Interviews

The Portrait of a Family in Human Ash and Meth

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Zefrey Throwell, “Douglas Throwell #9, 7 Years Old” (2013), human ash, methamphetamine, and acrylic on canvas 48″ x 36″ (all images courtesy the artist)

A big part of Zefrey Throwell‘s current exhibition at Gasser & Grunert Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood is the story of a family split apart by drug addiction, then brought closer by a memorial for a dead father. It is also a story of overcoming hardship brought on by Hurricane Sandy, not to mention a hell of a story about using human ash and methamphetamines to create art.

Throwell’s father was a lifelong drug addict who died of a meth overdose seven years ago. As part of the original incarnation of his project, Throwell used his father’s ashes and meth, the drug that killed him, to make eight portraits of his dad that spanned the entirety of his life. Sadly, the original portraits were destroyed during last fall’s Hurricane Sandy, along with almost all the art Throwell made in the previous two years.

For his current show, Throwell’s mother offered her son her share of his father’s ashes. What gives the show an added twist is the artist’s own history of addiction and his sister’s continuing struggle — she is currently homeless and addicted to meth in Northern California. It is a family story with deep, shadowy realms.

I spoke to the artist about his series.

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Zefrey Throwell, "Douglas Throwell #10, 20 Years Old" (2013), human ash, methamphetamine and acrylic on canvas 48"x36"
Zefrey Throwell, “Douglas Throwell #10, 20 Years Old” (2013), 48″ x 36″

Hrag Vartanian: After learning about your show and the back story, I couldn’t help but think about how painful it must’ve been to make this body of work. Did you ever feel like you needed more distance than you had to make these artworks?

Zefrey Throwell: It’s been seven years since my father died. I didn’t think about it at all for the first three years. I tried to consciously ignore that it had ever happened and would skip over it in conversation. He was a horrible father for the most part. My mother had to take me and run from him because he was so abusive. I grew up in a small town in Alaska without roads in or out, and that’s about as far away as someone can get.

Over the past few years his death has been surfacing in the back of my mind and filtering through emotionally. I have been very slowly realizing that he wasn’t evil — he was just a drug addict who was truly at the mercy of an addiction. And lo and behold, who should follow in his foot steps? Me. I’ve been clean for eight years. Wheels within wheels, I certainly have to laugh when I’m not crying.

Zefrey Throwell, "Douglas Throwell" (2013), human ash and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 x 1 7/8 inches
Zefrey Throwell, “Douglas Throwell #12, 32 Years Old” (2013), 48″ x 36″

HV: What was the process to make these works like? Why his ashes? Why use photos? I’m sorry if I have a lot of questions, but I feel like these works raise more questions than most.

ZT: The first time I made the portraits I used my own share of the ashes from my father’s cremation. I presented them at a solo show at the Leopold Hoesch Museum in Germany. Upon returning to the US, they were demolished by Hurricane Sandy. This knocked the wind out of me, and I laid in bed feeling sorry for myself until my mother called me and reminded me that many people had it much worse than me, and I should be out helping them. I volunteered for a large part of the next month and didn’t make art.

In December, I was once again talking to my mother and she mentioned that she still had her portion of the ash left and that I could have them if I wanted. I was conflicted because I didn’t want to take her share of her ex-husband; it somehow felt wrong. She assured me that it was fine and gave them to me, proving once again that she is the best damn mom in history.

As far as the process … human ash doesn’t come in a fine dust, it comes in chunks of bone and large gravely bits. I had to grind it down by hand with a mortar and pestle in order to use it. I am quite positive I’ve inhaled an unhealthy portion of my dad at this point. I then silkscreened white ink on white canvas and sifted the mixture on to the canvas.

I used photos because I wanted them to accurately reflect specific moments and phases in his life. I see this as a memorial in a documentary fashion. I didn’t want my hand to get in the way; I didn’t want the audience to get hung up on the rendering; I wanted them to focus on him. There are eight portraits that span the full spectrum of his life, from his rough upbringing to running away from home at 15, to him as a hippy in San Francisco in the 1960s, to him as a biker in the 1980s, to his eventual death from a meth overdose at 59.

Zefrey Throwell, "Douglas Throwell" (2013), human ash and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 x 1 7/8 inches
Zefrey Throwell, “Douglas Throwell #13, 44 Years Old” (2013), 48″ x 36″

HV: Would you consider these works portraits or monuments or something else?

ZT: I consider them a modern reliquary which uses portraiture as the vehicle for remembrance. They serve both a personal as well as a public function.

I created them to show the full curve of addiction in a nonpedantic, nonauthoritarian method. It is my way to show young teenagers the true risks they face when they choose their life path. I made the portraits in such a fashion that wouldn’t preach at kids, most of whom are quite deaf to this from the constant harping of parents, teachers, and police. I made them in a way that let kids draw their own conclusions from the life of one of the hardest-living men to have walked this earth. I made them in a way that I wish the subject would have been broached with me when I was young, perhaps saving me and those I loved years of pain and misery.

Zefrey Throwell, "Douglas Throwell" (2013), human ash and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 x 1 7/8 inches
Zefrey Throwell, “Douglas Throwell #16, 59 Years Old” (2013), 48″ x 36″

HV: Is there a youth outreach/education component to the project? Do you think they will be attending the show?

ZT: There was for the museum show in Germany. I am working on that for here as well.

HV: How does this series fit into your larger body of work?

ZT: I try to make art that has relevance to my personal life. I am firm believer in the “stick with what you know” school. At the same time, I am actually and very concretely attempting to push my boundaries. If I feel comfortable making a work of art, that means I am failing. This projects slides right up between these two ideas and arcs a path between family and disruption.

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Zefrey Throwell’s Panic in the Chalk Cave continues at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, Inc. (524 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until Saturday, March 23.

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