Dark Illustrations Show an Artist's Battle with Mental Illness
Derek Hess made his name making poster art for Pearl Jam and Gwar. Now he's breaking down the stigma around bipolar disorder through his art.
L: Derek Hess, Emotional Disturbances. R: Photo by Angelo Merendino
Derek Hess's drawings ooze and pulse with feeling. Looking at a Hess drawing is like gazing through a peephole into his psyche: the ink seems to vibrate on the page, as unstable and ever-shifting as neurochemistry. In Forced Perspective , a 2014 documentary about his artwork and struggle with bipolar disorder, he said, "I don’t think you gotta suffer to be an artist, but you definitely have to feel.”
Hess made a name for himself during the 90s alt-rock boom. While booking shows at the Euclid Tavern in Chicago, Hess showed off his impressive artistic chops by designing eye-catching gig posters for bands like Jesus Lizard, Pearl Jam, Thursday, White Zombie, Gwar, and Deftones. Over time, he moved from making posters to designing album covers, creating his own clothing line, and entering the world of fine art. And since the release of Forced Perspective, he’s become an outspoken proponent of mental health awareness.
That urge to speak candidly about his own battle with manic depression led Hess to his latest project, a book called 31 Days In May . Each day last May, Hess posted a different drawing on his Facebook and Instagram pages related to mental health issues. Set to be released this summer, the crowdfunded book collects those drawings, along with additional pieces by Hess. And this May, Hess is embarking on his first-ever author tour, which will include screenings of Forced Perspective in select cities.
VICE caught up with Hess on the phone, and he's as relaxed and soft-spoken as he comes across on film. For a man whose art centers on aggression and inner turmoil, he seems as chill and reflective as a koi pond.
VICE: You’ve talked about how you like to collect Silver (1956–1970) and Bronze (1970–1985) Age comics and artists like Gene Colan and Gil Kane. Which comic title is your favorite?
Hess: Captain America, hands down. I collected all the Captain America [comics] up til #215; I was even getting the Tales Of Suspense that Captain America was in before he got his own series.
Does your interest in Captain America have anything to do with your passion for World War II tanks and technology?
You know, I never put ‘em together, but I think you’re onto something there. World War II was definitely [Captain America's] thing before he got frozen in ice. My dad was a veteran, and he kind of fanned that fire in me about World War II machinery. He’d always get me, like, a tank for Christmas and for my birthdays. So now I collect World War II tanks and comics.
I’m a collector geek. I’ve got to be careful—I started looking at salt and pepper shakers. Who would have thought they were cool? I talked to a guy who owns a toy store here and he was like, “Don’t! Don’t even start collecting these things.”
What were the shakers that tempted you?
It was a fire hydrant—that was the salt. And the pepper was a dog lifting his leg. I bought that and one other pair. I couldn’t take more on—I gotta make rent!
Watching Forced Perspective, it really resonated with me because I’m also bipolar type two. One of the things I struggle with is being reckless with my money when I’m manic and going on shopping binges. Do you think your interest in collecting comics and toys ties into your own manic tendencies?
That’s kinda how I got diagnosed with it. I was being treated for depression and I was talking to my psychiatrist. I was telling him all this stuff: "I spend so much money on eBay, and I can’t stop living beyond my means. What’s going on?" I told him that I was also dating all these girls, and he said "By god, Derek, I think you’re bipolar." And I thought: Good, I know what’s wrong with me now. So it ties back into the collecting thing; I was spending too much money on this shit.
Yeah, I know the feeling. Record stores have become my early warning detection system. If I step inside one and start feeling the urge to buy everything in sight, it makes me realize, "Shit, I’m having a manic episode."
It’s good that you can recognize it. Sometimes you don’t and everything seems wonderful until it isn’t.
What kind of reaction did you get from people after Forced Perspective came out? Did it get you more interest from the art world?
It did, but the biggest reaction was from the bipolar. I talked about it in the movie—it’s no big deal to me. I’ll talk about it if someone wants to know about it. It just came up while we were making the movie. It wasn’t like, "Ok, now we’re going to talk about bipolar." People who saw the movie were coming up to me and emailing me saying thank you so much for talking about this. I had no idea there was such a huge stigma to it—that people don’t want to talk about it. And that’s why we did 31 Days In May.
When you’re drawing, do you sometimes realize you’re having an episode based on what you’re drawing?
Definitely. Especially when I’m producing a lot. It’s being typically manic: producing a lot, staying up, not sleeping. I’d recognize it in my art: Goddamn, I got a lot of stuff done! There’s something wrong here.
When I’m doing the art, I’m not like, I’m going to draw manic, or I’m going to draw depression. I just draw what I’m feeling at the time, and that’s the way it comes out. So if I’m dealing with bipolar issues, that’s what the image will reflect.
For someone who’s so prolific, how do you stay motivated and on task when you’re feeling depressed? And how do you get past those self-defeating feelings that depression brings, that urge to give up or get stuck on something?
That’s a question I can never answer. I guess when I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, what I tend to do is get away from the art. Watching TV helps me. I know some people are anti-TV, which is ridiculous; TV is my friend. I also go fishing. I detach myself from the drawing, and that opens me up so I can solve whatever the drawing problem was.
Speaking of drawing: one of my favorite pieces of yours that Forced Perspective highlighted was that Shudder To Think poster you did. The one with Barney killing himself Kurt Cobain-style. I laughed my ass off when I saw that one.
I usually don’t do anything that shocking. I like to imply to draw the viewer in. But that one I said, "I’ll make it right on the money." And people were bumming out about it, man. It was so funny. They were calling up the club and yelling at the owners. Mothers were upset that their kids were seeing Barney with his head blown off.
At the end of 31 Days In May, there are some photos of people who’ve gotten your work tattooed on their bodies. How surreal is it to see your artwork on someone’s skin?
It’s humbling and there’s also a bit of pressure. Number one: I’m flattered. And number two: I better do good work, because it would really suck if they put a shitty drawing on their bodies.
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