The Complicated idea of gone. by Derrick Hickman


The first dead person I ever saw was a boy named Jeffrey.  I was six years old and Jeffrey and his little brother George lived in the neighborhood behind our home  The two of them would often hop our rusted chain link fence to play with my brother and me.  Jeffrey and George had a lot of freedom to roam and explore, something that my mother was afraid to give her children. 

It was not unusual to find Jeffrey at our door with George in tow.  They were always going somewhere and asking if we could come along.  And it wasn’t unusual for us to not be allowed.  It was shortly after one of these denials that I learned of Jeffrey’s death.  He and George were walking back from a carry out a few miles away along a busy road when a car struck Jeffrey.  He was eight years old.  George was only six, just like me.

My family attended the funeral.  And, as was common at the time, it was an open casket.  The first dead person I ever saw was a child just like me.  Someone who had just been on our porch.  Someone who would never be on our porch again.  Someone who was now gone.

When we got home my brothers got ready for bed. Instead of putting on pajamas, I got out paper and markers.  I did what I always did when I lacked the words to express what was going on in my mind.  I drew.  As I sat on the bed I illustrated what I thought Jeffrey’s death must have been like; what I assumed George saw before his brother was gone.  My drawing was suddenly ripped from my hands.  My brother saw my drawing and had become enraged by it.  He thought I was making light of what had happened.  Yelling ensued and soon my mother rushed in to put an end to the fighting.  I remember her taking my drawing as she left the room with my brother to calm him down.  Later that night, when she asked me about my picture.  I remember apologizing and explaining that I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I had made something that was hurtful.  That I had somehow made Jeffrey’s death worse for my brother. 

Our home was not a place where things were overly discussed, examined, and resolved.  You just tried to get through stuff and make the best of it.  My mother sat me on my bed and told me that there was nothing wrong with my drawing.  She explained I was lucky to have something that helps me, and that it was not my brothers place to say how I dealt with Jeffrey being gone.  And she never mentioned it again, nor did anyone else in my family. 

Years later as I was going through my mother’s possessions I discovered that crude drawing I made that night.  Looking at it, I could see how it’s simple childlike depiction of a terrible accident might have upset my brother.  I could also see how it helped me understand that terrible things can happen, and that Jeffrey was now gone.  But most of all, I can see that my mother understood it, too.

Jim Carrey and his need for color by Derrick Hickman

I have to admit that when I read The Guardian article about Jim Carrey’s documentary,  I need color, my knee jerk reaction was to feel a little pissed.  The idea of another celebrity garnishing global press because they suddenly decided to put brush to canvas kind of sticks in my crawl.   But then I paused, because I’m trying hard to be a better person.  I’m trying really, really hard.  And I asked myself, why would I bemoan someone who wishes to explore another art medium?

I admit that a big part of it is that I can be quite judgmental.  It’s an ugly trait that usually has its roots in my jealousy, insecurity, and frustration.  I mean, come on!  He’s already rich and famous.  And, now he has instant success in an arena that I have been banging my head against the wall for years.  And although, not the original impetus for my ire, there is the question of the quality of the work.  Does it warrant a solo show in a Blue-Chip gallery right from the get go? In my opinion, it’s not great art.  I don’t think it’s good art, either.  And part of me wonders if it might be a prank.  Part of a movie studio campaign for a new comedy.  But then again, who made me the big bad art sheriff?

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Memory and ownership in art by Derrick Hickman

A painting titled Expectations, was the first piece of what would become my childhood toy series. It was meant to be a painting for myself.  No intentions beyond that.  There were no thoughts of a body of work, public display, gallery representation, or even sales.  It was simply an attempt to visually sort out many of the confusions of childhood and how they linger into adulthood.  And it was probably the last painting that I have created where the content wasn't weighed and measured.

Art can be a very selfish act.   As an artist whose work revolves around themes of memory and identity, I struggle with ownership.  Not validity, but the artists' right to share.  Obviously, our memories are our own.  But reflections are in a constant state of flux.  Events and their meaning are constantly changing dependent upon current ideas and circumstances.  We tend to think of ourselves as complete people in the present, who are looking back at our incomplete versions.  And because of this, our understanding always seems certain, no matter how many times a recollection alters over our lifetime.  

One of the most frustrating aspects of the creative process is the loss of control once the work is presented.  The artist has no control over how the viewer perceives and interprets the work.  Memory is singular, but the experience often is not.   They touch the relationships around the artist.  Using a public medium as a vehicle to explore a memory from one perspective can be fraught with pitfalls.  Events may occur from multiple vantage points and can be interpreted by others in a myriad of ways. We can be defensive, protective and very private when aspects of our lives are examined.  For me, this always raises the question, what are the blind spots of the artist?  Is there something that isn't, or can't be seen?  is the statement honest?  Is there value that warrants the statement?   The fear that the artist narrative may be received as criticism or judgement.  

When work revolves around revisiting the past, there can be the added complication of referencing others who no longer have a voice.   Trying to balance the fairness of a visual conversation despite their absence can be dubious at times.  No matter how accurate the artist representation may attempt to be, it will always be a version from the artists' perspective.  But this is the point of the the art making process.  Not to define an experience but to start a conversation that helps to better understand it, whether personally or publicly.   To take responsible ownership of their statements rather than edit topics of debate.  After-all, it is the artist's story, too.