Nate Hill and Death Bear Revisited

By Roc Morin

“Treat that box of fish guts like a lady,” Nate Hill warned the festive crowd. The way he towered over everyone had me checking for a box under his feet. There wasn’t any. He’s just that tall. The 36-year-old NYC-based artist wore his trademark milkman uniform that night, carefully rolling up immaculate white sleeves before plunging his hands into a box of garbage. “Oh, these are fun,” he exclaimed, pulling out fistfuls of octopus tentacles. “Who wants one?” People presented their bags to him like kids on Halloween.

That was back in 2007. It was Nate’s own New York art world debutante ball. He called it the Chinatown Garbage Taxidermy Tour, and every month, he led a gaggle of curiosity-seekers and reporters to his favorite Lower Manhattan garbage haunts. For years, he had been cutting up the dead animals he found there and stitching them together as chimeras, preserved in rubbing alcohol. His masterpiece was a full-sized human named A.D.A.M., short for: A Dead Animal Man. The penis was an impressively long-necked rooster. “He’s made in the image of his creator,” Nate quipped. He took the analogy a step further when he rewrote the Bible, replacing God’s name with his own:

“Then Nate took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to live, explore the possibilities of creation, and make new animals. Nate told the man, "You are free to use any of the animal parts that grow from the plants and trees in the garden to create your animals. But do not sew animal parts from the tree of knowledge of good and evil to your own body. For the day you sew these parts to your own body is the day you die. (Genesis 2)”

I went on Nate’s tours regularly. Something great always happened. Once, I found a discarded Chinese New Year lion costume, and together with a girl I’d met, we danced it through the streets all the way back to my apartment in Chelsea, filling the tail with passerby along the way. Another night, I saw a joke I’d made end up in the pages of the New York Times. I had gifted a woman one of my severed frog heads:

“‘If I kiss it,” she asked, “will it turn into a prince?’”

“‘Half a prince,” Mr. Morin solemnly replied.’”

After 2007, the tours stopped and Nate disappeared for a while. I remember reading an article at some point about him dressing up as a dolphin and giving subway goers “free bouncy-rides” on his lap.

The next I heard of him, it was 2009. He was doing a project called Death Bear. Nate’s website described the free public service this way:

“We all have someone or something we would rather just forget. Things fall apart. Love hurts. Dreams die. But when you summon Death Bear to your door, you can rest assured that help has come. At first you may be intimidated by his stature and color (7 feet tall with a hard, black bear head, black jumpsuit, and black boots), but absorbing the memories of others is a dark art, and Death Bear must present himself appropriately for this solemn duty. Death Bear will take things from you that trigger painful memories and stow them away in his cave where they will remain forever allowing you to move on with your life.”

There was little of Nate visible in the Death Bear costume, just bare human hands where claws should have been. When the mascot knocked on my door he was as silent as his inspiration, the Grim Reaper. The face of the bear was fixed in a permanent grin, like a skull, and where one would expect eyes, there were only black screens. A girl I had been dating was there and had baked cookies for the mascot. He refused wordlessly—his mouth had no opening. Death Bear spoke just once, “What do you have for me?” I gave him the last copy of a novel I had written. It was called, The Archive of Half-Eaten Cakes —"brilliant, but completely unpublishable," as I was told by a friend in the business. It disappeared into Nate’s sack, he turned and left, and that was that. It was a lot sadder than I thought it would be, giving up on something I had put so much effort into. I had clenched my jaw so my face wouldn’t show it. But, as Death Bear closed the door behind him, there was an unmistakable feeling of resolution. It was like a little funeral for a period in my life.

Nate vanished again after that, just about the same time that flyers appeared all over Brooklyn with his face on them. “MISSING,” they read, “from the New York Art Scene.” I saw a lanky man walking up Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn one afternoon dressed all in white with a half-burqa/half-beekeeper face covering. It was Nate again, this time inhabiting the character of Mr. Dropout, a product of the artist’s recent confusion over his own identity. It was partly inspired by the idea of, “a burn victim that can’t be touched or live normally among us,” Nate later explained.

Nate popped up next at gallery in Bushwick a couple years later. I didn’t know he would be there. He was premiering a project called, Creep. He had approached a series of random women, held a phallic tape measure up to their faces and photographed them, explaining, in a lie, that it was for a “facial symmetry project.”

The lights were snuffed when the performance began. Nate, with his silent fiancée at his side, worked a projector flashing close-ups of the women he had photographed. He began in a whisper:

“I NEED IT

I WANT IT

GOING TO HAVE IT

I WANT THE VICTORY

I WANT THAT FEELING

I NEED TO SMELL

I NEED TO TASTE

I GOT A HUNGER

I'M GOING TO EAT…”

This went on for 15 minutes - seemingly the running inner-monologue of a rapist. A lot of people walked out.

“I USED TO JUST THINK ABOUT DOING THINGS WITH THE GIRLS THAT I SEE ON THE TRAIN

IN THE STREET

THEN ONE DAY

I JUST THOUGHT

MAKE IT HAPPEN

MAKE IT REAL

MAKE IT REAL AND I MADE IT REAL”

That was the beginning of Nate’s villain phase. I heard about some of it, secondhand. A friend had seen the artist on a bike a year ago. He had been dressed up as the Hamburgler chucking half-eaten cheeseburgers at pedestrians. Sometime later, I read that he had sent a computer virus to his entire list of press contacts.

