By BYRON ARMSTRONG November 24, 2023
A 12-year break between a first and second solo show isn’t part of many emerging artists' game plans. The trajectory suggests external factors that would sideline a promising career in the contemporary art world. For Bryan Espiritu, whose first show in 12 years “Passage” at Cultural Goods Gallery until December 21st, the explanation of this career pause was all internal. By his own admission, traumatic factors in his upbringing helped incubate self-destructive behaviors in him that needed to be addressed. The wait was more of a gestation period for catharsis, where Espiritu did the hard thing of forgoing a dream in order to attend to what his family at the time needed. That time seems to have served him well. No smoking. No alcohol. A renewed focus on his art practice outside the confines of commerce. For some, the passage of 12 years might as well be a lifetime. Espiritu’s show, which delves into the childhood memories that follow you into adulthood and shape you as a person, reveals the inner work that has to be done to create work for the outer world to appreciate.
So let’s not assume everybody already knows who Bryan Espiritu is. So give me a little background about how you got into the arts and creative industry to begin with. What drove that?
What’s driven that artistic impulse has been necessity. It’s forever been a way for me to expel negative energy through a practice that was non-violent or hurtful toward myself or others. I think that's why when people, depending on their life experiences, they either feel like it echoes some of the things that they've been through or like it's very heavy. Since I was very young, like, say, 10 or 11 years old, art’s been a means to do something productive with the negativity that was in my life at the time. When you're a child and you receive positive reinforcement for something you're doing, whether it's a positive act or a negative act, you tend to continue down that path.
As a high schooler drifting between being a shithead, an athlete, and being creative, I was probably better at being creative than the other two things. So I think getting positive reinforcement for having a level of creativity that looked and felt different than things that I saw in my day-to-day life, something that felt like I was transforming emotion into something visual — whether it was good or not — getting positive reinforcement for that creativity has motivated me to continue on that path. So although my introduction to the contemporary art world hasn't been an active choice, I would say that it still feels nice to have positive reinforcement 30 years later. But it's not like I've been actively trying to maneuver into it. It's just always been a necessity for me to create as a form of personal therapy, and I’ve come to realize over the last decade how important that’s been in helping other people who can't transform the negativity in their lives into something positive. That's why I think I continue to pursue creativity in general.
I read that you quit smoking and drinking and was wondering if that was somehow related to being a ‘shithead’. Can you define that?
As a child, I was reenacting some of the things that I saw and experienced. Physical and verbal violence. Psychological abuse. Even when I was younger and absorbing those patterns of behavior, I recognized pretty early on that it felt bad in my system, whereas being creative felt cathartic and positive. I like that you brought up smoking and drinking because it felt therapeutic in its own way. There was freedom from the negative feelings, but also, a festering, lingering energy that never went away. So I think that there was a shithead version of me that was violent towards others and myself, and the drinking and smoking was a failed attempt to mask that without truly dealing with it.
What did positive reinforcement look like for you?
In the past 10 or so years, Clay Rochemont has been a huge part of that. He's an advisor and a mentor who’s been open to my experimentation and has always steered me in the right direction. That kind of support was big. I had a graphic design professor when I was in college for graphic design who helped me understand I had an opportunity with my life. That positive reinforcement wasn't necessarily about what I was creating, so much as just knowing I could end up doing more than working at a Tim Hortons drive-thru.
As far as training goes, I’m self-taught. It's all explorative. Going back to the idea of being this vessel that gets charged by energies, if it grows with negativity, the pressure can build and it can explode, right? Sometimes, if the intake of negativity is too high, you need multiple outlets to relieve that. So for me, that meant trying sculpting. I tried painting, designing, and being a draftsman because the amount of negativity was so high. I think that that may not bode well when it comes to me speaking to traditionally trained artists, but I think it bodes well in the sense that I don't know the rules so I don’t feel confined by any. I just go with what feels right, which allows me to see something that may not feel like it’s working through, and maybe explore something on the other side of that that I’m happy with.
In the last 12 years plus, I'm assuming you kind of used that creativity to segue into all sorts of different creative directions. Branding, a clothing line, and whatnot. So now you’ve had your first, well not your first, but your second gallery show in 12 years. Why so long? What's been happening for 12 years, and why is now the time for this?
