BY S. MAKAI ANDREWS
I went because of a punk band. I stayed because of a suicide.
I was driving in the car with my mother, on our way home from a less-than-successful family reunion. She was listening to NPR on the radio, excited out-of-her-mind because one of her favorite DJs was on. They played a song by X, the infamous punk rock group from a sun-kissed version of Los Angeles in the 1970s. The band was most widely known for members John Doe and Exene Cervenka, powerhouse vocalists and killer musicians.
After the song ended, the slow drawl of a DJ voice returned and announced that Exene Cervenka was having an art show the following week, showcasing her journals and collages from the past forty years.
Within seconds, my mom decided we would be going. She put our names on the reservation list, and that was that.
Cervenka’s show began at 11:00 a.m. on a smoggy, grey Saturday in June. I’ll admit I was interested in it as well. Cervenka is also a writer and was going to hold a casual reading with some of her poetry at the start of the gallery opening. Being an aspiring writer myself, this opportunity was one I couldn’t pass up.
The gallery was held at Bergamont Station, a trendy congregation of stainless steel buildings in Santa Monica. They looked like makeshift train cars, except much bigger and welded into the ground. I’d been to a few art shows there before; my elementary school held yearly fundraising events by selling small works of visual art in one of the galleries.
There was another show in Bergamont Station at 10:00 a.m. It was too early for me to find a rational reason to haul my teenage ass out of bed, so my mom and I decided to only reserve a spot for Cervenka’s show.
But we got to the gallery earlier than expected. My next-door neighbors were having a surfboard sale, as they did two or three times a year, and the noise woke me up. My neighbor is a huge surfer with a collection of boards stored in his backyard. I can see the tops of some of the taller ones lined up against the wall that separates our houses from my bedroom window as I’m writing this.
When we got to the gallery, we happened to pull up right in front of where the 10:00 a.m. gallery was currently taking place. It was a collection of works by Michael Deyermond, by the name of I thought California could save me. We figured we’d check it out for a bit before we made our way to Cervenka’s show.
When we walked inside the building, I was completely taken aback. You had to go through a couple of halls to get to where his gallery was taking place, and once you did, there were people spilling out from the doors. Deyermond was standing in the middle of his gallery, still delivering his art talk more than halfway into the opening. And he was crying. A lot.
But that wasn’t what immediately struck me. What struck me were his paintings. On the wall were different canvases covered with bright colors, palm trees, and words. Oh, and a penguin. There was always a penguin. It reminded me of pop art, of Warhol and of the 1970s mod fashion. The paintings had sayings, all seeming to fit into this California based theme. Thank you California, I let California down, removing her panties I realized California was not the sweet blonde I thought she was, and so on.
I’d seen something like this before, earlier in the year, when I was home on Spring Break from the boarding school I attend in Michigan. That day, I had made the ridiculous decision to walk across L.A.. Well, not the entirety of it, but the parts I considered accessible.
Anyone who has been to Los Angeles knows that this is already an irrational idea, both in terms of geography and personal safety. I was, after all, not as used to the hustle of city life after spending the past three months in a frozen little Michigan town, making me relatively vulnerable. I went from my home in Mar Vista, down to Abbot Kinney, to the Venice Canals, down the entire Venice Boardwalk, and up to Santa Monica where I met my mom at her office so I didn’t have to walk back home. This was, in total, about a five-hour walk.
But on that walk, on my way to the canals, I passed a tall white picket fence. It had some sort of wooden or plaster board nailed onto it, which was then painted turquoise. On top of that was a painting of a palm tree, a beach ball, and a penguin on what looked to be a beach. To the right of that, the words: I believe California can save me. I took a picture of it on my phone because I liked the mystery behind it.
Standing in the gallery on that Saturday, I was surrounded by other versions of that same painting. Of different penguins on different beaches talking about different aspects of California. But it wasn’t on the side of the road anymore. I never found out if what I saw on the street corner was in fact Deyermond’s work. I didn’t have a chance to ask him, because soon after I made the connection I began to listen to what he was saying.
I was towards the back of the crowd and could only catch snippets of his speech. But I could tell by the looks on the faces of the people around me that what he was saying wasn’t what you would typically hear in a gallery. Some looked close to tears themselves, others completely put off by whatever it was that he was saying. Some even walked out.
