The Bizarre and Tragic Story Behind One of the Internet's Original Outsider Artists
She is a supermodel and a starlit, as well as a rubber mask and deflated costume draped over a wheelchair.
"HAND THING," uploaded to YouTube on July 13th, 2007, opens with a person in a wig and mask peering around a doorframe. "Shaye?" the character says. "Are you still doing that hand thing?"
Cut to Shaye Saint John, supermodel and starlet, in her standard mask and wig, her rigid mannequin arms tapping one atop the other, back and forth.
Shaye Saint John videos are the internet's answer to outsider art, and they've been flippantly relegated to just another thing in " that weird part of YouTube." There's no big artist reveal, no studio-backed film adaptation, no corporate sponsorship. She posted videos on YouTube, and then one day, she stopped. Her website looks like it was plucked from 2001, because it was. The "Meet Shaye" page, peppered with GIFs and an autoplaying MIDI, declares: "LONG STORY SHORT...I AM AN ENTERTAINER, I AM A MODEL, I AM A SINGER, I AM A MAGICIAN, I AM AN ACTOR. I AM SO MANY THINGS! I AM ALSO THE WORLDS RECORD HOLDER FOR HAVING THE MOST PROBLEMS!"
Absurd and surreal, the videos have been compared to the cult comedy duo Tim and Eric. Words are repeated and flashed across the screen, dolls are destroyed, mannequin legs tap and drag across the concrete. And there's so much of it! But a few themes repeat in the videos: obsession with beauty/perfection, obsession with celebrity, obsession with connecting with others (but an inability to ever really do it). Shaye is a woman of excess. She's on the internet 24/7, interacting with her fans and sharing autographs, she's seeking miracle cures, she's seeking riches. When you see her masked face in front of the palm trees and twinkling Hollywood horizon, and her strange figure slouching in front of the pink stucco houses, she simultaneously fits the scene and repulses the viewer. She's a manifestation of celebrity excess and obsession—she's an Indiana punk in LA exorcising her creator's demons.
That creator was Eric Fournier, an LA-based artist who passed away on February 25, 2010, from complications related to his alcohol abuse. He was 42 years old.
In this story, there are two Shaye Saint Johns. First, in myth, supermodel Shaye Saint John is disfigured in a freak accident and subjected to a series of horrific mind-control experiments by the CIA. Eric Fournier, shy and genius artist, takes her under his wing and helps her create art for a wider audience. Second, in reality, Shaye Saint John is a rubber mask and deflated costume draped over a wheelchair when not worn by Eric Fournier, shy and genius artist. Battling alcoholism and overflowing with ideas, he uses the Shaye character to create art while deflecting the spotlight away from himself.
"[I]t's really hard in LA to show people something they haven't seen before," LA art curator and personality Lenora Claire tells me. Her Instagram documents her shock of dyed red hair, curating projects, and pinup photoshoots. She's been contributing to the LA art scene for the past decade. Claire was a fellow artist and friend of Fournier's in the early 2000s, when the Shaye project was just beginning. "But he was able to create something that [...] if you saw it in person you're like—Holy shit, what is this? To be able to create something that really shocks people, and makes them freak out and question in a wonderful way is incredibly powerful."
In photos, Fournier is stocky and square-faced, with deep-set dark eyes and a full head of dark hair. When he smiles, it's bright, but a bit strained.
Fournier grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and in the mid 1980s he nourished the growing punk scene in bands like Blood Farmers and Skelegore. Before the interconnectivity of the online world, Fournier's friends in Bloomington relied on him to import the new punk trends from LA. "I distinctly remember the great feeling of anticipation whenever Eric returned from LA. What new gem would he have dug up?" recalls a friend on a memorial message board posted after his death. "And he rarely failed to deliver."
But despite his role as importer of hardcore culture, Fournier shied away from the spotlight. "I never had the impression he was at all comfortable being a singer in a band. It was not about ego or desire for attention," another friend recalls. "He'd sort of keep his back to the audience, pull faces or whatever—keep a bit of ironic distance from the whole 'singer in a band' thing." These posts were made five years ago on a message board started by Jim Faust, Fournier's partner in the 14 months before his death. Faust was seeking insight into Fournier's past.
"He was somebody who I could talk to on the phone and just cry laughing," friend and Shaye collaborator Carl Crew tells me. Crew is a filmmaker and artist, with a background in theater and mortuary embalming. He owns and operates the nightclub and art venue California Institute of Abnormalarts [CIA] in Northern Hollywood.
"I set up this club, the CIA, and we've been open for 20 years," Crew says. "In the early days [...] an old friend who worked at a post-production facility dropped by one time and showed me a trigger of Shaye and Eric. I got [Fournier's] number and called him up and we just hit it off."
Crew explains the Shaye Saint John origin story like this: After being struck by a train, former model Shaye spent many months in the hospital and lost both arms and both legs. She uses a wheelchair and doll-like mannequin limbs. During her time in the hospital, the CIA [the Central Intelligence Agency, not the California Institute of Abnormalarts] performed mind-control experiments on her, until she was the "most implanted person in the world." As a result, her behavior is a bit odd.
