In Conversation With Derek Hess

Derek Hess at work.
Derek Hess at work. Angelo Merendino
Derek Hess’ bleak, gestural work has graced the covers of magazines, comic books, concert posters, and records, including those by Sepultura and Motion City Soundtrack.

Over the last several years, the artist has turned his creative eye toward educating others about the stereotypes around addiction and mental illness, including co-organizing the Acting Out! Fest in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.

During Mental Health Awareness Month last May, he uploaded a piece of his art on social media every day with a description of how it related to his own psychological well-being. The undertaking evolved into an exploration of his internal struggles and how he has confronted them. He documented the project in his book 31 Days In May, with vignettes about his double diagnosis and stories from fans on how his visuals helped them confront their own struggles.

"They were happy that someone was talking about [mental health] so openly, which surprised me because I always talk about it openly," Hess says. "I did not realize how many people held back talking about mental health because of the stigma and being perceived as crazy. It was enlightening, so we put out the book and added more images."

Those familiar with Hess' work know that some might consider its darkness disturbing. He is quick to point out that the book is not a self-help guide, but a way for others to relate to his journey.

Hess is about to embark on a book tour in support of 31 Days In May, including a stop at FilmBar. It will include a screening of the documentary about him titled Forced Perspective. He spoke on the phone with Phoenix New Times about finding his path to recovery, overcoming social stigmas associated with treatment, and his first concert. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

New Times: I read that you and your father shared a love of art. Did you also like the same music?
Derek Hess: We did not share the same loves. He liked the classical stuff. I liked it too, but I was raised on rock. He understood why I wanted to go to concerts. When I was little he drove me to some, which was pretty stand-up of him.

Do you remember the first concert he drove you to?
My first concert was Queen. It was the News of the World tour in 1977. They had a place in the arena for parents who drove their kids so they could drink and watch the show. It was kind of funny that they let them drink when they knew they were driving.

In the foreword to 31 Days In May, Dr. Joseph Calabrese, director of the mood disorders program at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, stated that you share your "experience by role-modeling recovery." Did you have a role model when recovering or did you have blaze your own trail?
I kind of figured it out on my own. There were people like Dr. Calabrese that definitely knew what they were talking about. They pointed me in the right direction and helped educate me on what being bipolar is and how dual diagnosis works with the mentally ill. I was exposed to a lot of good people when going through it.

When did you know it was time to ask for help?
In the '90s, I was being treated for depression. What that does to someone who is bipolar is drive out the mania. That is how a lot of people who are bipolar get diagnosed because they are initially misdiagnosed.

I went to my doctor and told him about this crazy stuff that had been going on. I was telling him about stereotypical bipolar symptoms like spending beyond your means and dating several women at one time. That is not me. I'm lucky to be dating one woman. I was aggressive.

When I rattled all that off to him, he said, "My god Derek, I think you're bipolar." It all made sense when he told me what it was all about. He started treating me for it and it helped get me on an even keel.

Had you previously heard of bipolar?
I had only heard of manic depression. I did not know what it was. It sounded really bad. [laughs] Initially, I did not talk about it. It seemed socially acceptable to say you were being treated for depression, but bipolar was another thing. You did not want to talk about that. After a few years, I started to open up about it. It seems people are talking about it now. I think it is the right time and place to talk about being bipolar and mental health issues in general.

I know people in the creative field can be afraid to seek treatment because they are afraid it will rob them of their creativity. As an artist, did you feel that stigma? How did you overcome it?
I did not really have that problem as far as treatment stunting [my] creativity. I know some people do and I can see that. If I was not being treated, then I wouldn't be able to work at all. I would either be bouncing off the walls or way too depressed. The medication helped me to settle down and continue with my career.

This might be too personal a question. In the book, you also talk about finding your own personal belief system. Did treatment help you find yours?
That's okay. One of the things my therapist suggested to me in the '90s was to take up meditation. I was recommended to this guy who was a master of Sahaj Marg. It is a yoga-type meditation. They believe in reincarnation and a higher power.

I started sitting with them and it was really cool. This guy was the real deal. He was a house painter and lives in the suburbs. His kids think he's crazy. What he does every night when he comes home from work is sit with people like myself for a half-hour for free.

I spoke to him about [why he does it for free]. He says, "This is my last incarnation." He's done everything he has to do to move on to a higher plane. He's only sticking around this time to help elevate other people. I thought it was pretty right on. There were times when I was sitting with him that I truly felt an out-of-body type experience. I truly believe there is something out there.

Was meditation a struggle at first?
I fell asleep a few times. [laughs] It is a struggle. When I sit with the master, they are channeling their energy into you while you're trying to channel the energy from the source, so you are getting a double dose. It took a while, but eventually, you feel scared when you get close to that edge. Once you can let go, it just fills things up. It took a long time before I was able to do that. I've only been able to do that a few times.

What made you decide to share other peoples' stories at the end of the book?
Over the years, we have received emails from people with tattoos of my work sharing their stories. Some of those stories are just so powerful. They describe what one of my pieces is about to them, so much so that they actually put them on their bodies permanently. It just seemed like a really cool idea to add some of these tattoos and the stories of how they came about in this book.

Your art has appeared on albums, posters, and comic books. Where do you see yourself focusing your efforts next?
That's always the hardest question. I really don't know. I just have short-term goals right now with the tour and the Acting Out! Fest here in Cleveland. This will be our third year. If it does well, then we might start talking about putting it in another market.

Derek Hess is scheduled to appear Tuesday, May 1, at FilmBar, 815 North Second Street. Admission is $9.95. For more information, visit FilmBar's website.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil