By this point in the blog, it hardly needs to be said that I enjoy dropping trou to pose for some incredibly talented people. They transform me from a rapidly aging, thirty-five year old basket-case into a nice, young man who still has his shit together. Thus when I got asked to pose for Tony Dortch, I was beyond excited to get transformed into something entirely different - something from another world.
Dortch is the creator of PURE: a fantasy graphic novel about seven feuding families in the nation of Seyns. “They’re privileged,” he said. “The commoners are used by the privileged as mere stepping-stones to money, power and useless things.”
I, myself, am not particularly into fantasy or graphic novels, but PURE took a very different approach to the concept. Instead of mere illustrations, he used real (often naked) people, through body paint and photography, to tell the story. With men and women of all body types participating, the images were stunning. The moment I saw them I wanted in on it.
However Dortch’s alternative approach to graphic novels wasn’t the only thing about his work that had me so intrigued. He started PURE in 2013 and over the next few years, it exploded into a series and successfully grew with more collaborators and models.
Then in March of 2016, Tony Dortch had a stroke.
On the day of my shoot, I eagerly wondered what Tony would turn me into. When I arrived, he cheerily said that I’d be an animal. In short, I was less than eager about this. I wanted to be all dolled up like one of his super cool, futuristic looking humans - not an animal. Nonetheless I reminded myself to trust the artist, be grateful, and keep my preconceiving mouth shut.
When the time came, I got butt-ass naked (I think that’s the proper medical term) and stood there waiting for cold paint to get slopped onto me. Tony chose the base colors of blue and white. Once we got the initial blue coat on, it wasn’t long before someone else commented, “You look like a Smurf!” Tony could see an immediate disappointment in my eyes. As he began to add some white to my belly and red to my shoulders, he assured me that I would NOT look like a Smurf. Trust the artist. Be grateful. Keep my mouth shut.
When Dortch had his stroke, he thought that both his career as an artist and PURE were dead. Being the curious bastard I am, I forced him to tell me about the experience.
“One day I could move freely and talk; the next I lay in bed unable to communicate. I was trapped in my body,” he said. “I would not wish it on my worst enemy.”
With his speech and walking severely impaired, Dortch suddenly identified as disabled and had little hope of ever getting better. Having lost much of the motor skills in his right hand, he also severely struggled to write or draw. Any attempts to recover often pushed him to the point of exhaustion.
Things only got worse from there. Dortch fell into a dark depression and then split with his partner of seven years. He didn’t want him to be “stuck” with a disabled person - someone who couldn’t be active or barely talk. In order to cope with his new world, Dortch began drinking heavily.
“I lost many friendships because they no longer could take the darkness that engulfed me,” he said.
This was a feeling I had been all too familiar with once myself. When I got HIV, several of my friends struggled with my constant state of sadness. I wasn’t the “fun, party Scott” that they once new. My inability to entertain them and their inability to comfort me split our friendships permanently.
Tony began adding the finer details in black paint: crisp lines to enhance my muscles or animal-esque spots via stencil. I jumped as he slapped some blue right on to my lips without warning. Tony practically giggled in his apology. I couldn’t help but laugh myself while trying not to accidentally swallow. With a now blue face, he brought the red paint up into my beard and hair.
As he began detailing the face, I noticed Tony switching the small paintbrush between his left and right hands. Both had their strengths. Both had their weaknesses. I could sense that he was getting tired. Regardless, I was impressed with his ability to once again aim for such precision.
Three or four months after the stroke, Dortch began trying to paint again. Around eight or nine months, he regained some ability to write or draw. Eventually he started pushing himself even harder to revive PURE and not give up on it. What I didn’t realize during our session though was that Dortch still lived well within the grips of his depression and dependence on alcohol.
As able-bodied people, we are constantly telling ourselves that “we can’t” or “will never be able to” when it comes facing challenges in our daily lives. I do it all of the time with my writing and blog. I’m constantly reminding myself of why this will never work and I’ll never become a successful author. And yet the only thing that might come close to crippling my success is my desire to not live in front of a computer screen.
One can only imagine what this is like for someone who has actually experienced such a trauma - one that really renders the body with physical incapabilities (instead of the emotional ones we just make up in our heads). It would be entirely easy to think that this was it: the end of the line - that our number was up. We then go on to paint ourselves by such numbers. Thus even though Dortch had recovered the ability to paint other humans in magnificent ways, he was still painting himself with an extreme darkness on the inside.
“You look SO cool,” another guy gushed as Tony put on the finishing touches.
Something told me that any remnants of a Smurf no longer existed. I couldn’t wait to see what I looked like. Once Tony gave me clear, I hobbled my way into the bathroom, hoping to not get any paint on the host’s nice carpet. The moment I stepped in front of the mirror, I could hardly believe my own eyes.
Tony had indeed converted me into an animal. I rushed back to grab my phone so I could take approximately one million selfies (of which five I would actually keep of course). It was the strangest sensation to be staring in at the mirror only to have an entire other creature looking back at me. Depression often works the same way.
They practically had to pry me away from my own reflection in order to get the bona fide photos needed for the graphic novels. Tony posed me in all sorts of ferociously animalistic ways. Trying to bear one’s fangs while leaping forth from being on all fours quickly made this one of the most challenging photo shoots yet. And yet, after working with Tony, I was completely appreciative that I had the physical agility to even do it.
Dortch’s own transformation wouldn’t come until about a month later. After a night of heavy drinking, things ended horribly for him and a friend. I wouldn’t press him for details as it didn’t seem he even wanted to go through them. But whatever happened annihilated their friendship and set Dortch on the path for change.
With alcohol, someone uses a depressant in order to cope with depression. It creates a vicious cycle and Dortch realized that. Therefore to quit drinking became his first priority. He then sought counseling to deal with the intense anger and frustration that came from the inabilities to do what he once could.
“I caused so much damage with my ex and friendships that could not be repaired,” he admitted. “And I took a financial hit. All of this forced me to deal with everything - the cause and effect - to finally sit down and say to myself that I caused this.”
I’ve learned that a sure sign of true transformation often comes with self reflection and a sense of responsibility. After all, one cannot evolve when pointing fingers at everyone else. This was true for me after my HIV diagnosis and it was true for Dortch as well.
The regrets and sadnesses of the past helped Dortch work towards a better future. Still sober, he no longer paints himself by the numbers in which he once labeled himself with. He’s now working on turning PURE into a feature length film and has already crossed the halfway point in donations for his Kickstarter campaign. He feels more supported than ever to make his artistic dreams come true.
A week after our work together, Tony sent me the above photo of my barbaric and bloodthirsty animal behavior. I couldn't help but laugh once again - saving it to proudly show off the weird and wonderful things I get to do now that I’ve opened myself up to life. However the true pride in this experience was getting to work with a man like Dortch - someone who went through hell and came back stronger because of it.
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