Helter shelter

This story begins with a large manila envelope found in my mailbox. It shows a vertebrate stemming up from one corner with a cracked skull sitting atop the spine. The cranium's biting down on a flower losing its petals. With vertigo swirls and such phrases as "trust is careless" and "empathy of vagrants" carefully penned in some unusual calligraphy, it's like a really dark Grateful Dead poster. But blanket emotive expressions such as "god" "regret" "death" and "freedom" give it a juvenile, gothic quality. Still, it's obvious the labor put into the piece, and the sunken eye socket is irksome.

Half-expecting to find a CD from a local band, I discovered inside a hand written letter and a drawing.

The letter starts off casually: "Hey, how's it going? I would like to send you artwork for your magazine." Then shifts quickly to: "I am currently staying in a shelter ... Art is my life ... I don't have a phone, car or place to live ... This isn't my greatest work nor will it ever be. ... As you can tell, I'm starving ... Forgive my intrusion, but I have to make an attempt at this."

There's a cry for help and then there's this.

I didn't notice, at first, that the drawing was done in pencil and pastels. Or is it crayon? I missed the playful border, the unfinished hair, and that the subject's name and relationship to the artist was right there in front of me. All I could focus on, and all I can see now, are the colorless, forlorn eyes of a little girl. She's about 10 years old and looks as though she's having to be strong for someone else. It's as if whomever she's staring at, which is you if you're looking at her, is stumbling over words, trying to break through some cruel truth that no one her age should know. You just wish she'd smile.

The creator is Ryan Gibson, a 30-year-old vagabond artist you've never heard of. He's a guy trying to right wrongs and find some road home — but he has no idea where home is. The drawing he sent, turns out, is of his niece.

Today he's hunkered down at a rehab joint in downtown Detroit. He's clean, has been for a few years, but the center is the only place he could turn to. See, Gibson spent his youth partying, hitting raves, ingesting drugs and getting lost. Then he lost everything. And in the last few weeks he lost his job and his apartment. If I took him out for a cup of coffee, he'd lose his bed.

After spending two days cutting through the red tape of a safeguarded and anonymous rehab center, and leaving messages on answering machines of Gibson's family — to whom it wasn't clear he actually spoke — I finally reached the guy. He talked. And his story is as bare-boned as the envelope's skull.

Metro Times: You wrote in your letter that you're always drawing, were you working on something before we started talking?

Ryan Gibson: I was starting a portrait of myself at 11 years old. I was going to send it to my mom. The idea was that there'd be a portrait of me now in the background with the younger version up front. I don't know, who knows how it'll end up?

MT: Where was the last place you lived?

Gibson: I was living in Hamtramck for three or fourth months. I was changing tires but the guy I was working for was ripping me off. He'd pay me at the end of each day — wouldn't give me shit. I lost my place after that and checked in here. I've been here before though. I used to have a pretty bad problem with all sorts of illicit drugs — coke, heroin. That was after my dad passed away.

MT: Do you have a grip on it today?

Gibson: I'm cool now. Been cool going on four years.

MT: That's the vibe I got.

Gibson: It's really always been that way though. I moved out when I was 17 to live with my dad, and I don't think that anyone [in my family] forgave me for doing that. Then with the drug use — maybe they can't trust me anymore. How do you get that back? I'm pretty much shit out of luck.

MT: You take all that history, those emotions, and put them into these drawings.

Gibson: Well yeah, that's all I have. That's my one outlet, my one way to express my feelings. Some days are better than others. Drawing — it's not just a talent — sometimes it feels like that's my family. It's the only thing I can take with me wherever I am going.

MT: You wrote that you've never tried to expose your artwork — so who are these drawings for?

Gibson: Usually I give them away. If someone is curious about what I'm doing, they can have it when it's finished. I have one good friend, Heidi, who pretty much collects a lot of the stuff I make, and I'll send random drawings home to my mom.

MT: How do you procure your materials?

Gibson: I just come across them. If they're not given to me, somehow they magically just come into my possession, you know what I mean? I had to leave a lot of it in Hamtramck — I had some oil paints there and some other good stuff. Lost it. I pretty much had to jet outta there as quick as I could.

MT: Were you in trouble?

Gibson: I was living in this place rented out by this Arabic guy and he was, like, really uptight about rent, ya know?

MT: Sure, he wanted his rent.

Gibson: Right — on time, all the time. He was like, "Pay me on Monday or get out." Monday came and I didn't have it, so I got out. But I can't really take a lot of things to this place. I filled my backpack and pretty much left everything else, including a lot of my paintings.

MT: Does anyone there give you a hard time for drawing constantly?

Gibson: Actually, it can get overwhelming how much people ask me to do things for them. I usually draw at night so I don't get bothered, so I can just sink into my Zen mode.

MT: Sounds like intense art therapy.

Gibson: (laughs) For at least five hours a day. Without it I'd probably be dead.

MT: Some artists are tireless, shameless self-promoters. Why did you wait so long before showing your work to someone who wasn't friend or family?

Gibson: It's pretty much the reason for everything — I just have a hard time believing in myself ... so it's like, self-motivation and believing that I'm ever worth anything to anyone is just really hard. I'm tired of that.

MT: There's some harsh isolation in the eyes of the drawing of your niece you sent me.

Gibson: She's growing up, and since my family won't really communicate with me I just feel like she and I are not a part of each other's worlds. I care so much about her.

MT: Have you ever had opportunity to visit some local art galleries?

Gibson: I'd go to the DIA with some buddies or a girlfriend and check it out, but as far as trying to go to an art show, it's like, I'm just trying to survive. The way the world is right now, with the economy, it's hard to find security when you have no skills besides doing art. Every time I go to get a job and try to survive — it's like art is my calling, so I never succeed at anything else. It's a burden.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]