I have considered that line more that I care to admit. When I began writing about loss and the ways in which dogs show us trust and connection, I felt almost guilty giving so much weight to my relationship with a dog.
After all, it’s just a dog.
Though fido is closer to family these days, downplaying the human relationship with animals has a lengthy history. Keeping animals out of our closest circle makes it easier to use them for sport or entertainment, or to place them in the category of property, not family. Diminishing the relationship can also make it seem easier to accept the finite life of a pet.
Beyond animals, relationships of all types can be reduced to an afterthought.
“It’s just another day.”
“It’s just a pipe dream.”
“It’s just a job.”
“It’s just an ex.”
When we say, “just a [ ],” we diminish the relationship and remove its power to affect us. Keeping our past lives, our current frustrations, and our dreams for the future at a distance also helps keep such thoughts from impacting and shaping our lives.
With technology, our ability to diminish relationships is now even easier. We’re able to block out the bad.
I’m a fan of the mute button, especially after a series of unexpected texts from a number I hadn’t seen it in nearly 10 years, though I recognized it immediately. It was my ex-husband’s.
I panicked. I handed my phone to a friend, asking for help. Without question, she turned on iPhone’s handy “Block this Caller” feature.
“There,” she says. “Taken care of.”
This wasn’t the first time I’ve turned over my phone. Like an addict finally admitting defeat, I’ve asked for help to block people from my life. An ex boyfriend’s streaming assaults on Facebook…BLOCKED. The man I ended things with on poor terms…DELETED. I’ve had friends dig deep into the bowels of my phone, pulling out missed calls and text threads, removing any recognizable bit of that person from my digital life so I can avoid the temptation of reaching out to them.
Too bad you can’t do that with brains.
Even though my ex-husband was successfully blocked, he was still in my head, as loud and as vivid as the day he left. What, though, did I expect, when I decided to use the Internet as my publisher? He’s summarized in my latest writing as “the alcoholic I married and divorced.”
The writer in me wants to defend my statements, to let the reader know this was intentional. It was written specifically to take the focus away from men and place it on my process and what I learned.
The human in me wants to say that it’s unfair to treat people who greatly impacted my life in this way. Each one of those men evolved my heart.
The “high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail” was the first boyfriend I truly loved. He remains one of my longest relationships and the first person I tried to date long-distance, making it quite obvious that I was terrible at being far away from someone I loved so much. We learned about heartwreck together, and I measured every relationship after him against the love I felt I lost.
I remember nearly every moment with the “Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend,” especially the guilt that kept me awake in the early mornings. Keeping that relationship going for as long as I did was a blind and dishonorable way for me to live, and a choice I am not proud of.
The “cover band rocker I took to small claims court” taught me about forgiveness. I found my strength after he left, and I found enough documentation to prove he owed me a good deal of money. I thought getting that verdict was the most rewarding part of our time together, but forgiving him was even more powerful.
The “Jack Mormon” gave me more love than I felt I deserved. After my dog was struck and killed by a car, he read me “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and held me while I cried myself to sleep. He tried to carry all my heartbreak, and I didn’t allow it. I became that pair of ragged claws T.S. Eliot described, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” I locked him out. I locked everyone out after that.
“The crier” taught me about the cruelty I contain. “The older man” taught me about energy and how it’s possible to move an entire room with it. The “ski-bum heartbreaker with the broken legs” taught me about total, utter, wild love and my tendencies to be overwhelming IN. The “grass-is-always-greener-architect” helped me heal after being very broken. He taught me how to end a relationship with kindness. When I finally called it, I did so knowing I wanted to still see him and hug him and tell him about my life. That was the first time I considered not burning the whole fucking thing down.
And the “overzealous writer,” well, I’ve been that person too. In the last message I received from him, I did not acknowledge his pain. I only felt my own, and I just deleted him.
Digital life continues on after being blocked. What happens on the other lines is something we may never know, and if we shut it out, we certainly won’t be able to understand how we behave in the process. But we also have the right to block people who choose to use technology to harass us. I’m not interested in being a punching bag for someone’s unprocessed emotions.
It’s more difficult to block pain. It’s not just a dog. It’s not just an ex. These are parts of our lives, for better or worse, which live within the folds of memory and affect who we are right now.
I’ve tried a lot of mute buttons. The acute and immediate nature of our digital lives does fade with distance. There’s nothing, though, that can quiet the memories of lost love. By turning my exes into my own punching bag, I just created more pain.
My new rule for texting exes: If you can’t say something nice…don’t commit it to the electronic sea.
Writing about them? Well…the poet Anne Sexton said it best.
“A woman who writes feels too much, those trances and portents! As if cycles and children and islands weren’t enough; as if mourners and gossips and vegetables were never enough. She thinks she can warn the stars. A writer is essentially a spy. Dear love, I am that girl.”
Midnight, January 1, 2016: The ball drops, the champagne pops, and so many kisses! Arms around each other, once-a-year pronouncing: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne. We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
“I love New Year’s,” someone says. “You get to start all over. Again.”
A clean slate.
My clean slate started a year ago. Being unable to make suitable decisions when it came to men, I decided to stop. It seemed logical. If I can’t make a good choice in a romantic partner, I won’t make a choice at all. One year. No dating. No sex. Nothing.
“Really? You made it a whole year, no nothing?” My friend raises a skeptical eyebrow.
“I had sex with my ex-boyfriend.”
“I was bored. It doesn’t count if you’re bored.”
Besides, it was incredibly eye opening. It was the first time I felt oxytocin—that magical little brain chemical responsible for feelings of intimacy and bonding after sex—in all its glory and did not think I was in love.
I was so very pleased at my discovery. “I love oxytocin, but now I don’t have to think I’m falling in love every time!” I told this to a girlfriend. “It’s just brain chemistry!”
“Well, it’s a bit more than that,” she replied. “You don’t want to close yourself off to love, or reduce it to just brain chemistry.”
Turns out, love is a lot more complicated than brain chemistry.
My decision to stop dating wasn’t rash, but it was necessary. And it wasn’t understood by most of my friends.
“I worry that you’re shutting yourself off.”
“But what if you meet someone?!”
“I just want you to be open to whatever comes your way.”
Problem: I’ve been open to whatever comes my way for a long time. Explaining my dating roster to my therapist was like opening a clown car’s door. They all came spilling out: the high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail, the Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend, the alcoholic I married and divorced, the cover band rocker I took to small claims court, the crier, the older man, the jack Mormon, the ski-bum heartbreaker with broken legs, the grass-is-always-greener architect, the overzealous writer who said I left him, “as empty as a cardboard box.”
The final text I received from a man with whom I’d been romantically involved, when I asked if we could talk: “Fuck no. Fuck no with a cherry on top. Goodbye forever.”
Okay. I must be doing this wrong. So I’m going to stop doing it. It’s as simple as that.
Strangely, giving up men wasn’t hard. It was relieving. It removed the pressure I felt interacting with them. I stopped checking for wedding rings. I stopped marrying men I’d just met in my head. I stopped thinking that any day now, I’d meet Mr. Right.
I was uncomfortable being alone. So I went out alone. I ate at restaurants alone, went to parties alone, attended concerts alone. I tried to become comfortable being alone.
I also stayed home a lot. I wrote and I read. I drank. Sometimes too much. I watched Sex in the City re-runs and drank whole bottles of champagne alone. (Yep, it was awesome).
