Brian || Poway, Ca.
An artist talks about fatherhood, spiritual darkness, and how to snow a college graduation committee.
The linoleum reminds me of my grandma's kitchen--so old that it looks like an original take on itself. But its cleanliness, and the general spotless order of the house, frightens me a little. Partly, I suppose because it emphasizes how time has passed. I've known these people since their kids were little, but now their kids are grown. As a result, their kitchen is clean. And this is the first time I've been in their house.
There's a peripheral intimacy you get with folks you attend church with--you know all their problems, but not that much about them. It underscores my uncertainty about this interview with Brian--Mr. Hogan, as I can't help but think of him. My family and his family have spent a good six hours together every Sunday for nearly half my life, and still I don't know what he'll have to say.
I was sixteen, or maybe eighteen, and my parents were hosting small group at their house. We were circled up with more than a dozen other people, mostly couples, in my parents' living room. Brian was sitting with his wife. Everyone was praying, but I had my eyes open.
I'd been going to these Sunday after-church meetings as long as I could remember and still, when I looked at the earnest, squinted faces around me, I wondered what was supposed to happen.
Then we heard a noise. It was Brian, and he was delivering terse, guttural sounds that I only knew to associate with stroke. But his face was calm; it had the look of someone who was trying to remember something he'd heard long ago.
I looked around to see if anyone responded--with sobbing, shaking or the other things I'd heard that accompany glossolalia. But no one else had even opened their eyes.
A few moments later, Brian's wife Jody gave what she believed was the interpretation. Brian said nothing more about it. To my knowledge, it wasn't mentioned again.
This was the first time anything like this had happened in my parents' house, let alone in our church (to my knowledge), but everyone was acting like it was no big deal. I didn't ask about it, either; I wouldn't have known where to begin, and it was easier not to.
Years later, after I'd gone away to college in Maryland and lived in New York City and been back again in San Diego for a few years...after Brian's son had gone through rehab and got married, his daughter had gone to college, and he and his wife had left the church and come back again...Brian asked me about my writing.
I was surprised. That Mr. Hogan was talking to me, that his hair and glasses were so stylish, that he had any idea I was a writer and, most of all, I was surprised at the direction of his question. Most folks his age, if they ask me about work, want to know whether I'm making any money at it. Brian wanted to know what I was working on, and if I was happy with it.
I said I was afraid of doing it wrong. I said I thought about it all the time, but didn't want anyone to see what I worked on, because it wasn't good enough yet. I said that half the time, I don't do it at all, for lack of knowing where to begin.
He told me he has the same problem with art.
I had no idea he was an artist.
Brian has the craggy face of an old-school Western movie star. His eyes are the muddled green-grey color of tide pools when the sun comes out after a storm. He wears the eyeglasses of an urbane Italian banker, and styles his hair just beyond the edge of subtle. He always looks as though he's thinking about something that you might persuade him to say.
However, now that we've sat down specifically to talk about the art he makes, persuasion becomes more difficult.
"Give me an idea of your timeline, up to now," I suggest.
Accustomed to long silences in the presence of older men, I'm still unnerved by how many minutes pass, punctuated loudly by the second hand of the clock above us, without him answering. What's more unnerving is how perfectly content Mr. Hogan seems to let them pass
"You're from Colorado?" I ask, a little desperate.
He chuckles in warning.
"You're going to have to probe."
Ever since they moved from Durango to San Diego in 1983, Brian's wife Jody has been the breadwinner in the house. She got a job with a state office so he could pursue his golf career. They lived in Ocean Beach, which then had none of the Topanga Canyon cachet it enjoys now. Their neighbors were a motorcycle gang. Brian worked nights a liquor store, and spent the days at Torrey Pines.
"There was a bunch of amateurs trying to play. I didn't really know how to do it, other than I needed to work on my game, find teams to practice with. But it really came down to...I was very talented, but I had no drive or desire to make it a career. So, I didn't."
Having kids changed things. For one, with Jody advancing in her career, it definitely settled his role as stay-at-home dad. They left Ocean Beach and moved fifty miles inland, to the sleepy ranchy neighborhood of Poway.
It also got Jody interested in starting to attend church.
Brian's attitude toward religion had been "This is not for me" since his sophomore year of college. But he didn't mind the Methodist church that Jody started having them attend. It had the banal comfort of familiarity: "this ritual, sitting, kneeling, methodical thing--just like the Catholics."
What he did mind was how depressed Jody was getting, as a result.
"She felt compelled to read the Bible, but the more she read, the more she got depressed. Like clinically depressed. She was just looking at this ugly, black sin in your heart that you don't know what to do with. It's just terrible.
"I said, 'You've got to quit. It's not worth it.'"
The Hogans' living room is like a little jewel box, with pale walls and furniture that set off the bright colors of Brian's prints and paintings. The ones in this room are tiny--you have to stand with your nose practically touching to see their detail.
One is a collection of colors and tiny, barely discernible images cut from newsprint, around a hand-typed line reading The desert is my home.
"It's from a Jewish poet," he tells me.
