King Freak | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

King Freak

Photo by Aaron Phillips

On a Sunday evening in fall 2009, Patrick Grogan painted his face and arms black and walked into a service at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson wearing a black hoodie and blue jeans. Earlier that day, he had noticed that the congregation was mostly white, and wanted church members to think about why God's temple lacked people of various races and colors. As the pastor preached about the Bible's description of the "lawless one" who acts in accordance with the devil and performs counterfeit miracles, Grogan absorbed the uncomfortable silence while parishioners tried to pretend like he didn't exist.

What happened next is difficult to verify: Grogan says that when the preacher asked the congregation to close their eyes and bow their heads for a prayer, a couple of ushers escorted him outside, forced him on the ground, and kicked and punched him. And while church leaders acknowledge that Grogan did, indeed, attend the service with a dark paint coating his body that night, they claim he left "without incident."

Regardless, on his walk home, Grogan felt like a hero. He believed he'd had a taste of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Buddha felt in the face of persecution.

‘I Feel Grotesque'
It's not hard to see why this Jackson artist's presence often leaves people uncomfortable or intrigued. Often roaming the streets with paint on his face and body, wearing yellow sunglasses or a gray flannel hunter's hat, he walks up to strangers and tells them to pray, think about the planet's depleting natural resources, or suggests they smash their cell phone on the ground and breathe. People are often scared of him.

"They sell me their serenity for a 50-cent trick, and then I go: ‘How serene are you if I f*ck with you that bad?" he says. "I heard in church one time that the job of the Holy Spirit is to agitate the comfortable and comfort the agitated."

Grogan's duality is a constant force in his artwork and personality. People often gawk and stare at his mural at his former apartment at 1014 Fortification St. The mural focuses on the natural world with portraits of animals and Native Americans, and includes small, often-overlooked symbols. He painted the mural in 2001, and it took more than 1,000 hours to complete. It has since become a Jackson landmark, bearing a stark contrast to its historically preserved Belhaven neighborhood.

The artist spends a majority of his time befriending recovering addicts at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and giving homeless men and women portraits he has painted of them on brown paper bags. Forty-three-year-old Grogan likens himself to a bright candle that attracts moths.

"Some people have a bright aura around them. Sometimes it attracts people who need help; sometimes people want to take advantage in some kind of capacity. Sometimes it's people who are just misguided and are looking for the mother and father that they never had," he says.

It may be that Grogan identifies more with the agitated. He has battled bipolar disorder, homelessness and addiction, and two years ago, he lost his 16-year-old son to suicide. He doesn't mind being labeled a freak, however, and admits that at times he milks it for everything its worth.

"I feel grotesque because people treat me like I am a monster or a freak," he says. "People fear what they don't understand. No matter how genuine or saintly or benevolent or whatever ... I try to be, they are suspicious. ... I have to use their fear as an opportunity rather than a problem."

He could leave and move somewhere like New Orleans where eccentricity is a way of life, but Grogan prefers to live in the fray and rebel against the ordinary.

"It's so easy to be king freak in this town," he says. "It's safe to fit in, it's safe to assimilate and to conform and belong and get it line. ... If I move away to another place where there are more freaks, then I'll just be another freak, and I won't feel as special. Here I just feel like godd*mn Godzilla."

Seeing in the Shadows
On a Friday evening in December, Grogan answers the door to his Belhaven apartment wearing a red robe with white snowman over his clothes. Traces of orange paint and glitter cover his face from the night before when he performed with his band, God Cops, at Josh Hailey's "I Love Mississippi" art show at the Arts Center of Mississippi. He is high on caffeine and cigarettes, and he walks up a stairwell covered with neon green and red graffiti.

It's difficult to find an inch of space in Grogan's apartment that he hasn't painted. The coffee pot, fridge, bathroom sink, light switches and dining-room hutch are coated with layers of paint that produce a greenish tint. A mobile made of straw, an antique doll and metal tools hangs from the living-room ceiling fan. Canvas and art materials litter the floor, and a red-and-green patterned quilt he bought from a homeless man hangs on the wall. He says the handmade quilt is his most prized possession. That's saying a lot for a guy who loathes materialism.

Like a child who has consumed too much sugar, Grogan ecstatically bounces from one idea to the next and can't seem to stop himself from scribbling on books and paper.

After two years of crippling depression, Grogan, who uses cigarette butts as earplugs when he wants to block out surrounding noise, is in the midst of a creative awakening. The Arts Center of Mississppi and Northpark Mall commissioned him to create a 40-foot-by-16-foot mural to hang in the mall's food court. The mural is a tribute to Mississippi artists. It includes ballet dancers, Elvis, Eudora Welty, B.B. King and others on pieces of masonite-wood panels. This is the biggest project he has had in a while, and it has amped up his creative output.