At work, I became distinctly aware that my job and my soul were misaligned, so I quit and started my freelance writing business back up. I started writing more poetry, mostly bad, but some gems.
I stopped wearing uncomfortable clothing. I donated or sold garbage bags of clothes that didn’t make me happy. I stopped shaving. I stopped wearing makeup. I stopped wearing a bra. I began to wash my hair every three days or so. I decided deodorant was a scam. I changed my chemical soaps to castile and traded in my 27 body products for coconut oil in an effort to detox my “beauty” routine.
I smelled, sometimes, but once away from harsh chemicals and makeup, my body found its rhythm. I started using essential oils for perfume. I wore “Balance.” “Elevation.” “Love.” They did not bring me balance, elevation, or love, but I was often told that I smelled nice.
I began to read labels. I cooked more food. I grew food. I bought more organic food. I changed how I shopped and where I shopped so that my money would stay local. I tried not to look at the higher price and instead think of the value. I began to treat my body more kindly. I went on a juice cleanse. I quit after day 3. I went on a tea cleanse (this is how I learned that some herbs can induce sudden vomiting).
I did cold yoga. I did hot yoga. I rode bikes. I crashed on bikes. I walked my dog more. My dog got cancer. I fought his cancer fiercely, and in the process I learned to love so much more intensely than I thought I could. I learned about my sorrow, and how the end of life can be the most beautiful, tender time we have with our animals. I started being more present and alert to the moment we’re in, because it’s the only one we get.
I found new ways to obtain oxtyocin: A hug you hold longer, holding hands with friends, looking someone in the eye when talking to them. I got massages (oxytocin jolts without the sex!). I tried cupping. I tried cranial sacral. I had my brain’s chemistry analyzed and found out why I wasn’t sleeping so well. I tried a natural remedy for stress called “Tranquility,” which made me feel like a tranquilized lion. I switched to “Calm.” I practiced meditation. I studied Buddhism.
I got big tattoos. I wore wigs. I traveled. I went home more. I set up my parents new computer and taught them how to use an iPod. I became an aunt (to a magic angel baby!). I had an I’m-35-years-old-without-children-or-a-husband crisis. I began mourning that life I though I’d have by now, then I decided I wasn’t going to think about that until I was on the other side of 35.
I practiced kindness. I practiced boundaries with unhealthy friendships. I strengthened healthy friendships. I volunteered. I made new friends.
I began to think about the kind of person I would want to date. I would want to date someone who knows me, knows the best and worst of me. Someone who loves me, who props me up when I fall, who carries me on their shoulders like a champion when I succeed. Someone I would want to live with and love with.
Yes. I want to date someone I would consider my friend.
Because, really, how can we possibly imagine a life with someone if we don’t know them? Know how they behave when they’re scared, or broke, or angry, or drunk? Know what their weaknesses are, know their beautiful strengths and also know the places they fear the most?
I need to make more friends.
I ran this past my girlfriends when I still had six months on my sentence.
“You know, you don’t have to do this for a whole year. I worry you won’t be open to it, if it comes to you.”
“Okay,” I assured them. “If I meet Mr. Right, I’ll be open.”
But I wasn’t. My energy was bound up in me, in building a more self-aware, self-confident, self-controlled human.
That’s okay, one friend said. “He’s doing exactly what you’re doing. He’s getting clear. He’s got his head down. He’s focused on him.”
January 1, 2016.One year ago I gave up dating. Do I feel clear? Nah, but I’m closer. Do I know how to pick Mr. Right? Nope. But I do believe that we don’t pick. We’re just colliding molecules. We’re big brains with animal instincts.
But we do get to choose who gets close to us, what we share, how we share, and when we share. We contain the ability to open ourselves up for the right kind of connection.
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Every person that leaves an imprint on our heart brings us that much closer to the right connection. Every day presents us with a moment for renewal and a clean slate—not just on New Year’s eve. It takes deliberate self-work, and it’s not easy. It’s wildly uncomfortable but completely worth the investment, because no one will ever take better care of you than you.
The rest, well, it’s up to the universe’s twisted sense of humor. It’s a bit oxtytocin, a bit chance, a dose of timing, and a whole lotta self-love.
Billings has a new claim to fame. The city is now home to the largest Artwalk in the state, featuring nearly 40 participating galleries.
“Artwalk has reached critical mass and people want to be a part of it,” said Virginia Bryan, president of Billings Artwalk, which is heading into its its 22nd season. Indeed, for Billings, the arts scene has never been more vibrant.
Part of this growth is simply economics. There’s an audience and a market. But the part that is less tangible is the enthuastic support of a diverse and vibrant artist culture and the grassroots beginnings of Artwalk.
Parties centered on creativity, with art on display, live music, bites of food, and splashes of wine, Artwalk has grown into a vital Billings event, though its beginnings are quite humble as a member-run organization with a handful of participating galleries. The first galleries to consistently hold events helped grow five attendees to a thousand plus people mingling across downtown Billings for the event.
“We only have Artwalks this good because we have been building on them for 21 years,” said Mark Sanderson, who co-owns Toucan Gallery with Allison O’Donnell. They purchased Toucan nine years ago, but the business has been in operation nearly 30 years.
Before owning Toucan, O’Donnell was an employee. She recalls the early years of Artwalk, when they would serve wine in glassware that they hand-washed. Now on average 500 people come through Toucan during an Artwalk evening.
“It’s such an open event,” O’Donnell said. “People can come and go as they please. Downtown feels so vibrant on those evenings.”
This year, Artwalk Billings merged with the Downtown Billings Association. Being under the DBA umbrella has given Artwalk much-needed administrative support, an office presence downtown, and though it was an integral part of downtown in the past, it’s now officially part of Downtown Billings.
Part of Artwalk’s success is the density of art galleries in the downtown core. Artwalkers can park and walk to a majority of galleries on the tour. Gallery presence is strong along Second Avenue, North Broadway, and Montana Avenue, and a bus takes patrons to outlying stops as far west as Crooked Line on Division and east to the edge of MetraPark.
“Billings is embracing its art community,” Bryan said. “People are genuinely excited about art and excited about the artists that live here.” She refutes a long-standing notion that there’s no culture east of the Rockies. “We are taking that outdated notion, and we are refusing to accept it. When I look at the number of artists who have either come out of Billings or who live and work in this area, or have national recognition, it’s astounding to me.”
Indeed, the walls of Billings are lined with Theodore Waddell, Sheila Miles, Kevin Red Star, Harry Koyama, Carol Hagan, Kira Fercho, Jon Lodge, and many others who choose to make Billings and the surrounding area their home and workplace.
“There are fabulous artists that choose to live and work here,” Bryan said.
Hardin-based artist Harry Koyama has run his gallery on Montana Avenue for nine years. Koyama looked at other places around town in which to open his gallery, but Montana Avenue made the most sense. “Montana Avenue is the hub of the arts district,” Koyama said. “The minute I moved to Billings things changed dramatically. Having access to large numbers of people—Here success multiplies.”
Koyama’s cultural investment in Billings has proved to be a fruitful one, but it was patiently nurtured. “It takes a community effort,” he said. “As long as the people want to see more art, there will be more.”
Indeed, you won’t find more art per square foot anywhere else in Billings. Montana Avenue is the hottest strip arts and dining real estate in town. Walking into Koyama’s gallery, a narrow building sandwiched between other galleries, restaurants, and retail shops, one is struck with a palette of vibrancy. His impressionist style allows imagination to run, placing familiar subjects as you’ve never quite seen before.
A few doors down at Toucan, the entire store is filled with handmade and regionally sourced art. From Carol Spielman’s distinct stick-legged horses to glass artist Kathy Burk to folkloric pottery artists Theresa Gong and Sue Tirrell, the range of work on display spans paintings, pottery, glass, metal, turned wood, and more.
“Small business is defined by adaptation, and that is why this place has survived,” Sanderson said. “We wanted to offer a broader selection of art with the idea that everything is handmade by an artist. Nothing in here is made in China.”
Further west, on 14th and Grand, The Frame Hut owner Helen Tolliver has artwork for sale from nearly 70 artists—many from Billings and the surrounding area.
“We have a fabulous client base that supports the local artist that we carry,” said Tolliver, who purchased the gallery and frame shop in April. Her decision to invest in the arts was a pivotal moment in her life.
“I did not want to have any regrets, and I jumped.” Tolliver was no stranger to the gallery life, having worked at The Frame Hut for 14 years prior to purchasing the business.
The Frame Hut is rich with textures and mediums of all kinds, from jewelry to the massive towering paintings. Tana Patterson’s hand-built ceramics, the fused glass creations of Mary Knapp, frescos and cleaned gourds of Sharon Fred, A M Stockhill’s paintings atop old pages of books, chunky, brightly painted originals by Kira Fercho and giclées of her 12 Tribes of Montana—it’s in each piece that Montana comes alive.
Originally published in Magic City Magazine, Dec. 2015
The Billings Artwalk has never been so vibrant. With nearly 40 galleries to explore, each with a plate of art that continues to change, Artwalk is no longer a strolling affair. It’s a marathon.
Autumn’s annual Artwalk, held this year on Oct. 2, is rich with new works. Art seemingly busts from its creators this time of year, a symptom of the falling leaves, or perhaps remainders of summer’s playful imprint.
To name just a few (as my art marathon was focused on a few specific artists), art enthusiasts could enjoy Louis Habeck’s molded vignettes of skin samples at the Good Earth Market—the muddled wrinkled segments painted in creatively unrealistic ways set amongst Emily Davidson’s wickedly playful and lucid paintings of creatures in aquatic tones. Cartoonist Jason Jam’s devilish monsters in pencil were crawling off the walls of the Carlin Building, while his wife Wendy’s mandalas gave a more grounding vibe. Next door Connie Dillon’s three-dimensional paintings with miniature scenes were so rich and tempting, you could almost leap into them. At Del Alma Gallery, Kevin Rose’s calming scapes of abstract impressionism made me want to curl up and sip IPAs all night and just stare at the rolling monochromatic textures. Across the street at Better To Gather was perhaps the most eccentric collection on this particular artwalk: a living art installation featuring human canvases.
Billings-based artists Michelle Dyk and April Dawn took on the subject of metamorphosis for the installation, titled “The Chrysalis.” The display, visible from the shop’s window facing Montana Avenue, featured four models treated as living canvases, their body art progressing inside as Artwalk took place.
Dyk concepted the installation to feature a surreal setting of aspen poles and a glowing chrysalis, set against a dark backdrop. Dyk’s models were painted in earth tones to resembled tree gods covered in moss with long branch-like fingers. One could imagine them crawling from the cocoon, their whimsical bodies just beginning to stretch out in the scene. Dawn painted two models with geometric patterns and donned them with floral headpieces. The two painted women, one who was nearly nine months pregnant, resembled Grecian goddesses rich with life, temptation, and fantasy.
Artwalkers strolled throughout the installation, interacting with the in-process and finished people, watching the art unfold. “There was a lot of traffic,” Dyk said. “People seemed to enjoy and be intrigued by the living art dynamic.”
All in for Soloist + Breathe, a collaboration with Matt Smiley, on his album The Avant Garde:
I wrote Breathe from a stairwell of memory, a back-of-bar kind of encounter. When Matt asked me to send him some recordings, this was fresh off a bar napkin. I’m honored to be included. Find the full album at Matt’s bandcamp.
The magazine pitch: Always the bridesmaid. The gist:“All your friends are getting married. Talk about weddings from your perspective…like getting fitted for a dress you will hate, or helping plan a party, or how over weddings you are…trying to be happy for your friends while you reserve your sense of inevitable doom,” assigns my editor.
My face: Pursed.
My initial reaction: Oh, you want the 30-something divorcee to weigh in on marriage? Over my dead body.
I’ve got nothing against marriage. I think everyone who wants to get married should have the ability to do so. Not everyone who has the ability to get married should.
I reference my marriage rarely. Like a knee-jerk reaction, it comes out socially only when I’m trying to relate. “Oh, it was a great wedding,” I say. “I’d do it all again, just pick a different guy.” This usually nets a few awkward chuckles and sympathetic glances.
I recall with mysticism myself as a 20-something, ready to say, “Till death do we part,” especially given the way we were able to revoke those vows. Turns out, marriage for us was, “Till death, or we part.”
It’s in the Secret Meetings of the Bitter Divorcees where I feel most comfortable discussing what is often labeled as a failure. “Failed marriage” survivors, I’ve found, have many of the same relationship fears and regrets. We didn’t get married thinking it would end or that we picked the wrong spouse. We ponder how the life we once lived, which started out so blindingly good, could be diminished to a paper trail. Untangling one’s self from exes is painful. Untangling from a marriage is downright nasty. My ex still shows up on my credit report.
This is not to imply that I’m “over” weddings, as my editor implied. I love love, and nowhere is it more abundant than at a wedding. I’ve been on the sidelines and at the altar, been a therapist, officiator, photographer, florist, caterer, and confidant. I’ve cried joyfully, and I’ve given a few cry-worthy toasts to some of my very best friends at weddings. I’ve talked a tequila-filled bride out of the bathroom on the eve of the wedding. I’ve safety-pinned the gaping bust of a wedding dress closed seconds before the first dance. I’ve been the last one on the dance floor and the first one to the clean-up party.
Never have I seen more love and happiness in one place than at a wedding.
I’ve also seen my fare share of these weddings last. Many still have that new car smell, being less than a decade in—a feat I do not take lightly as I didn’t even last half that.
It’s as though the Internet algorithms want us unwed folks to find Zen in the relationship stewpot. Yet, to wed has long been part of our social expectation we’ve been practicing for thousands of years, but that pressure to marry may be easing.
Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, for the first time on record, single American adults outnumber married ones. According to the Pew Research Center, American adults above the age of 25 who have never been married hit historic highs 2014. Twenty percent, about 42 million people, have never married, compared to 9 percent in 1960, attributed in part to emerging gender gaps, marrying later in life, and cohabitating or raising children outside of marriage.
Marriage may be on the downtrend, but to wed or not to wed remains a point of contention for Americans. The generally held belief that society is better off if people marry and have children continues, yet each year young adults become less likely to marry (even while living with a partner). And for the been-there-done-that adults, only one-in-five currently say they would like to wed again, estimates Pew.
Is marriage going out of style? As younger people render it unnecessary, the ways people approach and talk about marriage has shifted. Waiting to marry can provide an individual opportunity for financial independence and gives them more time to understand the ways they love. Whereas, marriage was once seen as a way to provide stability and family, the contrary is beginning to evolve: to marry and have a family, one must be stable.
