Art in Balance
Wes Browning's Images for the God
by Timothy Harris
Originally published in Real Change
Wes Browning came to Street Life Gallery several years ago during a period when mental illness had forced him from a job as a university professor to sleeping in cars and on public couches.
The 46-year-old artist is now a valued member of both the Street Life Gallery and our own Editorial Committee. He is the featured artist at the Street Life this month, and his colorful acrylic wonders may be viewed at 2301 2nd Ave. Call the Gallery at (206) 328-5637 for hours or information on how to donate supplies or volunteer.
I'd intended to write a story on Wes for this issue, but as he shared his history with me over lunch last month, it became clear that all I really needed to do was run the tape and get out of the way. The following is a slightly edited transcript of the story he told.
It's hard to believe now that it happened. I was only two years old. I remember it so well now. The memory hasn't changed much in my head. It's very stable.
I remember the guy sitting there, while his brother beat on sticks and chanted. Well, they both chanted. But his brother was doing the drumming. And he would literally go into a trance while he carved his little wooden figures. And they were sort of like what I do now.
The basic shape is that of an animal, but there would be all of this geometric ornamentation around the outside. Once he'd get the basic shape, he'd add all this ornamentation, and that's when he'd start getting into this trance.
Sometimes he'd talk about what he was doing and how it was important to let the god take over, because the art's not really for you. It's for the god. The idea is to transcend yourself and create something that's not really a human vision at all. It's another way of seeing what you're seeing that sets up communication between you and the spirit world, or the god.
As I come to remember that whole way of looking at art, it's as if I remember, "Oh, yeah, that's what I've been trying to do.' It sank in at some level, but I didn't remember where I got the idea.
Sometimes when I'm working, I don't have any idea of what I'm doing. I know how to work the brush, but the actual lines that come up I hardly think about. They just happen. It's sort of like the vision is coming from another channel. That's the way like it. That's why I gravitate to that style.
It goes back to the Hawaiian experience, which becomes more and more the motivation. I didn't remember that experience very well until recently, in 1991, when I broke through in my therapy remembering all the things that happened to me.
Lani and Lono
The brothers were Lani and Lono, which were the names of the sky god and the harvest god. I can remember them explaining what their names meant.
They were non-identical twins, and were from Ni`ihau, which was like a private reservation to preserve native culture. It's the westernmost inhabited island of Hawaii. People could only live there by invitation of the natives already there, and it was called the Forbidden Island. You couldn't go there.
They had jobs as civilian maintenance workers at Schoffield Barracks. It's a normal arrangement at army bases outside of the U.S. to have civilian workers trimming the hedges and doing the lawns and stuff. These guys had a route they would work that included a recreation center about five blocks from where I lived.
Meanwhile, whenever my father was away, my mother would neglect me and was a real pain to be around. She wouldn't feed me and would get mad about anything and start hitting on me, so I left.
I'd wander off, beginning the year I turned two. Some older friends I'd played with started going to school, so I went looking for the school. I didn't know what a school was, but I knew they were there. Then I found out that I could beg for food off the neighborhood housewives. So that reinforced the practice and I started doing it everyday.
I had a little route I worked out, and it got wider and wider. I kept branching out, and finally, at two years and two months, I was doing about twenty blocks a day on this route. And everybody thought my mother was the most horrible person on the planet for letting me do it. But army bases being what they are, everybody kept their mouth shut.
One day, I came across these guys. The first thing he said to me was in Hawaiian, and then he translated right away. "Who's little offspring are you?" I didn't understand. I had trouble with English from a head injury from when my parents ran over me. But it sounded really good, and he had a neat smile on his face, so I followed them around.
I heard them talking among themselves and it was really pretty, and so I first got hooked up with them by following them around just to listen to that. And then after about a month I started talking to them in Hawaiian, and they were naturally very surprised.
I didn't speak English until about six months after that. I had trouble with consonants, and they were easier in Hawaiian. I got Hawaiian first, and then English as a second language.
At first I followed them around at work, until they put stop to that because I was getting in their way too much. So I started seeing them every time they had their lunch break, a nice, long, hour one.
I learned to tell time well enough to get there when their hour started. And after that I'd go away and watch them from a distance. They used to sing while they worked and that was pretty cool. I'd watch them sing and learn the songs.
Just before my third birthday I started to speak English. I'd learned to translate back and forth and that was my big breakthrough. I would talk to them in Hawaiian, but after a while they made me speak to them in English, because they were afraid that I was neglecting the English.