From what I could gather, Deyermond lost a close friend to suicide while he was in California, the person who meant the most to him at that time. He was saying how he had also been highly suicidal himself during this period, and he felt as if this person had abandoned him.
Then he started talking about the Beach Boys, and that’s when I was once again struck by how close I felt to this artwork. Growing up in Southern California, it was impossible for me to not know of the Beach Boys. A rock band formed out of Hawthorne, California in the early 1960s, I grew up listening to Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Caroline, No, among others.
But the part of the story that no one ever told me about was the death of Dennis Wilson, the drummer. Just after his 39th birthday, Wilson threw himself overboard at the Marina Del Rey boat docks, where he had previously owned a yacht, and drowned.
Deyermond told the story in a slightly different way than what I would later read online. He said Wilson dove off the docks of the marina into the freezing December ocean water. He was looking for things he’d thrown overboard from his yacht many years before. Deyermond talked about someone coming up to him on a lifeboat, at which point I started to think he was blending the story of Wilson’s death with his own struggle, or some romanticized version of this horrific event. He talked about begging Wilson to live, to just get out of the water so he could tell him how loved he was and that he deserved to live.
Wilson wasn’t saved by someone on a lifeboat. He was found by four divers after over an hour of searching for him.
By this point, his sobbing had turned into full-on fits of heaving. I’d never seen someone cry during an art talk. I’d never seen someone deliver an art talk for what I assumed had been at least 45 minutes. Deyermond was holding an ore for a rowboat. He was twisting it between his fingers, the veins in his arms popping through his skin. It looked almost as if he was kneading bread. There was a pink sailboat in the center of the gallery, to which I assumed the ore belonged.
He said he had gotten the boat from an older man who built it for his wife. He wanted to take it out and sail with her on the open water. It was the ultimate symbol of his love for her. But as the universe so often has it, she died before he finished building the boat. So he gave it to Deyermond.
Trying to catch his breath and wipe away the salt from his face, Deyermond went on to say that he slept in the boat for three weeks. After doing so, he decided he wasn’t going to kill himself. Then he painted the boat pink, and began to write words on the inside of it.
I left the gallery soon after this part, as it was 10:58 a.m. and Cervenka’s show was about to begin. But I searched for Deyermond online after we left the gallery, and once again was taken aback by what I saw.
The painting I saw months before was what caught my attention, but this time, Deyermond was holding it. For all I know, the one I first saw could have been copycat art, could have been a different artist who is also into this new wave “California penguin” art that I just haven’t heard of.
But that’s not what matters in this story.
Deyermond was born in the 1970s in upstate New York. I was born in the 1990s in southern California. He was raised on athletics; I was raised on art. On paper, we seem to be in completely different ballparks. But I grew closer to him as the mini-biography went on. His parents divorced when he was thirteen; mine when I was twelve. He went to a New England prep school and, and I an arts boarding school in northern Michigan after already going to two different high schools before.
But this is what I connected to the most: In a brief biography about him on Artweek LA, his work is described as that which “may not exist if people were not so fucked up: if [C]alifornia were not a place where people came to change their lives; and if a man’s spirit could be dominated.”
Deyermond’s art is about his pain in the same way that my writing is about mine. He has, as is clearly exposed in this gallery show, an obsession with the enigma that is California. This is something I’ve been struggling with for as long as I can remember. It’s a theme that I’m told I write too much about. It’s a goal that my poetry teacher has called obsessive.
As much as I would like to blame my past failures on California, on the intoxicating sun or the corrupt people, I know that wouldn’t be fair. My goal isn’t to portray California as a villain, because a state can do nothing except support a culture created within itself. California is a culture of overexposure that I grew up thinking was normal. When I left California for northern Michigan, I realized it wasn’t the people, the state, or even myself to blame. We were all raised in this environment. I truly believed in the glitz and the blinding desire that is perfection. I wanted celebrity and fortune as much as everyone else. We create these illusions of the Californian lifestyle that are so much greater than the reality.
My goal was always to capture the childhood that occurs in such a twisted place. In a way, his goal seems to be the opposite. His is the immigrant story, one in which he had to acculturate to California’s craziness. Mine is one where I need to learn to separate myself from it, to disassociate.
There are some things people don’t tell you about a childhood in Los Angeles. No one talks about the mornings you would spend in class, looking around the room at faces that you’d seen in magazines just days earlier. No one talks about the way girls are valued for their looks above their brains from birth. There’s a culture of obsession, of corruption and of exploitation.
I grew up in Los Angeles private schools. My parents were too afraid to send their shy blonde daughter to local public schools, so they scraped all the money out of their middle-class bone marrow to put me through a childhood of private institutions. Elementary school was incredible; it was the time when we were all still too young to realize that some parents made more in a week than others would make in their entire life. It was before money and influence became factors.
After that, the elements shifted. I remember sitting in my 9th grade Spanish class and circling the room: movie star, model, godson of Oscar Winner, daughter of Oscar Winner, musician with a record deal, so on and so on. This was the year when the depression, the anxiety, self-harm, and the eating disorder would all develop. These were days when I would skip salad dressing and eat a handful of lettuce with a brazil nut at lunch. Days when I fainted in class and the school principal forced me to eat a doughnut because she thought it was a blood sugar problem. She only caused me to have a panic attack about the calories and made the entire thing worse.
Nobody talks about the ugly parts of mental illness. So often, things like depression and self-harm are romanticized in the media as problems that weak people have and strong people overcome. They show the heroic boy kissing the scars of the frail, vulnerable girl and telling her she’s still beautiful to him. They represent eating disorders as the ultimate control, the new celebrity trend diet, guaranteed to make you lose 20 pounds and make that hot older guy fall for you. But none of it is like that. When I think of self-harm, I think of the first time I cut, when I just squeezed open scissors in between my hands until I stained my bed sheets with blood. I think of the day when I didn’t eat anything and went out to a party that night, obsessed with the way my silky shirt felt against my collarbone.
When I think of California, I think of my friends. I think of nights when we talk about how we all have had some sort of eating disorder. And when I look down at the food we’ve ordered for dinner, it shows. Pasta with Bolognese, barely touched an hour into the meal. A Panini sprawled across a plate with the veggies picked out. A spinach salad with the dressing on the side. Three cups of water. I think of my friend in the hospital after a suicide attempt. I think of a friend who used to wear mittens because she thought that even her fingers were too fat.
This isn’t the kind of picture Hollywood shows us. We don’t see anything real. It’s all sugarcoated, glossed over with years of practice from mega-corporations’ manipulation. We see Angelina Jolie in full makeup in a mental hospital. We see Portia de Rossi as nothing more than Ellen DeGeneres’ wife, not the woman who walked on the edge of death because of her vicious eating disorder.
Deyermond and I are both artists trying to understand a place. Trying to understand this place, California, in particular. A place where money can be made and lost in a matter of seconds. A place where people blow dry their hair, put on full faces of makeup and douse themselves in perfume before going on a morning hike. A place for the broken. A place for the breaking. Generations of artists have attempted to convey what it is that makes California. In The Grapes of Wrath, it’s the Great Depression. For The Beach Boys, it’s surfing, love, and mercy.
When I first left California after years of mental health problems, I didn’t expect much to change. But in a matter of months, I realized just how suffocating the environment could really be. That’s not to say that my problems suddenly vanished the second I crossed the state line, but the people didn’t hold me to the same unrealistic standards that they did back home. It was okay not to be a size 00. It was okay to have a little anxiety, a little depression.
I’m sure Deyermond and I both could find ways to blame all of our problems on California. On the intoxicating sun, on the culture and on the people. But California didn’t create our problems. Deyermond puts it better than anyone I’ve ever heard try to explain it before: California just “always eventually expos[es] everyone.” And these paintings, these fucking penguins and their pop art colors and boxy letters, they get that. They get the role that art can play in a culture that can make someone so selfish, so entirely self-concerned.
They deal with a culture built upon overexposure. On paparazzi, sex tapes, tabloid lies, Photoshop, and reality TV. Michael Deyermond’s message is simple, and mental illness is its backbone. He puts a pink rowboat in a pile of sand in the middle of an art gallery, and tells the world he’s ready to live.
This is him fighting with California. This is him falling in love with California.
S. Makai Andrews is a senior at Interlochen Arts Academy, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Her work also appears in The Noisy Island, Teenage Wasteland, and Lip Magazine, among others. In the future she hopes to further her studies in writing and psychology.