What comes with a divorce is the ultimate realization that no one is going to take care of you. You’re left to look out for #1. Yet, is this any different for the married population? At the end of the day, there’s no guarantee this person will love you forever, regardless of legal tender that binds you.
Perhaps the overwhelming sense of failure that some divorcees experience isn’t so different from the incredible pressure that some married folks endure: Their marriage could, like so many others, fail.
The question then becomes not about marriage, but about trust. Can you trust this person to have your back? Is this an emotionally safe relationship? We all want to feel safe, satisfied, and connected in all our relationships, and we want to avoid fear, frustration and heartache. When we attach to others to fulfill these needs, we engage our brain’s limbic system—the center of emotion, motivation and bonding.
Happiness, in part, is made through a cocktail of brain chemicals, specifically four neurotransmitters of the limbic system: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals are linked to different aspects of happiness.
Endorphins, which mask pain, act as natural painkillers. Dopamine, released in enjoyable, repeat behavior, activates the reward center. (It’s that warm feeling you get when you’ve accomplished something.) Serotonin provides feelings of value and is tied to self-confidence and pride. Oxytocin, the “cuddle chemical” or “love hormone,” is a bonding molecule. It’s released by touch and physical intimacy, and helps create feelings of trust, reinforcing relationships.
These neurotransmitters are managed by the limbic system, often called the reptilian brain. This primal part of the brain was the first evolutionary leap in our cognitive development—a reward center to train the brain. From an evolutionary stance, dopamine and oxytocin produced by love and sex contribute to survival of the species. Success at a task produces serotonin, a sense of pride that trains the brain to seek more success. Endorphins produced during exercise mask pain, helping the body with its survival mechanisms.
When the brain is in a stressful environment, cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is released. Cortisol functions as the body’s early warning system (fight or flight), originally useful in keeping us alive. In a modern sense, cortisol is manifested by anxiety and stress. For many, that cortisol drip keeps us in a constant state of paranoia, which interferes with our body’s ability to balance hormones.
When we extend trust and have each other’s backs, we’re releasing happy chemicals and reducing the cortisol drip. Essentially, to love is a survival mechanism. To connect is to be human. What we do with those connections is the tricky part.
After my divorce, my need for connection didn’t go away; it became heightened, but I lived without confidence. I forgot what it felt like to trust like no one ever broke it, forgot how to love without fear that I wouldn’t be loved back.
I forgot what it felt like to trust like no one ever broke it, forgot how to love without fear that I wouldn’t be loved back.
Yet, as I waned from the cortisol drip and let the limbic system drive, my paranoia declined. My ability to trust amplified, and pretty soon I was wading back into love, getting my happy chemicals from the trust I extended to others.
Relationships, regardless of rings, require incredible amounts of trust, gratitude, and grace—for you and for others—none of which I fostered in my wedded life. Marriage was a net that made me feel, no matter what, I was safe. I believed we were statistic dodgers, a couple who could make it against stacked odds that we would be thinking on a trajectory that led us down the same path.
Problem: We loved the good parts and didn’t talk about the bad. We didn’t allow space between us to grow independently, nor did we help each other in the messy underbelly of life. We didn’t have each other’s backs.
Were we too young? Not ready? There’s no science to the right time to marry, rather a longstanding expectation that if you’re in love, it’s what you do. I don’t fault the institution. It’s not so much age, rather life’s lessons that I lacked. In avoiding loss and rejection and only seeking peace and love, I was avoiding the bigger parts of life, the ones that—if you’re paying attention—prepare you to make better decisions in the future.
This time around, I’m more conscious of the kinds of people I spend my time with, and when we make messes (love is messy), I’m a bit better at figuring out how to resolve that conflict, or know when it’s time to move on.
We’ve all been wounded. We’ve all crashed our hearts for someone we truly believed in. And we’re in this human stew together. How you treat yourself will set the tone for how others treat you. Love, and be loved. Give, and receive. Trust, and be rewarded. It’s in these steps toward connection where love’s chemicals flow into the neural pathways that link us together.
We exist because we love. We love because we’re human. We’re human because we connect, and break things, and make messes. We will have many great loves of our life. So belly flop into love. Face plant for it. Cross continents to get it. Do a double take, a head-over-heels NASCAR crash, an Olympic-swan-dive-karaoke-belting-traffic-stopping-carpe-diem grab for it. Your brain will reward you.
Deniz Tek is ambidextrously inclined, as the right and left hemispheres of his brain control completely different enterprises: medicine and rock and roll.
One of the most influential musicians in Australian rock, Deniz is a modern renaissance man. He’s a Naval flight surgeon who specialized in emergency and aerospace medicine, an emergency room doctor who ran St. Vincent Healthcare’s Helicopter Emergency Lifesaving Program while also serving as the director of the ER from 1992 to 2002, and was named one of the top ten Australian guitarists of all time. His band—Radio Birdman—helped launch an entire movement of rock music across the sixth largest country in the world.
Deniz has balanced this timeshare over the years by segmenting his musical and medical lives. “I can’t do either full time, and I’m willing to sacrifice a little time from each to maintain both,” Deniz said in a recent phone interview. He doesn’t have an office practice, so he’s able to take time off from the ER without abandoning a patient to play music and tour.
Deniz brings ferocity to his music in the same way he brings intensity to the ER. He’s the original Iceman whose call name was immortalized by Val Kilmer in “Top Gun,” and he now splits his time between working emergency rooms in Sydney, touring internationally, and recording his music. He has dual citizenship in Australia and the U.S. and maintains a home in Billings, returning each year because there’s something enchanting about this little city that has kept up with the allure of Europe, Australia, and the Motor City, where Deniz first formed his legendary sound.
Deniz was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an hour west of Detroit. His father was a first generation Turkish immigrant (Deniz is a Turkish given name), his mother an American. He grew up listening to early ‘60s surf rock and hot rod music. He was hooked on the Ventures, Phil Spector, and Dick Dale—all the music that was big before the British invaded.
“I was just learning to play the guitar and was really interested in that kind of music,” Deniz said.
Deniz began taking guitar lessons at age 12 and started his first band a year later, merging his early surf rock influences with the sounds coming from Detroit in the mid 70s, a gritty in-your-face workingman’s rock and roll.
Ann Arbor, with its particular mix of beatniks and artists, academics and hipsters living among industrial folk working in huge car factories and machine shops, was uniquely positioned to create high-octane rock and roll—a direct response to this blue-collar-meets-avant-garde scene.
Detroit was churning out bands such as MC5 and Ann Arbor replied with The Stooges, who laid a bass line of volatile rebellious rock that had never been heard before. Deniz recalled it being an incredible place for music, if only briefly.
“It was at the forefront of everything in those days—way ahead of L.A. and London.”
At age 18, Deniz took his Motor City musical background to Sydney, Australia, which had lingered in his memory since visiting five years earlier with his parents.
“Being near the ocean was a big deal, especially for a kid growing up in the Detroit area,” Deniz said. “I wanted to surf, to be out on my own and very far away from where I grew up.”
The roots of Deniz’s sound, all that high-energy rock and roll, was a new language in the land down under. Deniz took this fast and frantic Detroit rock sound and in 1974 formed Radio Birdman, a group long associated with the Australian punk rock movement, yet their sound—a kind of full-contact high-intensity rock—predated punk.