Another piece is built around a phrase that he can't even remember where it came from.
"I saw it in one of our books that Jody had. I liked reading it. I didn't think I'd get around to do it.
"It's a healing. It is. I can't really remember. I just felt it was a comfort that I knew that on that day, Christ died for me, and my soul is healed."
He contemplates his own work with the manner of a man meeting his child for the first time, already full-grown.
"Those are things that just come. That's what happens. I'll be looking through something...So you just put them together, without a lot of thought about it."
While acknowledging his lack of career ambition, Brian says the stay-at-home dad thing still never sat well with him, or with Jody.
"I wouldn't recommend..."
"There is an emasculating..."
He pauses again.
"I think that my lack of ambition and lack of career probably, at some point in our marriage, caused conflict."
I imagine a shrug, even though he doesn't actually give one.
"It is is what it is."
Nevertheless, what is was reached a high enough frequency that Brian was interested when a friend invited him to visit a tiny church in a shopping center near their home. Feeling like he needed something, Brian made up his mind to go; Jody insisted that she and their two kids would come along.
"We walked in a little late, and it was packed. They were in full worship. There wasn't a seat around. We walked all the way down the aisle, and there was four seats right in front.
"I mean, it was tongues, and the Holy Spirit really crackled. It was really powerful. I can't describe it--there has not been another time when I've felt the Holy Spirit so strong."
Brian says that the histrionics didn't alarm him, even with his staid Catholic background.
"I felt that this was it. Because we had four seats--God's provision was right there."
When the singing was done, the pastor announced that he sensed the presence of people in the room who wanted to accept Christ. Brian stood up out of his chair.
There's no change of expression on his face, no rise or fall of his voice, as he tells me about this. I ask if he remembers what he felt.
"I felt drawn. Christ was really drawing me. Jody just looked at me--she was shocked."
Nevertheless, she stood up, too.
Sometime in his mid-30s, Brian decided to go back to school for landscape architecture. He began to take classes at community college; Plant IDs was one class, Beginning Drawing was another. He wasn't terribly excited, because he didn't know how to draw.
But something happened, he says. He liked drawing. The first piece he ever finished, a charcoal still life, was chosen for display in the student art show.
"I saw that landscape architecture wasn't really for me. And that's when I went full bore on art."
Brian enrolled in night classes. Over time, his mother-in-law started watching the kids, so he could attend during the day. He transferred to San Diego State to get his degree in painting and printmaking. This meant that he had to make up a lot of general education.
"I was completely freaked out. If I don't pass the English writing test, I"m not going to graduate."
While sitting outside the art building, Brian saw a poster advertising an internship in London.
"And I just got this wild brainstorm that, because I knew what the question was going to be--'What was your experience at San Diego State?' I got this brainstorm--I just completely b.s.'d my whole paper that I spent the year in London. I went on and on and on about that I went to London, and studied art, and went to all the museums. And it read great!"
I laugh, and he laughs, too, a little subdued, as if still surprised at himself for doing it and for not minding it.
"It's like I didn't even try. If I'd really tried to make something up, I couldn't have done it. I guess it was the good Lord watching over me. And I passed it."
This is the part of his college degree that gives him most pride. And it occurs to me to be very grateful that English majors don't have to pass a painting test.
After graduating, he didn't go near his artwork for seven years.
Brian tells each stage of his story heavily laced with deprecation: of his skill, his work ethic, his ungalvanized ambition.
One thing he never deprecates, though, is the work that he's finished.
His home is covered with such pieces. Beyond the front room, there's a small bedroom in the back set up as his studio. It has shelves, a standard issue conference table; it's dark, with rows of magazines and shoeboxes that, he shows me, are full of clipped magazine pages, wrinkled old maps, bits of textured paper, and paintings that he has torn up.
This room, he says, is part of his problem. He likes to "paint big," and the space doesn't allow for it. He thinks about taking up drawing again. But, he sighs,
"I don't know what to draw."
"I think if I was pressed, I could probably produce quite a bit of stuff. If somebody wanted my stuff, wanted to do a show."
"But unless I really pursue it...the economy is really...I mean, I'd have to get a website. I think that's the way to do it. Or you take a picture, the little slides, and then you mail them to an art dealer. And most of the time they'll look at them and you never see anything."
Recently, a couple at their church took Brian and Jody with them to their summer home in France. Brian loved being there--he especially loved the street art, both the graffiti and the affiches advertising community events in the sleepy towns of Aize and Andalouze.
"I collected a lot of newspapers. When you walk down the street, there's posters hanging, and I'd tear a scrap off. I thought I'd be really inspired when I came back, but I haven't done anything."
He gives me an apologetic smile.
"To say I'm an artist...sometimes it's hard to say. Because I don't sell it. I don't do it.
"But"--he says this as if conceding an inner argument--"I do artistic stuff. I make artwork. My son likes it and he's artistic, so I must be doing something...
"I think I have to push myself."
Still, I think, he didn't have to push himself to get to the church, where his life was changed. He didn't have to push himself to stand up and ask to be saved by Jesus. It just happened--he felt his need, he felt drawn.
