Sipping tea around the dining roomtable at his sister Nicole’s Vancouver apartment, 28-year-old Edward Weatherly is eager to discuss his art and its healing influences.
The rural Alberta native has already endured his share of life challenges-from drug addiction, to mental illness, to homelessness, to being gay and HIV-positive-and has transformed them all into constructive tools for creating art.
Weatherly created his first piece of art-a self-portrait entitled “my self”-in May 2001, during his 10-month stay in a Calgary mental hospital.
His mother and sister had brought drawing paper, crayons and Mr Sketch magic markers to occupy him. The self-portrait is a two-dimensional stick figure with an X on his face and antennae protruding from his head.
“When I was in florid psychosis, I had a fascination with television sets, media, images, binary digits, and the letter X came out for me,” explains Weatherly, who has lived on the streets in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal.
“I first started doing these designs when I was in the hospital dealing with my realization that I actually have a mental illness,” he continues.
“In my psychosis, I called myself X. It’s significant because it meant a lot of different things-from a mathematical construct of the unknown, or a variable, to an identity, as far extreme as being religious. X equals Christ.”
Throughout his teens, Weatherly excelled in academics, drama, sports and music. He won several awards and scholarships, and eventually became an accomplished classical pianist.
Gifted with a high IQ, Weatherly says that music is still a huge “fascination” for him, especially the DJ culture and the gay subculture of circuit boys.
While studying commerce and international relations at the University of Toronto, Weatherly became entrenched in Toronto’s gay nightclub scene of sex, drugs and techno music-a lifestyle that eventually turned his world upside down.
“When I was in university, I started using drugs and that messed with my brain chemistry. I was starting to have my experiences with psychosis and paranoid delusions.
“I thought I was just being artistic, but I was later diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia.”
Weatherly had to eventually quit school.
He spent the next two years partying, working on a scrapbook, and building the foundation for his art style.
His next blow came in 1999 when he was diagnosed with HIV. Weatherly says the letter X also represents being HIV-positive because if you turn the X sideways, you get a plus sign.
“I was essentially by myself in Toronto. When I was in a very alone space, I would phone my family in Alberta.
“I was so alone and a lot of the times scared of my voices, especially when I was using drugs. I’d hear things, or I’d think I’d be hearing things…
“I thought I was on a vision quest, and that’s where a lot of this art stems from.”
Weatherly’s vision quest included voices, which he thought were messages from God, directing him to pursue different life paths, including moving back and forth between Calgary and Toronto.
Last year, one “prophecy” led him back to Toronto where he had his first art show and exhibition at Toronto’s Gallery X.
Like Keith Haring, Weatherly’s early work includes spray-painted graffiti walls in Toronto alleys, graffiti panels on advertisements in magazines, drawings on camping tarps and some installations. Interestingly, his main media remain crayons and magic markers.
The majority of Weatherly’s work is colourful, quirky and caricature-driven-drawing more comparisons to Haring, as well as Andy Warhol, Picasso and Joe Average. Recurring themes of X characters, televisions, spaceships, aliens, hearts and trilogy symbols continue to permeate Weatherly’s work.
As I flip through Weatherly’s portfolio, plus dozens of postcards and photographs of his art scattered across the table, I notice the recurring theme of three characters or images. Having discussed his Lutheran upbringing and belief in God, I guess that the trilogy theme is religious, but Weatherly quickly informs me that the trio actually represents himself and his two older sisters.
In November 2004, at the urging of his family, Weatherly left Toronto and relocated to Vancouver to enter a drug treatment centre.
“I’ve needed a lot of help and compassion from my family and friends, especially when I was really strung out. I was fighting a lot of factors.
“I’m on medication right now and it balances my brain chemistry, so I’m stable. Plus I’m not using drugs. I’m clean and I’m on the road to recovery.”
Experiencing Edward’s lifetime of struggles prompted the Weatherly family to form a company-idego multimedia-to promote awareness and understanding about diverse social issues within the context of art. Idego is currently producing a 3D-animated social docudrama “my self, my message” based on Edward’s life and art.
“My family wanted something positive to come out of the last 12 years of me struggling. Our objective is to create an educational program called What’s Your Message? It can give resources to teachers to take to the classroom, like characters from the movie to talk about homosexuality, mental illness or HIV. It’s social art media-connecting art to social causes.
“I’m very proud of the work I’ve done to piece together my sanity since I’ve been here in Vancouver. I’ve worked really hard to create a life for myself and bring myself back to health.
“It’s been a long, hard road to recovery.”