“Before ‘punk,’ they didn’t have a label for us,” Deniz said. “They didn’t know what we were. We were getting thrown out of gigs, and we only became acceptable because they could put a label on it and they could see there was some commercial viability to it. When punk actually hit, the only thing we had in common was the energy level involved and playing fast.”
Flew the Coop
In 1976, Radio Birdman was picked up by Sire Records and had evolved into a six-piece with keyboard and fairly complex song arrangements—a far cry from the gritty dissonance of the punk movements of the mid to late ‘70s. They launched out on a European tour with the Flamin’ Groovies, wrapping in mid 1978. They were slated to tour North America with the Ramones, which would have launched the band across the American music scene, but Sire Records filed for bankruptcy and dropped most of their bands, including Radio Birdman.
“We found ourselves without a label, without tour support, and with our album sitting in warehouses,” Deniz said. The group had no viable way to get their album in the hands of listeners, so in mid 1978 Radio Birdman wandered back to Australia, where the group dissolved.
“I think we were a better fit for America than the UK,” Deniz said. “Under another trajectory, things would have a lot different.”
Deniz moved back to the U.S. in the early ‘80s, after having been in Australia for 10 years, which is when he joined the Navy. In 1989, after fulfilling his tour of duty, Deniz started looking for a good place to raise his family. A position as an emergency room physician was open at St. Vincent Healthcare. “Billings seemed like a good place for my family, with low crime and clean air. And it was a good job opportunity for me. We showed up there without knowing anyone. It was November, the week before Thanksgiving, and it was already snowing hard.” Deniz laughs as he recalls his hot rod, which was completely useless in the snow.
A Billings Connection
Local musician and Yellowstone Public Radio DJ Ron Schuster brought Deniz into the Billings musical fold, asking Deniz to join his weekly radio program on YPR as the “Mr. E. Guest.”
“Deniz is a character,” Ron said, “One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.” Ron introduced Deniz to fellow musicians Bob Brown and Pat Rogers, whom Ron jammed with at his house on the West End of Billings. “We all instantly became friends—still are,” said Bob.
Ron had a studio in his basement, and they started weekly jam sessions, writing songs under the name Zero House. “We were just a bunch of guys having fun,” Deniz recalled. “We did a variety of material, mostly playing covers, but I got the idea that I wanted to do an album myself—a solo album—so I used those guys to test out ideas.”
Deniz’s musical connections from Ann Arbor and Australia came through town to assist in this solo effort, and there was a period where Scott Asheton, one of the founding members of the Stooges, and the guitarist from Radio Birdman, Chris Masuak, hopped into the jam sessions.
“These guys reached a pinnacle with their band, traveled the world, and were recognized all over,” Ron said. “And here I am, a guy from Billings, Montana who barely plays guitar, jamming with them. It was a real ego boost for me. When you think about the Stooges, and the shit that those guys went through and have done, it was an honor to be in the same room.”
After a couple years writing and recording material, Deniz set off to Texas to master his solo album at Sugar Hill Records. Titled “Take it to the Vertical,” the album dropped in 1992 and has a song named “Me and Gene,” written by Ron about his time as a teenager driving the Montana Hi-Line and trying to pick up radio signals from Canada. A program about Gene Vincent came through the airwaves one night, and Ron was taken with the rockabilly founder.
After the release of “Take it to the Vertical,” Deniz launched an international tour to support the record. When the bassist dropped out of the tour without notice, Deniz called Bob and asked if he would join the tour. When Bob landed in Australia, Deniz was on the cover of the Asian/Pacific edition of Rolling Stone. But Bob knew Deniz in a different capacity: one of a dedicated ER doctor who gigged in a basement with Bob and his friends. “I’ve always known Deniz as Deniz,” said Bob.
“Bob and I work really well together,” Deniz said. “We understand each other, and he can tell where I’m going musically and help me get there.”
Deniz Tek’s latest solo recording, “Detroit,” was released earlier this year. He spent nearly two years working on the record in Billings, Bozeman, and Australia and recorded almost all the vocals in local musician Bob Brown’s home studio.
“Bob has this uncanny ability to produce vocals,” Deniz said. “He can tell me what’s needed, what’s not working. He knows when to say stop and knows when it was the right take. It’s an easy working relationship.”
“When we work, we work hard and we work long,” Bob said. “We have all developed over the years a process that just seems to work.”
“Detroit” is clean and minimalistic, like pounding back a shot of straight rock. “This album was designed to be stripped-down-straight-ahead rock and roll,” said Bob, whose driving bass lines arc through the record. Bob’s son, Steve Brown, is also credited on the album for his percussion work. Other Montana musicians on “Detroit” include keyboardist Ron Sanchez, who co-owns Bozeman’s Career Records with Deniz, and the English rock drummer Ric Parnell, who is perhaps best known for his role in the rock mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” as the ill-fated drummer. He now lives in Missoula.
It’s not like these gents are trying to imitate rock and roll; they are rock and roll.
Pure, undistilled rock can be found at the white-hot center of “Detroit.” It’s not like these gents are trying to imitate rock and roll; they are rock and roll. Though the album was recorded in a collaborative effort, Bob credits Deniz with the final product. “We are part of a process of Deniz Tek doing what he does,” Bob said.
“Deniz is sharp and focused,” said Steve. “Whether he’s tearing open a chest or shredding on guitar, it’s the same intensity level. You’re in good hands if Deniz is taking care of you medically, and you’re in good hands when he’s taking care of you with rock. He is always on his game…and Deniz only has an A game.”
Tor as intense and exacting as Deniz is, he’s not a perfectionist. “If it’s good and he likes it—it’s good,” Steve said. “He doesn’t spend a lot of time going back and agonizing.”
“That’s perhaps the biggest influence on Steve and I,” Bob added. “Deniz will say that’s good enough, and then it’s done. He knows when to move on.”
A Billings Draw
Deniz’s story is a tremendous chain of musical happenstance and career choices that brought him to Billings 24 years ago. Though he works in Sydney and travels internationally for music, he maintains a home in Billings and returns at least once a year. “I have so many great memories of Billings,” he said. “What keeps me coming back are the people and relationships.”
Billings is a connected place to make music, one of open circles and freeform jams. It’s not the sexiest place in Montana, but there’s a collection of exceptionally talented musicians who choose to live and work in Billings. “People in other music communities tend to look down on Billings, which I think gives Billings people a sense of unity and solidarity,” Deniz said. Living in relative isolation, Billings has a DIY spirit that drives local musicians and provides a place for making music that is authentic and genuine.
“If anyone doesn’t like it—too bad,” Deniz said. “It means a lot more when it’s difficult to get.”
Trey Owens came into my life as he did so many others: a chance encounter followed by a run-in at a coffee shop, a pleasant exchange, and then quite suddenly, he held my rapt attention. Naturally charismatic, with quick wit and magnetic properties, Trey possessed a remarkable ability to quickly cut through social niceties to expose the heart of a conversation.
Trey was 17 when doctors identified a rare cancer eating away at the bones his left leg. Cancer’s continued presence in his body, despite extensive surgery and repeated chemotherapy, heightened Trey’s thirst for connections, his quest for knowledge and universal truth, and it accelerated his pace of life. Trey lived each day knowing he could die, not of old age with a lifetime well spent, but at a tragically early age.
In early February, I received a phone call. Trey’s voice on the other line was ragged, and he struggled to talk. He explained his cancer was spreading. It had grabbed at his core, wrapping around his trachea while expanding throughout his thoracic cavity, but he wasn’t going to do chemo. Not again. Not this time.
