeled. I’m taking my medication and I’m seeing my psychiatrist and therapist. So things are well right now. It’s a good thing.
Dead Rhetoric: That’s good to hear. What are some of the struggles that you have, and what pushes you forward every day?
Hess: I’m bipolar II, that’s more on the depressive side, where bipolar I is more manic. I deal with chronic depression, more so than mania. What I do is I draw. If I can’t draw, I will get away from absolutely everything and try to clear my mind. Sometimes I go off to a hotel and change my environment completely. I stay there for a day and a night, and sometimes that helps to clear my mind. It’s a whole different environment, and you don’t have to worry about it.
Dead Rhetoric: In terms of the book, the documentary, and everything you’ve done over the past few years, do you feel like you are kind of role modeling for others?
Hess: It’s turned out that way to a certain degree. It’s not my intention. I get emails from people asking me what to do about different things. I tell them what I can. The book is basically my journey. I don’t have all the answers but I try to be as helpful as possible. So it’s turned out that way that people ask me for help. I try my best – it wasn’t my intention but I’m not going to shy away from it either.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s like there’s a certain level of responsibility almost…
Hess: Right – I definitely do have some responsibility. If someone contacts me who is really manic or on the edge, I am very careful about what I tell them. I tend to stress going to an emergency room if they are really in a bad way. The stigma today is that, “Oh he’s crazy, he had to go to the hospital.” He’s not crazy, he’s mentally ill and he is having an episode. If you were diabetic, and you were having issues with insulin, you would go to the emergency room as well. It’s an illness that people have. It can be treated.
Dead Rhetoric: Going along with that, you said people contact you and ask for advice. Do you feel that opening up about yourself personally has allowed fans of yours to have a deeper connection to your work, and you as a person?
Hess: I definitely do. The more you talk about your art, the more people can relate to it. I’m trying to, especially in the book, I wrote about how it all pertains to mental health and addiction, so it has connected with a lot of people. I’m happy about that, because it’s about trying to get rid of the stigma of it being a bad thing. Like I said, it’s something that we have – everybody has something. It’s just something that we deal with. It may be different from someone else’s issue. Someone may have cancer, god forbid, or diabetes. The people that have mental issues that follow my art have been connecting with it a bit. I’m pretty happy with that.
Dead Rhetoric: You mention the stigma – why do you think there’s this stigma that attaches to all of these mental disorders? Like you said, when people go to the hospital for diabetes, its okay, but when they check in due to mental illness, they are looked at differently.
Hess: It’s something that people really didn’t talk about for forever. I think the timing is right, culturally in our society, to start shining a light on it. I know Kevin Love from the [Cleveland] Cavaliers has talked about his panic attacks, and Mariah Carey talked about bipolar disorder in People Magazine. Back in the day, they were like, “Something’s wrong with Uncle Joe.” You assumed that he was a little crazy or off, and just didn’t talk about it. Since we are talking about it now, we are going to pull the curtain back and start dealing with this as a society and become comfortable with it – and get rid of the term ‘crazy.’ It’s not crazy, and it’s not a character defect. Some people have character flaws…I do, actually everybody does. When someone is acting out with Bipolar, it’s not a character flaw, it’s a mental illness and should be dealt with appropriately.
Dead Rhetoric: I’ve got an impression of this already, but do you feel more comfortable opening up about yourself at this point?
Hess: Yeah, I have no problem with it. The movie, Forced Perspective, which is a documentary on me that this guy [Nick Cavalier] wanted to shoot. It was out of left field that someone wanted to shoot a movie about me, but he did a great job. I started talking about Bipolar in that. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I’m open about it…I didn’t think it was something taboo. I had a ton of people who emailed me and came up to me at the movie screenings and told me how happy they were that I was bringing it up and talking about it. That’s why we went ahead and made the book. It’s time. People have been relating to it. I did a book signing in Columbus and it went over really well. A lot of people were really connecting with the artwork and what I was trying to convey. So I have no problems talking about it. It’s the right time to do it.
Dead Rhetoric: In the book, you explained the art and what you had drawn. Before you put it out there, was there any feeling of risk, as many times with art, people want to leave it open to interpretation?
Hess: Not really. I learned how to talk about my art in art school. They encourage it. At openings and galleries, I talk about my art. This was talking about the artwork and the theme. It came easy. There wasn’t really a problem with bringing it up and explaining the message. Hopefully people will connect to it.
Dead Rhetoric: I know you are about to head out on a tour to promote the book. What are some of the goals that you are shooting for when you are doing this run?
Hess: The goal is to remove the stigma and hit markets and cities that have expressed interest in having me come. I’m not going to New York City because people really weren’t interested in the venues there. Whereas Syracuse and Kansas City, Orlando and Augusta, were really interested in having me come there. If there was interest, I’m definitely going to that city to talk about what the book is about, and hopefully people will connect.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s peculiar that a big place like New York City wouldn’t have any interest.
