Julian St. John: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Artist Julian St. John has been knocked around by schizophrenia, homelessness and addiction, but he is still standing and is ready to impress the art world at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art in Laguna Beach.
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On the day after the Oscars, Julian St. John, a budding star in his own right, arrives at Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City with his mother, Mia, a world-champion boxer. Julian wears a Playboy Jazz Festival T-shirt and a Yankee cap with the NY logo dyed pink. As it turns out, he is not necessarily a jazz or Yankee fan. He just likes the look.

Six-feet tall and thin with a wisp of a mustache, Julian, 23, is an artist, whose paintings, pastels and pencil drawings will be exhibited for the first time on March 29 at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Julian, who visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam some years ago, says that he has long revered the late Dutch painter. This makes sense given that Julian not only loves to paint, but that he also suffers from schizophrenia. He has been particularly drawn to Van Gogh's painting, "Bedroom at Arles," because it reminds him of his grandfather, whom he refers to as a "lonely man." Like "The Night Café," another classic Van Gogh painting, it also has an off-kilter look, with a warped floor and caved-in walls and ceiling.

Julian knows what it is like to feel lonely, off-kilter and claustrophobic. He has endured bouts of severe depression since he was a child. And for a stretch of time in the recent past he was homeless, sleeping in the bathrooms of public parks and occasionally in motels. He has battled addiction issues and has had scrapes with the law.

But Julian also has a searing talent. His paintings and drawings call to mind the work of another depressed artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who also spent time living on the streets and in parks while grappling with drug addiction. Like the paintings of Basquiat, Julian's art often includes text crammed next to images of African-American protagonists in an urban setting. Also like Basquiat, Julian is of both African-American and Latino descent.

When asked about the current state of politics in this country, Julian, who sometimes seems to get distracted during a conversation, regains his focus and says that there is "not much of a difference who the president is." It is understandable that he feels this way given the lack of attention afforded mental-health policy over the years by presidents of both parties. As I wrote last year, Newt Gingrich, whose mother had a mental disorder, was the only major presidential candidate who discussed mental illness in the campaign in 2012.

It is only in the past few months that President Obama has broached the issue. Sadly, he has only done so in the context of a tragedy, the Newtown massacre, which is an outlier. As studies show, the vast majority of violent crimes in this country are committed by people who do not have a mental disorder.

Yet mental illness continues to exact a tremendous cost on society. As I wrote last year, the World Health Organization estimates that, by 2020, depression, which Julian still battles along with schizophrenia, will be the "second leading contributor to the global burden of disease, as measured in the years of life and productivity lost due to premature mortality and disability."

Julian, who was first diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18, nods when I tell him about some of my delusions from years ago, such as my fear that I was going to be blamed for a series of murders around the country. And Julian smiles when I tell him that my psychosis was so acute that I even thought my wife's cat, who was following me from room to room, had been trained by the CIA.

As Julian cuts up his waffles after lacquering them with syrup, he says that he has experienced psychosis as well. When he starts to have delusions, he "ignores them."

One of his most effective means of countering the delusions is to work on his art constantly. His Web site (theartofjulian.com) proclaims that his art is "where reality and delusion become intertwined" and that each image reflects his "journey of psychosis."

Julian, and his mother, Mia, who has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, both admit to being "nervous" about the upcoming exhibit. But they are nervous in a salutary way. And who would not be nervous about a first show, especially one where Julian's work will be taking up the entire gallery on March 29, a Friday night. He will be displaying roughly 16 pieces of art, most of them 20 x 24 canvasses as well as a few that are wood with acrylic finish.

Julian, who has the support of his mother, his father Kristoff, an actor who has won Emmys for his performances on The Young and the Restless, and his girlfriend, also intends to publish a book of poetry and music writing.

As he leaves Jerry's Famous Deli, Julian takes out a cigarette from a pack of Pall Malls and lights up. The interview has perhaps been a bit stressful for Julian. Fortunately, he learned from his mother, who at 45 is still boxing, how to get up from the canvas.

He has been knocked around by schizophrenia, homelessness and addiction, but Julian St. John is still standing and is ready to impress the art world in Laguna Beach.

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