Grogan rarely plans out his pieces. He sees shapes and figures in the most obscure forms and turns them into people, animals or objects. To demonstrate this, he holds a piece of paper under the shadow of a lamp and traces the patterns it makes. "This is the X-ray of a spinal column, here's a woodstain, and now this looks like a big-headed alien baby, with big hands and feet. It makes us wonder if none of us have a clue as to what the truth is," he says.

The muralist then picks up a self-portrait from the floor. The charcoal drawing depicts a man with bulging eyes and sinister grin who resembles Frankenstein. He takes a sponge, dips it in blue paint and begins to make prints over the face. Without reservation, he vandalizes his work.

"What does that look like to you?" he asks.

Grogan thinks humans have gotten too far from the natural world. We are consumed with technology; we prefer fleeting pleasures to perseverance; and we rarely stop to take in our surroundings because we are living predictable and rigid lives.

The introspective artist's long-winded stream of conscious-ness is punctuated with enlightening realizations but also reveals the inner demons he struggles with.

"The only way to have peace and freedom is through a passive Martin Luther King revolution," he says. "If we all go back to kindergarten, we can realize that we learned everything we needed to know then. You don't need to listen to the b*tch who said you have to paint trees green and skies blue. You say, f*ck you, it's purple and brown."

Grogan, who suffered various drug additions, got sober about 20 years ago when he hit bottom. He attended AA meetings for several years before he really started working the 12 steps. Grogan says he has had an addictive personality as far back as he can remember. At age 2, he would spin around in circles, intoxicated by the feeling it left him with. At 12, his older friends introduced him to marijuana and alcohol, and he loved the roller coaster-like sensations they provided. As a college student at the University of Southern Mississippi, his drug use escalated to include LSD and heroin.

Finally, Grogan reached a point where he had to be high all his waking hours just to function. He decided one night that he would kill himself by overdosing on heroin; he was miserable from the power and control it had over his life. But before he had the chance, his father forced him to go to an AA meeting where the speaker talked about procrastination. The speaker's message prompted Grogan to stand up and say: "I'm an alcoholic, and I've been procrastinating in taking the first step."

He attributes AA to helping him get in tune with his spirituality. Grogan doesn't subscribe to one religion. Instead, he says he seeks truth from all religions and believes in a divine power that guides him. "We make sh*tty gods. We get on a self-will run-riot trip: If it feels good, we get addicted to it," he says about what he learned from AA. "The spiritual experience gives you contact with this mystery, this secret garden, the still voice within—instead of the chatter in our heads.

"Your brain is a palace or a prison depending on what you do with it. ... We tend to forget everything we knew, because we've learned to put a giant soul in a tiny schedule."

Grogan says he always knew he was an artist and different. His mom, who worked as a social worker, was a light healer—advocating shamanistic practices and spiritual healing. When he read a biography of Vincent van Gogh in grade school, it was the first time he really identified with someone. He knew then, he says, that he was a "real deal" artist. But his constant drawing on walls, objects and surfaces became the source of punishment from teachers, against whom he was always rebelling.

He was working as a waiter at Amerigo in the early 1990s when he decided he no longer wanted any of his material possessions and wanted to live as an artist. Shortly after, he quit his job and started painting.

"I was trying to be normal. I guess I started feeling like I was gifted instead of tainted, blessed instead of cursed," he says. "I'd rather be happy than try to fit in. My heart told me I was miserable, and I had to follow it."

Paintings that Scream
When the time came to move the mural from the Arts Center to Northpark Mall on Dec. 4, Grogan was nowhere in sight. He doesn't believe in carrying a cell phone or owning a computer because that would interfere with his solitude. Because he doesn't carry the same sense of obligation most people have, he has little reservation about following any unexpected muses that come his way.

Arts Center of Mississippi Gallery Director Kimberly Jacobs, who commissioned Grogan for the project after meeting him at the Wellsfest Art Night and Auction, assembled the various wood pieces herself when Grogan didn't show up to move the mural. Jacobs knew Grogan came with a unique set of idiosyncrasies and wasn't sure how stable he would be to work with, but when he brought her a sketch of the proposed mural in October, it brought her to tears.

"He has so many layers—as a man, as an individual," she says. "His artwork comes across very spiritual, and I am a very spiritual person. So when a piece of art can connect with me on that level, I felt like this was bigger than the both of us."

While he worked on the mural, Jacobs often had to refocus Grogan's short attention span. On days that he was up, Grogan would try to paint all over the walls and objects of the arts center. On days he was down, he wouldn't talk to anyone and communicated only by writing down words.

"It's been a nerve-wracking, painstaking process to get it done. It's been emotional," she says. "Patrick has made us laugh, cry and scared, but I love him. ... What he wants from people is their undivided attention—for them to listen to his art. His paintings scream at you."

At first glance, the mural, which Grogan has worked on for more than a month now, looks like a seeing-eye poster with various shapes and patterns connected. But on closer inspection, it's almost dizzying with its many subjects and themes. The mural includes Mississippi wildlife, blues artists, a pyramid, Native Americans, butterflies, instruments and various other figures. It's larger than life and overpowering.

