Art and poetry need to come from the heart, especially if you’re making it on the New York City scene. For Jacob Wheeler, whose creative expression began as a way to cope with a childhood condition and several operations, it’s now a motivation for ensuring his work always pays it forward. Jacob Wheeler returns this week to New York City on August 23rd where he will be showing a new collection of his works at the Jue Lan Club on West 20th Street.
He sat down with Honeysuckle’s Jessica Bern for an inside look at his process, inspirations, and his latest project to write a letter a day to family, friends, and strangers.
JESSICA BERN: Your work is very powerful. The poetry is intense, raw. It pulls the reader/viewer deep inside the world you are creating in that moment. How did you come up with the idea of using the human body as your canvas?
JACOB WHEELER: About eight years ago I had a dream that I was writing on someone’s back. When I began the project, I was just going to ask my friends if I could write on them. The plan was to simply take a Polaroid picture and create a photo album, but my brother Adam [a former pitcher in the Yankees’ organization] said to me, “If you’re going to do it, go all the way.”
How do you decide who you want to use to display your work?
I don’t really decide. I have a lot of social anxiety, so it’s very difficult for me to approach anyone. In the beginning it was just friends or a friend of a friend. Since I began showing my work, it’s gotten a little easier to find people. Some ask me why they are all beautiful models and I tell them it’s because they are the ones that approach me, likely because they’re already so comfortable being in front of a camera.
What message do you want your viewers/fans to get from your work?
For many years, I have struggled with various mental illnesses such as Bipolar 1 with psychosis, chronic mania, PTSD, anxiety and Borderline Personality Disorder. In viewing my art, the goal is that others who are battling mental illness will relate, will draw inspiration and hope, even if it’s in their own odd way. I hope they will see and understand there is a path of living for you, even during the down times.
On your Instagram page there was a post of a woman thanking you for a letter you wrote to her with the hashtag #365lettersin365days. She says you didn’t even know each other. Can you tell me more about that?
I send these letters out to create balance. The weight of my life is heavy and it’s dark. It takes up a lot of room, even in the things or people on the outskirts of my life that I am slightly connected to. I have guilt for living recklessly and for being a burden to those who have loved me; whether it’s because I hurt them or because they had to be in my life through all of my medical stuff. And so I send these letters out with the hope of tilting the scales, even if slightly. The woman you are referring to found me on my Facebook page and asked me to write her a letter, so I did.
I saw that you are a huge fan of the late grunge icon Chris Cornell.
I am. I love the substance of his music. I relate to it. His emotion when he sings, all the humanitarian stuff he’s done in the world. A lot of what I create is heavily influenced by him, even the letters I wrote, the subject matter. I feel like maybe if he knew something about himself that he didn’t know or believe, that maybe that would have kept him from dying and that is what I also want to get from sending these letters. If I could provide someone with hope for one more hour, one more day, enough time for them to realize that life is worth living, then I will have accomplished my goal.
Do you have a muse?
Sort of. My friend K.L. Vox. She was in a three-piece series I did and she has photographed many more. She was with me the morning I found out Chris had died. She has inspired me a lot. What I see in her is how I would want to be if I were female, such as the way she approaches her relationships with men and life in general. She reminds me of me seven years ago, when I was [the age she is] now. I see in her this flash of beautiful ignorance but on a path to being better than you ever thought you could have been. The evolution is an amazing thing to watch. I can cry in front of her and it’s a very comforting thing.
My favorite piece is the one titled “She Gets Tired”. What is that based on?
We shot in an old mill house in Atlanta which belonged to my friend’s grandmother, who had passed away. We dated when we were young and stayed friends after we broke up. She has beaten a lot of odds in life. Her mom and dad abandoned her, leaving her to go and live with her best friend. She got pregnant at a very young age and ended up marrying the dad, then had four more kids with him. She was always very flirtatious in that she was searching for something but she didn’t know what, yet she was so strong. But she couldn’t see that. After 10 years of being married to her first husband, she finally left.
Have you ever considered using a different canvas?
I would love to write on skyscrapers and then have a helicopter fly over them and videotape that. I think that would be very cool.
What is up next for you?
I want to work with men and more of an array of body types and skin colors. Ideally, I would paint my art on people who have a much bigger platform, a much wider base, so that I can get my message across to as many people as possible. I am also drawing a lot more. Sometimes I run out of words so I start sketching in my journal, below the poem. I am interested in working with charcoal. I’ve never been one who has been creative. I got good at it because I did it all the time.
Join Jacob Wheeler for his show at the Jue Lan Club (49 West 20th Street) in NYC on Thursday, August 23rd, 7-10PM. Free entry and food; cash bar. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Jessica Bern is a writer, editor, producer, and motion graphic artist. Her work has appeared on Cafe Mom and SheKnows, among others. bernthis.com