They thought they would get in trouble too, for letting me learn Hawaiian from them. The situation in those days was that there was a lot of bigotry; more so than there is now. Native Hawaiians were really distrusted. If anything had gone wrong, their explanation of what happened would of not been believed. They would have been in serious trouble and lost their jobs, at least. Maybe ended up in jail or something. So I'm sure they were really concerned to not do anything to get in trouble.
They were also afraid of teaching me too much about their beliefs. One of them was a non-christian, a traditional Hawaiian, and was really afraid of telling me anything about it because if it got to my parents there'd be an investigation and the military police would come down on them. Eventually, Lani did it anyway, but without letting his brother know.
They carved at work on their lunch break. Since I only saw them there it was isolated from everything else. They were 18 when I discovered them, and 19 when I left Schoffield. My mother actually met Lani the day we left. He didn't speak English, though Lono did. So I translated back and forth. It was a fairly long exchange. I can still remember the content of that conversation.
Lani told my mother that at 3 1/2 I was speaking Hawaiian very well, and was ready for school, except for one thing: I wasn't very good with numbers. I didn't know at the time that he was talking about grammatical numbers. Hawaiian, for example, has a lot of different ways to say `they,' and I wasn't getting it. So I thought I had to learn numbers in order to make them proud if I should ever come back and see them again.
Betty White to the Rescue
Back in the states I lived most of the time in Massachusetts at Fort Devens, though there was a little time as well in Taiwan and in Seattle. I really got into math, but still was doing art, though my mother tried to beat that out of me. She'd say she "wasn't going to have a basket weaver" and have me doing something where I couldn't support her in her old age.
When I was seven years old she caught me drawing some Hawaiian designs and chanting. I still remembered the chants then. I would never speak Hawaiian around her because we had this rule that I wasn't supposed to speak Hawaiian at home. I didn't want to get beat up.
She made me draw while she burned the back of my hand with a cigarette. Until then I was ambidextrous, but after that I couldn't draw or write with my left hand. Then my penmanship got really bad. Until then It was great, and she asked why, and I said, `Well, you fixed it so I can't write with my left hand anymore,' and she said. "You were left handed?!" She was left handed, and my father was left handed, so you would have thought she would have figured that out.
Soon after that, the Betty White incident happened. We went to Taiwan right after the chanting incident. They had a USO show around Christmas time, and the place was this mountain-top U.S. Chinese electronic surveillance installation, to spy on the `Reds.'. So my mother and I were blindfolded as we were driven up there in a staff car.
Betty White was the main act. She was an actor and stand-up comedienne at the time. Because my father was in charge of the base, she sat next to him, and I sat across from her at the banquet table and got to make friends during the dinner.
After the dinner I yanked on her dress and asked to talk to her in private. We went outside of the tent and I begged her to kidnap me, and she said, `No, that wouldn't be good.' She said they'd just come and take me away from her and have her arrested.
I hadn't thought of that before, and could see the point, so I started crying. I felt like this was my last hope. I'd already tried to get a whole bunch of my relatives to kidnap me, and gas station attendants and things like that. And finally I met somebody who was really nice, and really pretty, whose heart was in the right place, and she wouldn't do it, and even had a good reason not to that I could generalize to other people, so I started crying.
She asked me why I wanted to do this, and I told her some of the stories, and she started giving me advice. She asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said I hadn't decided, but either wanted to be an artist or do something with numbers. She said, `Stick with the numbers. They'll probably like that better and they'll leave you alone. And when you grow up, you can do whatever you want.'
Then she taught me this joke. One of those things where you ask a question, like `I'm twice as old as my brother, and my brother is seven,' and so on. And she said, `Just remember the answer is 39.' We went back out there and she got a crowd together with my parents among them and said `This kid's really bright. Listen to this.' and she does the riddle, all about what's her age, and I say '39,' and it's a joke since she's not really that old, and my parents are impressed.
We snowed them. And all the way home they're, `Wow, we didn't know you were so good at math. You're like a genius.' It worked. The verbal abuse kept up, and my mother still beat me up once in a while, but this thing she had about hitting me in the head a lot stopped. She didn't want to damage the goods. It was her meal ticket for her old age.
I decided to become a mathematician when I was 14. I'd spend three or four hours a day studying my own stuff after my other homework. I was kind of obsessed with it. It has that trance thing going for it. You can lose yourself in that too. In a bad family it was kind of like a drug for me.
I got a doctorate at Cornell, and taught evening classes at the U here while I was on leave writing my thesis. I was invited to Swiss Polytechnic for a year. I came back and was supposed to do two years at Rutgers, but the mental illness was starting by then.