So 12 years ago, when we did the first exhibit, it was called “Because kids don't play”, and my work was still very much in a graphic design space. I still land in that space when it comes to the typography, the language corridor. Afterward, I fell into a scarcity mindset spurred on by what my childhood looked like. I had the feeling that the floor could be pulled out from under me at any time and didn't know the next steps to continue exploring my work. So I went into survival mode and laid off art. I painted a lot in between that, and I had intentions of doing exhibits, but I wasn't sure that it ever felt fully right so I just focused on work. Growing up without a real support system, the scarcity mindset kicks in quickly for someone like me.
So I think what happened in recent years is that I launched a streetwear brand called Legends League. I was doing a lot of graphic design work and apparel design but felt like I was playing to an audience. I wasn't necessarily doing things that were in line with who I was as a person. I was doing a little bit of singing for my supper and I didn't like it. In December of 2022, I decided to put it to rest. It was the most financially successful thing I'd ever done, but I put it to rest because it didn't align with my spirit anymore. So I think that’s the reason why now's the right time. I needed to allow myself the opportunity to let my creative outputs align with who I am as a man and what my spirit looks and feels like now. No distractions and no commitments to a company that I own, or for this collaboration with this company, or this brand. I'm not working in advertising. I don't have a boss anywhere. I'm not freelancing. After 12 years, I’ve put myself in a position to take this much time to work on an exhibit and not have to worry about having a job. So it's timing. It was all timing.
Let's go into both of those things, what the work is saying and who you are as a person. So you've been very open about some of that past trauma that you experienced. In an Instagram post, you go into one particular work, “I just need two cups of rice now”, fairly deeply. Why did you choose to focus on that story, with so much pain attached to it, in a way where the theme of abuse and the sort of trauma that comes out of that is less obvious? I think a lot of a lot of artists would lean into a navel gazing kind of trauma porn versus figuring out a different way to express that. Where is the catharsis in that for you?
My father and I had a very complicated relationship. He was quite violent towards me, and when I was about 11, the police and Child Protective Services got involved. Now, in and around that time, I was in the car with him. He said, ‘You know, what are you gonna do with your life?’ I'm 11 years old. I said I wanted to be a writer. Then he said, ‘You're never gonna make it as a writer and never make any money. That's not a job.’ I answered, ‘As long as I have enough to live in a hut and have one cup of rice, I'll be fine.’ Fast forward five years later, and my child is born. My dad showed up at the hospital, and I was not expecting it. He goes, ‘Hey, do you remember that conversation we had five years ago?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course I do.’ And he goes, ‘Well, how do you feel about it now?’ And my response to him was, ‘I just need two cups of rice now.’ So that conversation stuck with me as this thing where I've always wanted to lead with writing. Language has always helped me get through the pain. I had no intention of this painting being in the exhibit.
I’d completed the portrait of us together on what would have been his birthday, which also marked 3 years of sobriety that included quitting smoking. I wanted to reconcile the parts of my relationship with him that carried any animosity. It’s why I started working with charcoal powder - as a peace offering for how I handled his cremation. I was working on this show and thought about how my poetry and my original writing would be at the forefront of this new work, and that I was doing all the things that he and I sat down and talked about. I wanted to almost thank him for the motivation.
As a child, that made me want to prove him wrong. As an adult, for him to throw that in my face when my child was born, brought up the same feeling. I was looking through images of myself as a child and I found one with my dad in the background. He had his hand on my shoulder, which felt like a tender moment that I hadn't seen in any photos of him and I. I wanted to immortalize that and sit with that image. So I painted it on what would have been his birthday using charcoal powder. The initial exploration was literally with ash from incense that I burn when I meditate. With nothing to bind it, it's just just dirt. I wanted to use ash because I felt like my relationship with my father has always been one that has complications around the trauma the violence created. When he was cremated, my initiation of that cremation was like getting the last laugh — I get to hurt your physical body last. I stood in front of that thing so long that they had to tell me to leave.
Was that cathartic?