Trey knew his body better than any doctor or x-ray ever could. He was finely attuned to his internal structure and sought out literature on life and death, consuming vast amounts of theology to aid in understanding his shortened life cycle. “I know that a body in motion stays in motion,” he told me, “and that a body at rest stays at rest.” Trey had reached life’s finale, and he wanted to share his story.
A Life’s Sum
In 2008, Trey was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer that strikes often in bone or tissue during teenage growth spurts. The first indication of a problem occurred while Trey was horsing around with his buddies. His mother, Deb, said her son came to her looking quite pale and feeling pain on the inside of his left leg, near the knee. Trey could see the pain, almost like an open wound, but Deb couldn’t see what was making her son hurt. Sensing this pain was abnormal, Deb took her son to Billings Clinic where doctors x-rayed his leg.
Deb’s concerns heightened as the frequency of x-rays increased. “I knew something was really wrong,” she said. Trey was referred to orthopedics, where they were told he had cancer. If left untreated, he might make it 30 days.
Of all childhood cancers, osteosarcoma is rare. The American Cancer Society estimates that half of the roughly 800 new cases per year occur in children under the age of 20. The cause is unknown.
Trey was referred to a specialist in Salt Lake City. A biopsy confirmed he had osteosarcoma in his left femur, and an aggressive chemotherapy regiment was established back in Billings to shrink the tumor before Trey could undergo surgery. He returned to Salt Lake in January 2003, where doctors cut bone from his femur to his tibia, including the knee, and replaced it with titanium parts. To kill any of the disease that remained, another intensive six months of chemotherapy in Billings followed. Trey’s cancer went into remission eight months after his initial diagnosis.
Cancer deprived Trey of his entire senior year in high school, but he made the choice to return the following year, still on crutches and recovering, to obtain his diploma. He lived cancer-free for nearly five years—a milestone for cancer survivors—before needing a second surgery. The cancer had not returned, but the titanium inside his leg was chipping away at existing bone, requiring a more substantial implant.
While osteosarcoma can be treated with surgery alone, the disease tends to manifest in other parts of the body. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital estimates more than 80 percent of patients relapse. The same was true for Trey. Seven years after the initial diagnosis, his cancer returned.
Catalysis for Connection
Trey was known as a man of conversations, and he furiously studied the beauty and tragedy of life. He was intently tuned to the joy and pain of others and found a way to emotionally connect with every person that he met. Nate Petterson, poet and close friend of Trey’s, dubbed him “The Coffee Shop Shaman,” a title Trey earned by spending countless hours at Off The Leaf. A cozy coffee shop on Grand Avenue, Off the Leaf is often filled with students and patrons reading, working, philosophizing, and just spending time with one another.
“Trey and I spoke for hours there and elsewhere about all manner of everything,” Nate said. “From the comedic to the serious, the morose to the immature, we covered it all.” Their discussions flowed from quantum mechanics to the spiritual, universe dynamics to chaos mathematics. “He loved it all,” Nate said. “I think he might have loved everything.”
Kate Olp, another close friend and confidant of Trey’s, recalls the first night they met. “He asked me very bluntly, ‘What is your philosophy on life?’” They proceeded to chase each other down a rabbit hole of philosophical conversation. “It’s pretty rare in life that I can say to someone, ‘I think that the principles of entropy and gravity govern social organization, and they can say, ‘Absolutely.’ But Trey was right there.”
To describe Trey’s quest for knowledge, Kate shared the ancient Indian parable of three blind men who came across an elephant. They had no knowledge of such an animal, therefore no reference to explain what they’d discovered. The first blind man grabbed the trunk, claiming he’d discovered the elephant and described it as a long, sinewy object seeming to float in the air. The two remaining blind men made similar claims, though each described a different piece of the elephant. “All three of them are right, but they’re also all wrong,” Kate said. “They are only right if they listen to each other and accept that there is a much grander reality than what they’re each individually able to experience.”
Trey approached life similarly, trying to grasp as much of the elephant as possible. Conversations with Trey were substantial, often weighted with theory and questions about what happens when we die. “If you ever spent time talking to Trey, even if was just for 5 or 10 minutes, if when you were done with that conversation and you didn’t feel inspired or motivated, then you weren’t listening,” Nate said.
Trey was also vivacious, witty, and charming. He had a playful component to his personality that kept his friends guessing. “He still makes me laugh,” said Nate, recalling Trey convincing him that someone had responded to his Craigslist ad to fulfill his fantasy of having sex with a 500-pound woman.
“I will never stop laughing,” said Trey’s mom Deb, thinking of the many times Trey goofed around with her. Whether he was trying to convince his mother that he had no idea who David Letterman was, or that he’d recently been arrested (for being too good looking), Trey was filled with good humor.
Kate recalls Trey’s playful nature, even when it came to philosophy. “I’m a person who likes to get straight to the heart of an idea, whereas Trey would be like one of those birds floating in concentric circles around it. Just when you think he was going to veer off into another dimension, he’d get right down to the heart of things.”
This lighthearted, playfulness that Trey contained gave him the unique ability to consider his pursuits for knowledge as play. “He was having fun,” Kate said. “He didn’t plod through ideas, he danced with them.”
Language of Thought
Philosophy was just one of Trey’s many native languages. He spoke through multiple channels of poetry and the written word, freestyle lyrics and the language of hip-hop, and through his love for life and people.
“Trey was a dying breed when it came to DJs,” said longtime friend and fellow freestyler Charlie (Chucc D) Stripling. “He was one of the last people I knew who still scratched discs. He taught me to freestyle your heart out, to never give up.”
Deb bought Trey his first set of turntables when he was 15. He had no formal training or education on mixing beats and was proud to be self-taught. After a few years of scratching, Trey moved toward digital technology. He played shows around Billings under the moniker NuWae of Life and became a professor of sorts to fellow hip-hop artists and DJs in the scene.
“Trey was incredibly passionate about beats,” said friend and fellow hip-hop lover Joslyn Moses. “He was my KRS-One. He inspired me to become a better lyricist.” When Joslyn found out Trey had passed, she was legitimately afraid to listen to hip-hop again. “I was scared of how much it’d hurt to miss him through every beat. I hear the music louder now because I know he’d be mobbin’ with me, encouraging me to turn my levels up.”
Reflecting on Trey, Chucc D said, “Trey once told me it wasn’t just a song, it wasn’t just a beat, it was the MC who was on it, the spirit behind him, the movement behind him, the spirit inside of him, and the soul that pushed him to do what he wanted.”
“He was always searching for the truth with everything,” said Trey’s mom. “The books he read and the knowledge he had were just amazing.” She described Trey’s quest as a constant search for perfection, knowing that cancer was his imperfection.
Cancer often outpaced Trey, but he continued to search for love with the ever-present fear of the disease growing within his body. Each day brought him new connections, more pages, and new songs. “He was a young man with so much talent,” his mom continued. “Trey wanted to be married, wanted to have kids. His sadness was that he could never keep moving forward because he kept being setback. Yet he was giving. He was selfless, and he was always trying to find love in his quest.”
Nate describes Trey as a genius, a warrior, and a poet. “He was The Amorist. He was the best of us.” Trey had long identified himself as The Amorist, a person who is in love or who writes about love, and he pressed his friends to find their Amorist within.