I started having problems with post traumatic stress. My father died just before the thesis was approved and that triggered massive panic attacks. I started having anxiety attacks every time I tried to do math, so I wasn't really good for research anymore.
After one year I quit Rutgers. I came back to Seattle and taught at community colleges, and did some more evening division. I liked the older people, but not the regular college-aged students. The anxiety got worse and worse. I taught at St. Martins a year, and during that year started having visions. Those were the worst one. Apocalyptic visions, like from Revelations.
I was getting sick from the stress of teaching. They weren't very happy with my performance because I wasn't really into it, and when they told me I wasn't going to be coming back the next year. I immediately began to look for something else.
A cab driver had been shot and killed at Seward Park, so there was an opening, and I figured no one else would probably want that job and went and applied. There were about 10 others, but they hired us all. I lost money driving cab, but had money and could afford it. The marriage fell apart soon after that, and I became homeless. It was a very cold winter.
Just before that, I went to a career councilor who was from the Caribbean, and she kept saying, you know, there's something strange about the way you express yourself and I'd like to hypnotize you, and she did and she got this Hawaiian character out of me. So she found out about all this stuff before I did.
It happens it situations like that pretty regularly. I had a split personality. And the Hawaiian speaking and English personality weren't really the same. It was the Hawaiian personality that mostly took the beatings. The Hawaiian personality was dominant at that point. So there was some work to be done.
She sent me to a therapist, who I've been seeing since then, November of '83. In '87 after a scary accident, I quit driving, and went on mental disability, which is something she'd been trying to get me to do. So I could afford therapy, and that led to the breakthrough I '91, where I remembered everything.
After that the two personalities started to join. So far as I can tell, they're integrated now. But there were three days when the other personality took over.
I went to the half-price bookstore in the U-District, and was looking through the foreign books, and there was this pocket traveler Hawaiian dictionary. And there was this word, `hele,' which is to go. I used to use it all the time. I saw that and remembered saying it to my mother.
And I found more words, and remembered. That's when memories started breaking through and within three or four days this personality switch happened.
This other personality took over, and for three days ran around and fixed me up with things. Like a phone; I hadn't been able to get a phone up until then, but this other guy could get a phone. This other guy hooked me up with a psychiatrist to discuss the new developments. It was a scary time.
There was this fear of being overwhelmed by the unknown. I was working late at night as a janitor and was terrified. After that I started seeing the therapist again pretty frequently and worked a plan out. Doing art has really helped.
Art and Integration
I started doing art in about '84, or thinking seriously about it. I was having what I now know were flashback related visions and had a lot of visual imagery impinging on me and I wanted to express some of that to the world. This was the main motivation, relating what I was going through.
I'd been doing drawing and things all the time since I was a kid, but that's when I got serious with it. Just before I ended up being homeless and the marriage broke up.
After doing abstract art all those years and feeling like a talentless fool I deliberately taught myself to draw from life. Since I was living in a cab, and my own car which wasn't working, the '69 Rambler, I'd draw windshield wipers, and microphones and cords and clipboards for practice.
I went through this period where I was doing pen and ink drawings all the time in black and white. It was all consciously with the idea of getting out of it eventually. I just wanted to convince myself I could do it. I tried watercolors and didn't really like it, and started with acrylics in '89 and I liked them a lot.
I did a series of realistic paintings with the idea I'd move into more abstract work. The style I have now is what I've really always wanted to do. It balances realism and abstract to the point where I want it to be. For me it's just right.
I had this weird thing about the U-district and Bellevue then, not being able to stand being away from them, and after the breakthrough that subsided. There are places there that resembled the neighborhood in Schoffield barracks, and were reverberating. That area of the base looked like a suburban village.
As I began to realize that it lost its hold on me and I could begin to leave it. Michael Howell offered to ride the bus to the Gallery with me, and talked me through a trip downtown. I started coming to the homeless art gallery on a regular basis.
It gave me a place where, first of all, that merging of the personalities could happen. You can't just do that without interacting with people. You have to let them come out and express themselves.
Also, the art does that too. The struggle to get the realism and abstract balance is also a struggle between my two personalities' way of expressing themselves together. The Gallery is a sort of a practice area, more than anything else.
It's also a sort of a place where I can do for other people what those Hawaiian guys did for me. They gave me a place to retire everyday where I could be a human being and not be afraid. I can see how important that is to somebody. So it gives me a good feeling about my life now and what I'm doing.
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