I will now leave you breathless with the amazing tale of how this sturdy lad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), became very depressed, and ended up as an artist for Harley-Davidson.
Picture if you will: me. It’s 1993, I’ve recently been diagnosed with MS, my career as an actor has come to a crashing halt, and I am feeling more than a little sorry for myself. One of the things about MS is that as the scar tissue builds up in your brain, the damage can cause cognitive changes including real, physical depression. Plus it’s also depressing having MS.
I’m so low that I can’t eat. Not that I won’t, I can’t. Anyone who’s been there knows what it’s like. I’ve even known people who were so depressed they literally could not swallow their own spit.
So, I end up in the partial day treatment program at Abbott-Northwestern, a place of hope that I’ve written about many times working with George, the therapy group leader par excellence (that’s French for “he’s not so bad”).
But I’m sinking further and further, and after 21 days of not eating I couldn’t even focus my eyes. It was decided that more drastic measures were needed and I was “escorted” up to the locked ward.
I was taken into the RT room (“RT,” for those not in the loop, means “Recreational Therapy,” or as we sometimes called it: “basket weaving class.”) And I was given the option of painting a birdhouse or sewing a wallet. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God! I’m 37 years old, and this is what my life has come to: I’m sewing a wallet in the locked ward of Abbott-Northwestern Hospital!”
I pleaded with them, “I don’t want to sew a wallet! Can I do something else?”
And they said, “Of course.”
I asked for a pencil and a piece of paper, and I drew what I loved: a picture of my beloved Harley Heritage Softail Classic. And it wasn’t bad. I’d drawn my whole life, since I was a kid Batman and Superman, and motorcycles and hot rods and airplanes. It felt good to draw what I loved.
When I got off the locked floor back to Main, there was a new member of The Group this tough old lady, who looked like she’d just come out of the woods with her chainsaw. Her voice was lower than mine, and she had tattoos all…I didn’t really want to know where they all were.
The first thing she said to me was, “I hear you ride Harley-Davidsons.”
And I confessed that, yes, I did ride Harleys.
She said, “Well, I used to ride Harley-Davidsons.”
Which is very cool, as there are lots of women riding bikes nowadays, but when this lady was riding, it must have been about the time the Mayflower came over.
So I asked her what bike she rode.
She told me, “A 1955 Harley Panhead.”
Which is one of the coolest Harleys ever made.
And I tried to be polite and asked if she still rode.
She said, “What are you CRAZY? I’m 70 years old! I grew up, got drunk, and fell over.”
So I asked her what she drove now.
She said, “Oh, I’m an old lady. I drive a Cadillac.”
That night, just for fun, I drew a picture of a ’55 Panhead parked next to a Cadillac and wrote some words on it like a Hallmark card, and the next day in Group I gave it to her.
What I wrote was: “She drives a Coup de Ville, but her heart rides still, on that Panhead ’55.”
And this tough old lady broke into tears. I don’t think they were tears of sadness, but happy tears remembering back when she was a girl, riding her Harley and telling the world to go to hell.
When I got out of the program, I still had the MS and was pretty much unemployable or so I felt and I told myself, well, you can sit on the couch and watch cartoons and drink wine or find something else to do. So I kept drawing. My bike, my friends’ bikes, cars, planes, animals. I learned the pen and ink technique of stippling where the entire picture is made from tiny dots, making the picture look like a photograph, but is a freehand drawing. It’s a style almost lost because young artists don’t have the time or patience to learn it. But because of my MS and depression, I had a lot of time on my hands.
I learned not only drawing styles, but patience, something I never had before. I mean instant gratification took too long for me. But now it was different.
And I saw an add in City Pages looking for “People Who Make Stuff.” It was a juried art show at Calhoun Square. I was feeling devilish and wrote them a grandiose letter: “I’m just what you’re looking for, and I have hundreds of pendrawings of planes and bikes and cars and tanks” never thinking I’d ever get accepted to this show. A month later I got a letter from Calhoun Square: “Congratulations, you have been accepted.”
I panicked. I only had about five drawings actually finished. The part in the letter I sent them telling them about the hundreds of drawings I had done was…what’s the word I’m looking for…a lie! I was now in the terrible position of actually having to come up with what I said I had. That’s so annoying!
So I gave myself a $300 budget, started drawing like a mad fiend, finished some art, got some prints made, bought some frames, and went to Calhoun Square.
Having strangers walk by and look at and talk about your art while you’re sitting there is like being conscious at your own autopsy. Men and women would come by and the men would stop and look at my motorcycles and the women would go look at the other artists’ work. (God bless ’em, but how many cows and loons can you really look at?) Then the women would come back to my booth and say, “Wow, he never looks at art. How much is that airplane picture?” And I’d ask how much cash they had in their wallets, and they’d say, “About $60,” and I’d say, “by some coincidence, that’s exactly how much it costs.”
I ended up selling my stuff. And I kept drawing and selling and putting pictures on T-shirts. Then one day I was selling my art at the big Fly In at Oshkosh and a guy was looking at my motorcycle art and told me how good it was. It turned out that he worked for a certain motorcycle company and asked me if I wanted to do some drawings for them. I said, “Let me think about it for about TWO SECONDS!!!!!” And the rest is history.
Now my eyes are going, but I could go into remission tomorrow or not. That’s the way life is. But my depression and my MS gave me a new career in the arts, and as that one goes, there’s all this new stuff just around the corner.
It’s so strange. It’s taken losing my eyesight to really see. It’s taken 30 years of depression to learn that my life is really very wonderful. It’s taken a lifetime of traveling just to come home.