Sometimes things just happen.
Is that the way it's supposed to be? It seems to me they work out so much better, that way.
Brian agrees--pieces he makes in a fit of inspiration are much likelier to end up "finished" than things he sits down and forces his way through.
Ten years or so ago, Brian and Jody sent their only son to a drug rehab program in the desert, after years of delinquency, police calls, and turbulence in their home.
"There was a lot of conflict in me, when he was away. I had a lot of angst to get out. Rather than just sitting at the table and start fiddling with 'this looks nice,' it was really stuff that was coming up internally, feelings that I was expressing."
This period, as he judges it, produced some of his best work...sometimes from feelings roiling around just a single word. That was what led to his largest piece to date, "Profanity."
I ask him if he ever feels afraid, making art like this.
"No. It's liberating. Because...I would not admit this, but I'm pretty controlling. I mean, I'm very reserved. I have to have my environment very controlled. So doing art tends to loosen me up, I think. It's not my intent to make it ugly, or dark. It's revealing something inside me that is a sin, and it's a way to express it out. I don't know if people would think I was even a Christian. But it doesn't bother me.
"I'm sure there's a lot of Christians doing art, but a lot of them are probably just doing landscape and watercolors. That is a form of expression, but I don't know if it's...I mean, I don't like that kind of art.
"In general, that doesn't to me express who you are, or what you want."
He says the piece isn't finished. In a way that's part of what gives it force. There's beauty in completeness; being unfinished is proper to something as intentionally ugly as this. It's dizzyingly detailed, like a gossip tabloid, as violent as pornography, as transgressive as watching someone throw up in the street.
It brings back the feeling I had after watching David Fincher movie Seven. Where it's dreadful and you wish you'd never seen it, but responding that way affirms something deep within you--both your humanity at being able to resonate with it, and at feeling outraged and sickened by it. Which, in the end, makes you glad to have seen it.
I tell him that I agree with what he says about Christians doing art. But I continue to worry, as I try to shrug off reservations, about what people will think. And whether they would be right, if they thought I wasn't a Christian.
"Well, you're old enough now. You can express yourself."
He asks me what I'm fearing judgment for. Mostly thematic stuff, I tell him. Questions. Real feelings, like he said, of darkness or anger. If it's in there, isn't it better that it comes out, rather than stay inside and poison me? But letting it out invites shock, displeasure, and fear. Especially in my parents. Maybe only in them.
"I see what you're saying. But it is a feeling. It's something that's honest. I think that's why I don't have any fear about it. It's just honest artwork."
I realize, at this point, that Brian hasn't paused or stammered once since he showed me "Profanity."
"I think there's a free will that we have--a freedom of expression."
For him, making art is "a healing," as he puts it--an effect he can feel in his soul, during the process. A finished piece brings a reaffirmed comfort that his soul is healed through the death of Jesus.
I ask if it's the same kind of thing he felt when he stood up in church, that time, many years ago.
"I never really thought about that. I think there's certain pieces that the Holy Spirit wasn't involved in. Some of it was. Maybe it all is."
He reflects for a moment.
"It's quite possible that every piece that I've done, the Spirit works through me to have creativity. Loosely, you know, where it's just freeflowing. I'll get stuck on a piece because I'm thinking too much about it."
One piece that he refers to as "Eat, Drink," he found himself actively working against the impulse to make it look good. To do the lettering, he took a flat brush and painted the letters with the edge, quickly and irregularly. The way he tells it, it sounds like he was instinctively trying to fend off the impulse to force out something "good," which takes over when he doesn't have a very clear idea of what he's trying to recreate.
"There are times when I'm just throwing stuff on, and thinking maybe something will come up, and I'll create something. A lot of times, it doesn't work like that. But it's fine, because I know that even if it didn't work, there might be a piece of it, a little scrap or corner, that I really like. And I'll tear it off, and I might put it in another piece. I did that in a number of pieces. I did a whole piece, I didn't like any of it, it didn't come out because it was too forced. But there would be a corner that I liked the way it looked. So I just tear it off and throw it on my pile, and say I can use this."
As a parent, he lives in a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, there's the impulse to let his emotions bleed onto his canvas. On the other hand, there's the reservation he feels about letting anyone see his artwork until he's sure that it's "good." In some ways, it's the same dichotomy that he feels as a parent, and lets him understand where I'm coming from when, even as a grown person with a track record, my parents react in alarm at some of the emotions I express in writing.
"Well, that's a parent, though."
He smiles knowingly.
"But it's honest stuff. That's where you're coming from. There's nothing wrong with that, I don't think."
I hope not, I tell him. Because those emotions are there, whether or not they should be. Expressing them in writing doesn't make them stick; in fact, it's the only way to relax their hold.
Brian opens his hands.
"You know, we're artistic people, so..."
"And I need to be more...I'm still very reserved, and I don't like that sometimes. I'd rather be more...I don't know...gregarious."
"It's weird. I'm going on 56 years old. But that doesn't mean...it's never too late. I know it's there; it's just a matter of sitting down."