In conversation, Crew won't even entertain the idea that Fournier was the artist inside the Shaye costume. Crew is a showman, a performance artist who never ends the performance. For Crew, the Shaye Saint John art demands a new reality, and so of course that new reality becomes truth. He tells me he and Fournier worked with Shaye to create the short videos, called " triggers." "The first couple times he brought her over [to the California Institute of Abnormalarts]," Crew recalls, "we just set up these little scenarios, props or something for her to play with, and we'd come up with a line and she would just go off on these pre-programmed words and things and sounds that would alter her memory. It was almost like an artistic minefield. No one's gonna get killed, you know, but you never know what's going to explode." When making the videos, "[Fournier and Shaye] were very intuitive in how they worked with each other. It was like they were speaking an inner language together that I didn't quite get."
Fournier and Crew arranged a showing of the Shaye Saint John short Turkey Day [above], which, according to Shaye's website, premiered at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles on Feb 1, 2002. "A lot of people were down there, a lot of lights and stuff, regular people just don't know what to think," Crew recalls. Lenora Claire was also in attendance: "It freaked everybody out, and it got banned from the Nuart. I was like, 'What is this weird puppet robot woman lady?'"
And that's the thing—she's clearly not a puppet, clearly not a robot. She's some sort of woman, who can form sentences and move about. There's a person manipulating the costume, but the videos never reveal the creator within. "Shaye's like a hot dog," Claire says. "It's awesome, but don't ask what's inside."
In the early 2000s, when the Shaye Saint John videos were being produced at the California Institute of Abnormalarts, no one knew for sure who was in the Shaye costume. Many people assumed it was Crew, due to his inherent showmanship and connection to the California Institute of Abnormalarts. Thinking Crew was the person in the Costume, Claire asked Crew if he could get Shaye Saint John to attend her birthday party at the CIA.
Shaye and Claire hit it off after the party, and Claire began interacting with Shaye through her LiveJournal. "Every day I would come home from my shitty job, get on instant messenger, and talk to Shaye for hours. Hours! [...] Shaye would give me advice about everything, encourage my art, say 'Well, people don't get you, fuck them.' All those lovely things. Everyone wants a friend to do that."
Claire built a friendship with Shaye without ever knowing who was behind the character. "This is like, 2002, maybe 2003, and I'm standing there with Eric and Pam [Holland, another artist who frequented the club], and Eric's just like smiling at me. And I can't figure out why. He's kinda being weird. Then he goes, 'You know I'm Shaye.'" Claire didn't reveal Fournier's role in the Shaye project out of an artist's respect, and their strange, shared friendship. "We had this real confidence in each other about all the confessions online."
To Claire, Shaye Saint John is the skin she saw draped over a wheelchair when not in use, the deflated shell of the character without the artist. Fournier is the real Shaye—anonymously kind, quietly artistic, the tragedy of his death amplified by the depth of his talent.
Fournier's work has inspired a few disciples, such as filmmaker Larry Wessel, currently working on the documentary ERIC AND SHAYE. His goal in creating the documentary is bringing Fournier's Shaye Saint John work to a wider audience, with the goal of helping Fournier get recognition as a groundbreaking filmmaker. Wessel describes Fournier's work as "maximalist" art, or, "the diametric opposite of the extreme simplicity and ultra boredom inducing pretentiousness and elitism of minimalism." To Wessel, Fournier's films represent a complete freedom from convention.
As a figure of this maximalist movement, Shaye exists outside of Fournier himself, and her role in the mythos is tantamount to the art itself.
"When Eric died people made these videos saying ' Shaye Saint John is dead,' which is exactly what was supposed to happen. The conviction of them thinking that Eric was Shaye—it is really amusing for me. It really worked really well," Crew says. "That allowed her to escape."
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According to Crew, after Fournier's death, a few good people from the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency again) took Shaye into witness protection to keep her from being subjected to more mind control experiments. She's in hiding, but has contacted Crew once, just to let him know she's alive. That fact is solace enough, but Crew hopes that Shaye will reach out to start creating videos again. "It will be a dreadful thing without Eric, but life goes on, and we just do everything in his honor. And Shaye really loved him too."
Crew and Fournier worked together for ten years. Crew witnessed Fournier's descent into alcoholism, but it was fast-moving, and unstoppable. "You'll get that sometimes with really brilliantly talented people—really intense. I'll never ever ever forget working with him. He was such a dear friend. We had such an ease working together."
It is possible for Shaye to return though, even without Fournier to guide her. "Carl was so involved with the legend of Shaye," Claire tells me, "Is it the kind of thing where you pass the torch? I have weird feelings about that. Obviously, just from pure enjoyment I would love to see something from Shaye again.
"I don't know—it would be Shaye 2.0. Some alternate version of Shaye. Because Eric is gone."
But while Fournier is gone, his artist's hand was so carefully hidden underneath Shaye Saint John, and the character's personality so large, that Crew believes Shaye's identity can live on without him. "Shaye's still alive," Crew told me over the phone, in a hushed, excited whisper. "She's coming back."
Kate Davis Jones is on Twitter.