It was such an angry final goodbye, and I didn't want to remember him like that. I want to remember that there were tender moments when he would put his hand on my shoulder. I don't necessarily remember them but there are photos to prove that. The exhibit contains all these self-portraits that are based on film photography that he took with me. I'm smiling and happy. And so the charcoal powder gets used in those instances as well as a means to reconcile our relationship. Plenty of the works in the exhibit are done with charcoal powder from a childlike perspective. They're often messier on purpose. They’re childhood memories that haven't been calcified into adulthood or my adult memory. With two artworks “almost empty” and “almost full” there's an almost empty poem. Those works are done in charcoal powder as well because it's about body dysmorphia, and it's about my struggle with disordered eating throughout my life. That's something still rooted in my inner child's mind, and I haven't been able to sort that out yet as an adult. That's why it's done in charcoal powder. You'll notice the separation in the exhibit between the acrylic works and the charcoal works.
As I'm listening to you, I'm thinking about the idea of catharsis alongside your original idea to use incense ash in your work. It would be like taking the ephemera of what helps you to operate outside of your trauma and making it a literal material in art about exploring memories around that trauma.
Yeah, to be honest with you, the charcoal powder feels so much more about my dad, whereas if I can find the right way to use the incense ash, it's less isolated to our relationship. It would feel more connected to a future or present version of me. That's something I need to continue to explore.
Can you explain the idea behind the series of faded portraits like “Self Portrait - Vintage Blue Jays Cap (Study)” or “Self Portrait - With Mother (Study)” in white?
There was so much emphasis on the negative parts of my childhood since I don't remember the happy ones. It's quite a personal way to discuss a universal concept that we don't always remember things exactly as they happened. There's a necessity to be open to that. I think that healing happens through empathy and in listening to one another and that our experience isn't every experience. My goal was to question my memories. To say, ‘You talk about your childhood, like, it was so terrible, but there were so many times when you were laughing or smiling.’
In my youth, I found photos that my father had taken with film where I appeared happy and smiling. There's one, where I'm with my mother actually, where I recreate and almost redevelop the works but then purposely distort and blur them. There’s this sort of fever dream state that I get into when I try to think about a happy time in my childhood. It's difficult, but the proof is there, right? So the works are really about memory, questioning our memory, and questioning our experience. Having the empathy and openness to recognize what we might remember as the whole truth isn't always the truth as a whole. It requires some openness, and some letting go of the narratives that we keep for ourselves. I thought I was blurring them beyond recognition in the studio so they would feel like abstract works. Then when we got to the gallery and hung them, they became very clear. It was pretty eerie. There was something kind of haunting about that.
The typography reads like poetry to me. You just told me that you initially wanted to be a writer so I was curious if these were poems that you wrote even before the show, or for the show?
Most of them had already been lying around. The very first painting I did was entitled “Too Bright” and It's the one that says…
That the sun
Was too bright
To a man
who had lost his sight.
I wrote that in 2013 or 2014. I had maybe 30 or 40 poems that I'd put together. There are storybook works that are in the gallery and three larger works where it's just type but no images, without that storybook feel. The difference in those works is those bigger ones, like “Sentence”, and the other, “Heated Seats” are executed that way because I consider ‘passage’ as the space between an inner child and an adult rationale. It's me traveling through this space and seeing these things as solidified calcified ideas of an adult, based on experience. The storybook works are the inner child wanting an adult to rationalize some of their experiences. ‘Can you read me a story that explains this to me?’ But yeah, those works are quite intentional.
Is it strange to you that other people are watching this conversation you're having with yourself in an attempt to find catharsis? Do you have concerns that people could somehow be entertained by your attempts to explore these very personal matters in front of the world?
No, because I've been doing it for so long in different ways for so much of my career. What I recognize the most is that, along with the people who are receiving these works in a way that might feel entertaining or maybe who don't fully understand my experience, are the people whom these works resonate with as echoes of their lives. The value of that, to me, is so much higher than the fear of feeling examined and dissected by somebody who might not understand it. Someone came by the VIP preview and said, ‘Listen, I just wanted to say the overall feeling that I get from us all here, is we agree.’ That meant everything. Even if that was just two out of 100 people, that to me is worth it. Some people haven’t yet had this conversation with themselves and need to, who might then say, this seems like a dialogue that I need to have. That has real value. WM
Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics. Find him on Instagram @thebyproduct and on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/byron-armstrongview all articles from this author