Living off the grid
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In our Life another way series we connect with those of which who have stepped away from mainstream society and are living life their own way.
Marc Gruninger catches up with artist Michael. F. Brown to discuss his story of art and homelessness.
Tell us about your background. Where are you from and how did you end up in Kansas City?
I’m originally from St.Louis, Missouri. Born and raised in the midwest of the USA. What brought me to Kansas City, was a friend’s sister who was staying here first. I wanted to pursue art full time without having to work a full time job in something I hated just to make a living. After 15yrs of working in hot sweaty kitchens and working my ass off just to maintain a decent apartment and pay bills and the never ending cycle of all that, i wanted something else. I wanted to be able to work for myself instead of being on someone else’s clock slaving away just to have the basics in life, nothing fancy just a roof over my head and food to eat when I wanted. When my mom died in 2003 and I had lost a regular job I had for over 6yrs at a catering company, everything was changing fast and I was scared of the changes. I didn’t like the fear of the unknown so I systematically broke down the life I was living. I sold the car, lost the apartment, got rid of the furniture and everything that held me down and hit the road to my new life in Kansas city, and what an adventure I’ve been on, for over 10 years now! There wasn’t a first time getting to art phase, I was BORN in it. All of my 10 brothers and sisters were artists, they made their own toys, comic books, paper dolls and I was blown away by their creativity!
When did you first get into Art and Drawing – has it always been the ONE thing you wanted to do or did I come to you gradually?
Ever since I started running a business out of my school as a senior, I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living. It took 15 years later after graduated that I finally pursued the original dream job, doing custom portrait drawings, full time!
What had you go the homeless path of ‘living of the grid’ ?
The thing about choosing ART as a career and your main source of income is, the pay is poor to none and if you choose to do it full time regardless of the pay, you gonna experience some hard times and homelessness came after I ran through all my friends’ couches and homes to live at. In 2009, I got kicked out of a home where I was living in the furnish basement of a buddy’s family. I had to go to a shelter, and stayed there for almost a year, very depressing place to have to live. You shower and bunk with complete strangers and you have to patiently sit through hearing some moron go on and on about his concept of Jesus and God before you can get something to eat and take a shower and get a bed to sleep in. After about 8 months of the homeless shelters I couldn’t stay in that environment anymore, I needed to get away, so the streets was my alternative. Sleeping under a bridge in the fancy part of town, the Plaza! I stayed with a bunch of drunks and addicts, safety in numbers, but i learned a lot about survival off the grid through those bums! So I was grateful for my teachers regardless of their self destructive addictions.
I learned where all the food stops were, the soup kitchens and the places to go to get clothing and any necessity you needed to survive on the streets. After a few months under a bridge, I ran into another person who was addicted to crack but he had a spot in an abandoned basement of a run down apartment and store. One day we couldn’t sneak into the place because there were people having a house party so we ventured around the neighborhood and came upon an abandoned house that was wide open to the public. Buddy of mine that was a crack head was also a former morgage broker. He knew how to check on the status of the houses in the area, find out who owned it and when last taxes was paid on the place. Turns out the house had been abandoned for years by the owner and family, original owner was dead so no one to claim the house. we took it over. put locks on the doors to keep the addicts and prostitutes out. Fixed the inside of it up to make it liveable – the house was stripped clean of any wiring so no electric, gas or even water in the place. I’ve been there in that so called abandoned house for almost 4yrs now, living off the grid, courtesy of a city overwhelmed with abandoned houses to keep account of them all. I got a lot of lucky breaks with living in that house because of the sloppiness of the city records, house should have been boarded up years ago, but no one cared to do it. I took advantage of their laziness and when the law finally caught up with me, I used those same laws to stay put in the house!
What are the biggest challenges homelessness comes with, and what is the silver lining in what many would consider ‘a darker cloud?’
The biggest challenge of homelessness is the poverty aspect and your own mentality about being homeless. It’s very easy to get into the routine of having your basic needs looked after by others. In Kansas City, there are places to eat for free all over town, you will never go hungry here. There are places to bath, get clean clothes and shelter, all your basic needs are provided for, so the biggest challenge is to not get comfortable doing little to care for YOURSELF! It’s a trap and a time limit on taking advantage of FREE things. You have to use them for what they are for and get yourself out of the situation of needing someone else’s help to live. The silver lining is this though, you realise that it takes very little to survive in life and the time most people spend on the bells and whistles in life to keep up with the Joneses or with society, you see the foolishness of it all, the waste of valuable resources just for the look of something. You see life on its basic level and you know what it means to live off nothing and still survive. You understand real quick what is important to have and what is a complete waste of time. If one can afford to do it, I highly recommend living life off the grid as much as possible! It will change your viewpoint on every aspect of life about what is necessary and what is NOT!
Your Art is a deep, emotional kind of realism drawn from photos. What pulls you towards drawing human beings, both inspirational famous people and ‘regular’ people who you often haven’t met in person? How do you still always get their essence across in your Artwork?