Hess: Well, there’s so much going on in that city. I would get lost in the shuffle there anyhow. I’ve done art shows there before and it’s a tough market. I am hitting L.A., Chicago, and San Francisco, so I’m hitting some big markets, but I’m doing that because the venue or theater expressed great interest in it. It would be interesting for the people that patronize those places.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you talk a little bit about the connection of music and art to your own well-being?
Hess: Music has been a huge part of my life forever. My first concert was Queen in 1977. I was thinking about it the other day, and it was one of those life changing moments as a little kid. It was like, “This is what I want to be involved with.” Of course, I couldn’t hold a note, or play a note, and I can’t sing. So when I had the opportunity, I started booking at clubs here in Cleveland. So I was able to help bring the music to our market that may have been skipping us – going from say, Detroit to New York City, and not stopping in Cleveland in between. So that was great.
A lot of songs, I will take a one-liner from and make a title. It may not be appropriate for the song, but the title is appropriate for the image. Like the iceberg pieces, which I really like doing. The title came from a Rush song, “Distant Early Warning.” ‘I see the tip of the iceberg and I worry about you.’ What a great line that is! So I have titled those pieces after that line. I’ve titled pieces after some Nine Inch Nails – Trent [Reznor] always has great one-liners. I believe I’ve done a few Black Sabbath ones as well. So that’s a connection I have with the music.
Dead Rhetoric: One of the other things I saw was that you said something about needing to be able to feel as an artist. Could you discuss that?
Hess: The best connection is when you are tuned in and you feel what you are expressing. It’s kind of like if you are doing some sort of political or current event art. You may be just tuned in to the situation or what it’s about, and it immediately just dates the piece. You can look at it, like say, [Donald] Trump dealing with the porn star. Ten years from now you will look at it and go, “Wow that was way back then.” It won’t relate like it does now. My artwork – I try to make it resonate. I stay away from specific current events and work on human emotions that we all have and can relate to. That’s how I have the artwork withstand the test of time. By doing that, the best way is to tap into what we all have in common, which are the feelings I try to express.
Dead Rhetoric: You have a very clear, signature style that when someone sees a painting, they can clearly see that it’s Derek Hess that drew it. Do you feel that’s an important factor to have as an artist in order to be successful?
Hess: It’s very important for an artist. I didn’t start off thinking, “Oh, this is going to be my style.” A style develops as you draw. Every time you have pen hit paper, the more comfortable you are at drawing your own way. It’s not like I go, “I’ve got to make this style.” It just comes naturally. The best styles aren’t forced. It’s great that you have a recognizable. You know what Warhol, Picasso, and Da Vinci did. I’m not saying I’m one of those people, but it’s important for your art to be recognizable. It helps it to withstand the test of time.
Dead Rhetoric: At the end of the book, there are a few pages where you have people who have gotten tattoos of your work alongside their stories. Do you hope those act as an inspiration for others who may pick up the book?
Hess: Absolutely. People relate to the piece and their own story is pulled from it – it’s amazing. It blows me away that people send me those and how it related to them personally. It’s very humbling that it happens. We asked for people when we were making the book, through Instagram and Facebook, who had pictures of their tattoos and had either mental health or addiction stories attached to them, and we got a whole bunch! More than we could put in the book. The ones we put in the book are very powerful. Especially a couple of those – wow, we actually had to have someone tone them down a little bit because they were so intense. But I think it’s pretty amazing that its how people connect. I feel very fortunate that I can be a vehicle for their issues, even if they are not resolved, they can be recognized.
Dead Rhetoric: So what advice do you have for people who suffer from mental illness?
Hess: I think that it’s important to be diagnosed, and have the correct diagnosis. A lot of the bipolar people are potentially treated for depression. If you are only treating part of the disease, the depressive side, the mania will be driven out. That’s how a lot of bipolars are diagnosed. That’s what happened with me. I was depressed and then I started doing all of this crazy stuff and I was telling my psychiatrist about it and they said I was bipolar. I was then treated for it correctly. Personally, I think meds are important. A lot of people are very anti-medication, and that’s their trip if that’s the way they want to play it. But I think they are important. It’s an illness, and it can be treated by modern pharmaceuticals. They aren’t like the old ones. The new stuff is really good. I could name-drop meds that I think are great, but also they need to be under the care of a psychiatrist who would prescribe them appropriately. Ideally a therapist as well, to talk about and work through issues which are being pulled through the surface because of your disease. Take responsibility for yourself and do what you need to get better. That’s what I think people need to do.
Dead Rhetoric: The book tour is coming up – do you have any other plans beyond that at this point?
Hess: Not really. Something will come up I’m sure. My business partner and I, and a handful of other people have done a mental health convention called Acting Out, which carries over for a week here in Cleveland. We have speakers, movie screenings, bands that relate to the issues, and again – it’s all about removing the stigma. It’s been very successful, and we will probably address it again and do a third one. But right now the focus is on the book tour, and me figuring out the logistics, because I’ve never done a tour before. Making sure that I get to the next market – it’s a matter of flights, renting cars, lodging. It’s what on my mind right now.