Though Trey’s cancer wasn’t a choice, he was given a choice in the way he handled the disease. “It required a strong will and a great strength of character for Trey to choose over and over again to be the person he was,” said Kate, “because he could have chosen otherwise.” To Kate, such choices defined Trey as The Amorist. “Each of us—in the face of all of our daily struggles—has the choice. Are we going to become bitter, are we going to be come callous, are we going to become mean? Or are we going to make the incredibly difficult choice to remain open to others, to remain open to love?”
It was this love within Trey that allowed him to stay openhearted and led him to work at A.W.A.R.E. Inc., a group home helping physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged youths with their lives. Trey had great passion for his work at A.W.A.R.E., and his natural compassion for others was rewarded tenfold by the connections he made. In the autumn of 2009, Trey continued his quest for knowledge and began school at Montana State University Billings.
Trey was happy, his mom recalled. He had finally moved forward in a positive direction away from the setbacks cancer had caused him. Yet in early 2010, seven years after he had been declared cancer-free, Trey’s left lung collapsed. Doctors found and removed a cancerous spot on the collapsed lung. The cancer moved swiftly this time, and the following year another spot was discovered and removed. After finding a third cancerous spot, Trey underwent four months of intensive chemotherapy and then on May 1, 2012 doctors removed the entire left lung, parts of his chest wall and several ribs from Trey’s his back. The lung’s removal did not stop cancer’s devastation, and soon the headaches began. Cancer had metastasized into Trey’s upper mediastinum underneath his trachea. Doctors told Trey that this time, it was inoperable.
“This is it,” Trey said. “My life is over.”
The Compassion of Pain
Cancer’s final return was not met with chemotherapy or surgery. Trey knew he had limited time. He could have chosen toxics to slow its progression, to again lose his hair and suffer the emaciation of chemo. “But he chose otherwise,” said his mom. “Trey was a grown man with limited future. It was his choice.”
Throughout Trey’s life, pain was constant. Cancer slowed his gait, and he walked with a cane. Often he was hunched over himself, instinctually protecting his fragile body by holding his arm against his torso. Because of his many surgeries, Trey suffered nerve damage that caused weakness throughout his body.
To deal with such vast physical pain, Trey was on incredible amounts of pain medications, taking upwards of 30 – 50 pills a day. Many were narcotics, which created a sense of numbness throughout Trey’s body and caused him to lose touch with his sensations. But Trey was a renaissance man, one of those “beautiful people that you read about who stopped to smell the flowers,” said Joslyn. Yet Trey’s medications prevented him from such sensory pleasures. Joslyn recalls Trey consciously accepting even more pain in his life by detoxifying from his meds. “He would stop for weeks and months at a time, just to show himself that he could still feel,” she said—still feel the sensation of goose bumps, the grass on his skin, or the wind upon him. This seemingly boundless pain was part of the reason Trey felt such endless love and compassion. It brought a sense of urgency to his life and heightened his need to love unabashedly.
In similar ways, Trey considered laughing and crying as one in the same, a philosophy that closely aligns with the works of Kahlil Gibran. A favorite author of Trey’s, Gibran believed death’s secrets lie the heart of life, and that only in the greatest depths of sorrow can one feel unbridled joy. Gibran’s books were a great source of comfort to Trey, as he could have easily turned his pain into anger.
Trey’s miraculous story is of his compassion for others. From Trey’s first diagnosis, his father, Fred Owens, watched his son connect with everyone he could. “Whether they were 8 or 80-years-old, Trey was reaching out to them. He was love in action,” Fred said.
Compassion itself is derived from suffering. “Compati,” the word’s Latin origins, means to suffer with. “Pain leads to compassion,” said Lyon Virostko, a philosophical friend of Trey’s. The two met at Off The Leaf. “Compassion is the endurance of one’s hardships. When I suffer with another person, I’m there with them, able to see them.”
Lyon describes Trey’s cancer as the catalysis that amplified his ability to love and his ability to suffer, intensifying the qualities that Trey already possessed. Kate described such qualities in Trey as a concentrated color, where the pigment becomes much brighter, sharper and clear. “Everything that was Trey just became concentrated into this person and into this time period,” she said.
A Wealthy Man
Trey’s life was plagued by a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block in his poetry and music. Trying to compress an entire life into a limited period of time, he furiously consumed knowledge, yet struggled to put pen to paper or finalize a beat on his hard drive.
“It became this thousand mile journey where it was really hard to take that first step,” said Kate. Perfection became Trey’s enemy. “He wanted perfectionism but knew he wouldn’t have the time,” said his mom. “This is why he constantly struggled.”
Joslyn estimates that Trey deleted a large portion of the music he created, but he was constantly working on his rhythm. “He would plug his laptop into my car and produce a beat in a gas station parking lot that would be 15 seconds pure beauty,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t get to hear that, but Trey was a phenomenal producer.”
Lyon visited Trey several times in the weeks leading up to his death. In these visits, Trey lamented how he was unable to preserve his thoughts. “It seemed that he could endure that physical pain, but the pain of not being able to write was literally agonizing to him.”
Trey’s physical pain did keep him from leaving behind a legacy on paper. “Trey lived in his heart,” recalled his mom. “If there was ever a moment when he was not in pain, he wanted to be with people, he wanted to be out sharing his love and his search.”
Nate described one of his last conversations with Trey, which circled around the idea of Karma. “We discussed the true meaning of the word,” Nate said, “and that it translates, simply, to doing. Where you are in life is your Karma: it is your doing. It’s not some system of checks and balances for good or bad deeds.”
Trey talked with Nate through another one of his regrets—not pursuing fame or success, and he felt he would be leaving this world poor. “I told Trey that had he pursued wealth and commercial success, he probably could have had them… but he didn’t. Trey pursued meaningful connections with other people because he knew that meaningful connections are all that really matter at the end of the day, at the end of the road, at the end of everything. In this way, Trey left this world a really wealthy man.”
A Fish in Water
Trey did leave tangible bits of his life behind—scratchy recordings of conversations between friends, clips from his many years of mixing beats on his computer, marginal notes scribbled in books passed onto friends.
Deb played me one of Trey’s recordings she found, a muffled conversation between Trey and one of his friends captured on a car ride. His voice on the recorder was calm, almost soothing. He talked extensively of this idea that poetry should remain in a constant state, like perpetually swimming. “When you’re swimming, the point is not to get out of the water. The point is to be in the water. And when you finish a poem, you’re getting out of the water,” Trey said, an idea he attributed to 18th century poet John Keats.
Trey felt the same of music. “While you’re sitting there with a base line for 25 minutes and you haven’t come up with anything, indeed you have. You’ve been in the essence of what it’s all about: Existing.”
To Trey, existence was the constant movement forward, the pull of life and death, the cycle of a laugh, the spirit inside us that is forever swimming. “When you face mortality and beat the odds that many times, you live to exist,” Joslyn said.
“The greatest thing about being an artist is not the finished product and what people will pay for it,” said Chucc D. “It’s the process of doing it and going through and making something yours and your own, because if you stop, there’s no room for progression anymore.” Trey never had his hands on the trunk of the elephant and said, “I’ve got this figured out.” He was continually reaching for more.
“The most important thing for Trey was finding as much of the elephant as possible,” Kate said. “When you put something down on paper, you’re making a declarative statement that implies a universal truth. As soon as Trey put something down, that implied the portion of that search for truth was over.”