Grogan isn't satisfied with the mural, yet, and plans to add more details and fill in several white spaces that still exist.

"I want to hide so much erotic stuff that eventually it gets discovered by old ladies with opera glasses," he says about the final additions he wants to add. "I really kind of painted it for Manhattan, not Mississippi. I want to push the envelope with what I can get away with."

The mural draws a sharp contrast to its surroundings, and this is exactly what Grogan envisioned. "I want people to look at the mural and see what all those people are doing other than walking around the mall, looking for a shirt. It's designed to help people open their minds. I want people to look at it and say: ‘I want to create something,'" he says.

A few days later, Grogan calls. His voice is slow and methodic. It is the anniversary of his son's suicide, and he's encountered several obstacles to finishing his mural. The mall won't let him use the scaffolding because he doesn't have insurance in case of a fall. He tried to use a ladder to paint on the mural but found it difficult to maneuver and keep it steady while he painted. Since he doesn't have insurance, he plans to stay home and create a piece of work that memorializes his son.

Your Weakness is Your Spirituality
Walking from his North Street apartment to the Fortification Street mural on a chilly Saturday afternoon, Grogan points to a faint carving on a concrete wall in front of the Shell Station that reads "god." He carved it, making the "g" lowercase to make people think. Grogan is constantly picking up items from the ground.

He sees a piece of metal with two prongs. "Look, it's a heart," he says, as he eats an apple fritter. By the time he gets to the mural, he is carrying an old tire, a wooden stick and a pair of tweezers—all found on the road.

The mural is deeply biographical to Grogan and includes several references to Jesus and Native Americans. He believes that in a past life, he was a Native American, and a few years ago, he spent time at the Hopi Indian Reservation in Arizona. He also attended his first sweat lodge on an Indian reservation in Reno, Nev., on his birthday.

The mural features a large face: The eyes are two birds representing Native American shamanism; the nose is a horse's head; the cheeks are two antelopes, and a lemur, jack rabbit and monkey extend from the head. The mural has another bird with Jesus hidden in its face and two alligators as its eyebrows.

A band of raccoons represents his friends as fierce protectors of each other. It also includes men and women copulating, a turtle with a mediating Jesus in its shell, a cat he once owned named Athena, his friend José reincarnated as a giraffe, and a portrait of a Native American child he dreamed of adopting.

Grogan is the first to admit that he causes all his own problems and that his ego craves attention. He sees himself as a modern-day Walter Anderson, the famous Ocean Springs artist who also suffered from mental illness.

"He was genius and tormented by society," Grogan says.

Grogan has suffered consequences of making people uncomfortable. Last year, Belhaven University—where he earned his fine-arts degree—banned him from the campus after several students complained about his tendency to disturb them as they worked. He is often asked to leave public events and has been arrested several times. Despite this, he sees himself as a visionary.

"I think everyone who is creative and conflicted turns their pain into beauty," he says. "[Y]our weakness is your strongest part when you share it with someone else. Your flaw, your wound, your most visible imperfection is your spirituality. If we all had black stretch limos and top-of-the line cell phones ... and sparkly blue eyes, the world would be ridiculously boring."

Patrick Grogan's mural is on permanent display at Northpark Mall's food court.

Previous Comments

ID
161496
Comment

My name is Bill Moore, and I was there - sitting next to Patrick and escorting him out after the service. We actually had a good time talking - I told him that we were glad he was there and he was welcome any time, but that his purplish painted clothes and skin and scary appearance scared many of the children and others, perhaps because he looked like an ORK warrior out of Tolkien's books. Patrick is a very gifted artist and I like him. His account of the situation is not true - there was no physical altercation whatsoever, no punches or kicks (my sons will laugh and be impressed to read that their dad punched and kicked someone). Interestingly, our African American members were not encouraged by Patrick's antics - they were puzzled as we all were.

Author
wmoore99
Date
2011-01-07T10:42:52-06:00
ID
161498
Comment

But his version makes for a far better tale. NEVER let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Author
bill_jackson
Date
2011-01-07T12:37:41-06:00
ID
161499
Comment

Thanks for posting, Bill. To me, it's clear from a reading of both the introduction and the full story that his story is not verified, and could well be made up. It's good to hear from other people who were there; Lacey was only able to get a written statement from First Pres with the short "without incident" remark. So thanks much for adding more to the story.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-01-07T12:42:24-06:00
ID
161502
Comment

Bill Jackson, both sides are in the story. As I said above, Lacey asked First Pres to talk about it, and they would only give her the written statement of "without incident." Why, I couldn't tell you. We would have loved to have printed more from them on their side. I'm glad Bill Moore was willing to add a perspective, though. He is a good example for others. Also, I think some folks need to read the whole story, and not just the intro. This story is about his mental illness as much as his art; isn't it clear from the story that Patrick sees things differently from other people?

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-01-07T15:43:06-06:00

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