I reached out to Nate and asked if I could accompany him on his latest project, and for an interview. He instructed me to meet him on the subway platform of City Hall station one Sunday afternoon.

“It’s you!” he exclaimed.

“It’s me!” I confirmed.

The 5 train roared in like a banshee. The artist got serious. “Shall we get started?”

Nate had to duck as he entered the subway car. He was dressed as himself—plain green jacket, no costume. “Pardon the interruption, Ladies and Gentleman,” he began, addressing the car. “My name is Nate. I am an artist. For spare change, I can't sing, I can't dance, but what I can do is share some art ideas I had with you today.”

Every day Nate announced a new pair of ideas. Today’s were:

“Tie up a busy bathroom stall. Every time someone jiggles the door, squeeze a clown horn twice.”

“Paint your nails like a woman, then do manly things.”

After the ideas came the plea.

“If you could find it in the kindness of your heart to give a small, imaginary donation—no real money please, no real money please—for these ideas, it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.”

Nate spoke like an auctioneer and strode quickly through the car, eyes down as he passed around a cup. Most people looked confused, a few smiled. In our half-hour trip up to Harlem, only two people gave anything. The first was a woman who mimed putting something into the cup.

“What did you give?” I asked her.

“Ten dollars,” she said.

“Ten imaginary dollars?” I confirmed.

“That’s right.”

The second was a man who tried to palm off a real nickel. Nate spurned it without comment. I tried to explain to the donor, “He only wants imaginary money.”

The man thought for a moment, before shaking his head sadly, “That’s all I have.”

We emerged into the sunlight near Harlem, by Nate’s apartment. He brought down the old Death Bear head for me to photograph.

“How do you want to do this?” he asked. “One of my rules is that I don’t take pictures in any of my old costumes.”

I thought for a moment. “Can I wear it?” I asked.

Nate seemed surprised. “I didn’t know you would want to do that. OK.”

It was dark inside and I could hear myself breathing. In that mask, the world was just two small circles of light. I saw Nate through one of them, snapping pictures with my camera. Seduced by the anonymity, I began stomping around and pawing the air with my claws. “All right. That’s enough.” admonished Nate. I realized that I had crossed a line with him. I was making his bear do things it wasn’t intended to do. I apologized, and he said it was okay. And then, as if to make it up to me, he asked if I wanted to see my old manuscript. I did. “All the Death Bear stuff should be over at the storage place.”

We walked several blocks to a massive metal building and took a rumbling elevator up five floors. Triggered by movement, the florescent lights above traced our progress through a maze of long sterile-white corridors, so bright it made my eyes ache. Nate found his unit. It was packed with repurposed boxes covered by images of fruit flies and fruit fly breeding equipment. Nate’s day job is to raise the insects for a cancer research laboratory.

“Oh God,” he cried, “I hope your manuscript is in there! Oh, Shit! There’s Death Bear stuff I know I wouldn’t have thrown out…”

“Like what?” I asked.

“A soldier,” Nate answered slowly, “gave me a bullet once… and implied that his girlfriend might have been killed in wartime. We met in a playground. I remember I started crying after I left him.”

Nate handed me a giant cartoon panda head and a chest protector. That was from the artist’s Punch Me Panda project where he invited angry strangers to pummel him. One by one, he passed armfuls of his half-wanted possessions to me - things not valuable enough to keep at hand and not worthless enough to throw away. I made a line with them, all the way down the corridor. Luckily, we were the only ones in the place. Every now and then, the lights cut out and we had to jump and wave our hands to turn them back on.

We fell into a steady rhythm, mining through Nate’s cave like a bucket brigade. It was good clean work and we both began to sweat. Just when we had almost given up, Nate gave a little war-cry. He had found them - six large boxes labeled “DB.”

“You can look through them,” he offered, “but I don’t think you should photograph.”

“Do you remember these things?” I asked holding them up one by one. The clothes still smelled like people.

“Oh, man,” Nate sighed, “I really don’t remember most of it. I remember this girl. She said she used to be a stripper. Those are her stripper clothes.”

I held up a half-eaten bag of potato chips, cocking my head. “Oh, man!” Nate exclaimed, “I can’t remember these chips. I don’t even know why they’re in there. I don’t know if that was my food or…”

I took an inventory of the boxes of these objects that had caused their owners so much pain: one photograph of a couple smiling on a beach, one bundle of letters, one airplane-sized bottle of vodka, one candle shaped like an artichoke, one Bible, one pair of panties with semen-stained crotch, one recipe for cake, one stuffed bear, five naked photographs of a middle-aged man, one Elvis clock, two trout oven mitts, one piece of soap, 23 whippets, 18 keys, one Christmas ornament reading “Josh.” And there, at the bottom of the last box, covered in what appeared to be dried rat piss, was my novel. I flipped through it as Nate looked on.

“You gonna take your manuscript back?” he asked.

“I didn’t know that was an option,” I replied. “Should I?”

Nate pondered, “That’s a very deep question.”

I hesitated a moment, before responding, “I have to leave this.”

“Good,” Nate affirmed, “I think you’re making the right choice. It’d be like Frankenstein if you take it. It won’t be the same. It’ll turn on you.”

 

(Photos by Roc Morin)

Roc’s new book, And, was released last year. You can find more information on his website.

 

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