An Inspired Life
Trey’s story has unfolded to me like a Salvador Dali painting I had the good fortune to see in person: Gala looking at the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20 meters is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. As I stood in front of this massive painting, struggling to see the full scope of the work, it was obvious I was staring at Dali’s wife, Gala. Yet her body formed the eye and nose of Abraham Lincoln. This spectacular trompe l’oeil, or double image that Dali created is best viewed from afar. Yet I found the most substance and detail in the pixels only discernable up close.
In similar ways, each piece of Trey’s story forms a sum greater than its parts. But the pieces convey its essence, like the painting Whitney Marie Donohue created from a photo of Trey lying in the grass at Pioneer Park. She captured an essential quality of Trey—his contemplation. “He always had that look on his face, like he was up to something,” recalled Whitney fondly. She credits Trey with her renewed passion for painting. “Trey is a hero of mine. There’s no better release and no better way to feel 100 percent happy as when I’m painting, and Trey brought that out in me.”
There are hundreds more stories like Whitney’s. Trey inspired Lyon to become a philosopher. “I was too afraid to put myself out there, but Trey brought it out,” he said. In Chucc D and Joslyn, Trey lives on as their internal MC and teacher. Fellow hip-hop artist Joshua Tree, who called Trey his little brother, said that Trey taught him to start loving people again. “I’ve been burned before,” he said, “but Trey reached outside of that. He challenged me to reach out of my comfort zone and get to know people.” Trey inspired Kate’s journey of compassion, and in myself, he rekindled me with the written word. I recently chose a path that led me away from writing, but in pursuing his story, my faith in the power of creating has been renewed.
The Last Word
In one of Trey’s final recordings, I believe he finally found his voice. Reverberating behind piano keys and laid behind a sultry beat and a lone trumpet, this voice was raspy, urgent. “It’s been a hell of a year. But I can say that it’s been more like a whole life…I’m almost at the end of the line…It’s been one hell of a sound.”
Life to Trey was getting into the water. He never wanted to get out. What remains is the essence of swimming, a life immersed in moments. In death, Trey left behind so many warriors that carry his spirit and his boundless love forward. I’ve seen him on the walls of galleries and the tips of paintbrushes, heard his story in the voice of hip-hop artists who called him professor and on the tongues of poets who talk of love personified. He is embedded deeply in the mosaic of our community like a quilt where we’re all sewn together as one. He lives on through everyone he found on his quest to love. With spring’s sprouting flowers, his seeds are growing; his voice has been given wings.
“I’m never going to die,” Trey continued. “I’m timeless. I will never ever rot because I rock and roll.”
A Sarah Morris painting seems lifted from a familiar drive, where expanses of highway open across hundred of miles, where mountains parade across the skyline, and where the road seems endless—only the sky can cap its winding existence. Like driving such a long, familiar road, Sarah’s paintings inspire comfort, a sense of time and place, and a luminous feeling only Montana can give.
We're living in the middle of this world-class scenery. I let my imagination take it from there.
Sarah paints in long expanses and bright, vivid colors with the aide of photos she takes on road trips. These familiar images are rendered new though Sarah’s filter, one of lucid lines and dynamic tones, where she captures some of the most insanely beautify skies cut by curving roads leading into Montana mountains.
It’s a familiar scene, one we’ve passed a thousand times, yet perhaps never fully acknowledged. Amongst the sound of highway—the monotonous whirr of the vehicle’s engine lulling us into contemplation—the mountains loom, their presence a form of therapy, a conjuror of solace.
“Being on the road is really therapeutic—almost scary,” Sarah said. “You can be so deep in thought while also operating heavy machinery.”
Painting through pain
Sarah has always felt like an older person in a younger person’s body. She was widowed at age 19, shortly after her daughter was born. From such pain she found art a comfort, something tangible to create from her anguish. Now her mid-20s with a 7-year-old, Sarah embraces her surroundings and the creativity that has evolved our of her circumstances.
“So many females don’t realize what a struggle it was 50 years ago (to be a female artist). I feel that I am privileged to be doing this and actually be taken seriously,” Sarah said.
Sarah and her daughter’s home, which she purchased on the south side of Billings in her early 20s, provides her a painting studio and a sense of peace, and it grounds her. Like a cook creating a meal from scratch in a home kitchen, Sarah paints in her dining room, often while friends gather in the adjacent living room, plucking guitars and talking amongst themselves.
“Some artists are really reserved, but I’m the opposite,” Sarah said. “I choose to paint in my dining room; it’s where people gather. Even if I don’t say anything, I am still part of a conversation.”
Sarah likens painting to problem solving. “I like to think that painting puts my brain in order and brings clarity to any issue that I have,” she said. “This has aided me in getting over things.” Other times Sarah feels stagnant, but she sees this as part of the creative process. “Sometimes you have this block—sometimes you have to be unproductive. That is human character.”
Becoming Sarah Morris
Sarah was 15 when she finished her first painting, which currently hangs in her best friend’s kitchen. “Hopefully she can sell it and retire someday,” Sarah said with a sly grin. A charming 26-year-old and Billings native, Sarah’s charisma stems from her intensely personal nature. She surrounds herself with the things that bring her happiness—friends, music, and art. Her smile is contagious, her curly hair charismatic, and when she paints, all that personality pours onto the canvas.
Sarah attended Montana State Univerisy-Billings, originally pursuing an art education degree. Realizing she lacked patience to teach art, but had the passion to create it, Sarah switched to a fine arts major. In MSU-B’s art department, Sarah cultivated an interest in watercolor.
“(Watercolor) really developed how I paint with acrylics,” Sarah said. “I’m not that patient, and watercolor made me a little more patient in that it’s less forgiving than other mediums. You really have to plan your work and wait for it to dry completely before moving on.”
Such a technique set off Sarah’s anxiety, an anxiety she feels made her grow as an artist and evolve into her main medium—acrylics. “I like to handle anxiety in a productive way,” Sarah said. “Having (anxiety) means I’m taking a leap—it is not something that makes me curl up.”
In an idealistic world, Sarah figures she could paint pictures that aren’t about selling. But for her, there’s always hunger involved, which makes her paintings all the more urgent.
To pursue this hunger, Sarah left her home for the Hawaiian island of Oʻahu. “It was there that I felt this drive to feel real hunger,” she said. “If I wanted to eat that day, I had to sell enough paintings to pay for my gas and my food.”
Merging Hawaii and Montana
It wasn’t long on O’ahu till Sarah got island fever. “I needed our wide open spaces and our friendly faces,” she said. “I needed to get lost.” She returned to Montana in mid-December, and spent the frigid end of winter in her house painting.
“I did nothing but paint how I felt,” Sarah said. “I didn’t realize was how many people in the world are so envious that we live here. Hawaii was paradise to me, but I also realized what a paradise I had here.”
This was a new start for Sarah. Feeling so much emotion for Montana, her painting took on a different style.
“I wanted to bring back this young, contemporary art going on. Everyone appreciated the beauty of Hawaii, yet here so many of the young artists aren’t grasping that Montana is a part of them. It is emotionally overwhelming. It’s like sitting in front a 40-foot wave.”
Sarah’s art has evolved since her time in school and her time in Hawaii. “I eventually reached this point of not needing to prove my artist ability, which gave me the freedom to paint things that my emotions wanted me to paint,” she said.
Not setting out to prove herself, Sarah found her niche. “When I switched to making my painting about me and not what people think about it is when I created a fan base.”