Human beings I still find most amazing and fascinating. We seem to be a complete contradiction to everything we seem to believe and love about life. We stubbornly hold onto things that we should have long rid ourselves of. We behave like idiots at times and put the animal kingdom to shame on claiming to be like them with our behavior at times. OUR STORIES are what inspires me and most people. so i’m able to capture the essence of a person I have never met before because of their personal story and me putting myself in that subjects shoes when i’m drawing them. How I capture them in a drawing, I cannot explain. It is sacred ground to talk about things that go beyond words and exist in the magical realm. So I allow the spirit to go through me, or what i perceive to be someone’s essence and do my work! I let go and let my artistic nature take full control!
What inspires you the most in life and in your Artwork?
People inspire me the most and they also disappoint me the most too! Which for an artist, is a perfect mix to cover in your work. There is not one sure way to be human, there are many paths to the experience and therefore you never run out of inspiration or the countless stories you can tell with an image or images.
What’s the process in creating a custom piece of Art? Where do you work on it and how long does it usually take you to finish?
The process always starts first, with the photo. Whatever the photo is, it has to inspire me to draw it, to tell it’s story, to create a story from. So the photo has to be right, otherwise that is where the process ends. If the photo is all wrong, there is nothing to create from. What i do is nothing new. I don’t create anything that hasn’t already been done. All I do is arrange an image in a different way to change people’s perception about the same thing that always has been in existence. I just come in and organise it differently with a pencil, is all. I work at local places near me like Starbucks but mostly I love FedEx, they have tables I can sit at and draw without being disturbed. I don’t have a studio. Would love to have a studio but then again, my idea of a great environment to work is not always to be locked away in my own company. Music is a MUST! If there is no music, I cannot create because the music takes me away from the mechanics of what i do, sort of like driving. If your thinking about where to put your foot when to drive or stop, you get in an accident so you let your instincts take over and don’t think about driving, you just do it. Same with drawing. If i have silence, I start to think about how to draw instead of just letting my natural artistic instincts take over. So I get lost in the music and let my hands do what it does, naturally! Depending on the size of the piece and what needs to be drawn it can take me 4 hrs to complete a piece, or a week and in some cases two months. All depends on what is required of me to draw in a piece, the more technical the pieces I have to put together, the longer it takes, the more basic, the less time.
Every full time Artist needs to make ends meet. How do you promote your Business – and what are the challenges for you on the Business end of it?
Unfortunately, over the 10yrs I have been doing this art full time, I haven’t made ends meet on the average which has brought about homelessness and the lack of something… but things are starting to finally reap some profitable results recently! The money is up and down, very fickel! But Facebook has been a very great tool as far as getting the work seen internationally especially. And the majority of my money comes from posting and interacting with folks on facebook. Before facebook there was Myspace, I used it in the same manner. The thing with ART is this, it’s an emotional sell for most people. People buy art mostly because they feel some kind of connection to the art piece or the artist. That’s it! That’s why facebook has been so effective in selling the art. And I also sell the prints of the art pieces at local shops where I live, a little extra money. It requires a lot of creative thinking to make it as an artist. Things never go as planned on the average and you have to practice patience and having faith and confidence in your skills and talent because your self-esteem takes huge hits when the money is not coming in.
What is your definition of happiness?
My definition of happiness is doing exactly what i’m doing, creating art pieces based on emotional driven stories that change and inspire others. And to work on my own clock on my own terms. To own the clock basically, this is pure happiness to me. I don’t have to wait till the weekend or vacation to do what I want, I do it everyday and on my own terms, HAPPINESS!
What are some of the dreams you want to realise in the near future?
The ultimate dream now is to be financially free, to not have money be a major issue for me. I would love to travel this world in it’s entirety before I die. I think every human being should have a right, if they want, to see the world in which they inhabit and not have money be a factor in them not being able to experience different lands and cultures! The next dream is to really get my travel on, to be completely mobile. I can draw anywhere, collect payment anywhere, and to not be bound by one place. To be a citizen of the world, that’s the dream!
Michael is definitely a man living life his way, no matter the set backs. He is also a talented artist that deserves a bit of support. Check him out here: facebook.com/michael.brown. If you are keen on commissioning Michael email him here: michael.f.brown.1971 @ gmail . com
Before his relocation back to Europe, swiss born Photographer Marc Gruninger (www.marcgruninger.com) had been shooting in and out of Los Angeles for seven years, working with musicians and actors, including Snoop Dogg, Terence Howard, Luke Hemsworth, Sung Kang, and Australian Neo-Psychadlic legends The Church. He created his first of many Fine Art Photo Series in 2012 – among them the Berlin based projects ‘Hinterhof’ (www.hinterhof.info) and ’Sister Cities Berlin:LA (www.sistercitiesberlinla.info) and The Liquor Store Series (www.theliquorstoreseries.com), a project that had him drive 30,000km through 38 States in 100 days. He currently lives and works out of Berlin, Germany.