Wednesday, January 16, 2008
A week into January, 27-year-old Jason "Twiggy" Lott leans back in his faux-Swedish chair, running his fingers through close-cropped hair and casually tossing one denim-clad leg over the other. In the flawless glow of bright wood and industrial metal, Twiggy is pondering issues as clichéd as his place in the world, and as weighty as the coiled potential of 2008.
He thinks he has something.
Abruptly springing forward, he adjusts the volume on his Mac Powerbook, relegating The Cure's "Same Deep Waters as You" to a bit of seductive ambiance. Twiggy, himself, echoes this same ambiance, which seems to spill over onto the avocado-colored walls of his office at the Gibbes Company where he works as a graphic designer. But instead of launching into plans for the upcoming months, he quips, "I was really into horror movies."
His list includes "Hellraiser," "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th."
"I grew up on the stuff," he muses, recalling how, at 12, he was already "drawing people doing insane and grotesque things." He explains: "[T]he bad guy just looks cooler, man. He has better weapons and better funding. The good guy may be muscular and awesome, but he's just some blonde-haired dude. He looks stupid."
Twiggy admits an irrational fear of Sasquatches and alien abductions, describes his parents as "nuclear and supportive," and recants the earliest evidence of what he labels "my sick, sick humor."
"It's funny watching 'Harold and Maude,' because that's what I did," he says. "Harold is like, 16, this privileged kid in this huge house, bored to death. Anytime his mom would walk in, he'd commit suicide. Obviously it's fake, but if my parents left to go to the grocery store, they would return to me sprawled on the counter, blood everywhere." He shrugs off the adolescent charades, offering only, "Some means of weird catharsis?"
The anecdote seems incompatible with the man sitting behind the desk, a poised professional in a paired sweater set, with the slightest hint of hipster facial scruff. But a few years back, Twiggy was a fixture around town, buying stamps or filling his gas tank in white-face and blackened eyes, with shimmering lips, wigs and fishnet tights. "Actually, my first career interest was makeup artistry. I wanted to make monsters," he confesses.
As a student at Forest Hill High School, Twiggy began experimenting with fashion as performance art.
"You turn 15, you get a driver's license, and you get out of the bubble you grew up in," Twiggy says. "I really considered myself an artist at that point. I was drawing all the time. I knew I was going to make a career out of visual art."
He got his first computer and early graphic software. A close friend, Johnny Winters, was into HTML programming and a Web game called "Quake." Together the duo designed home pages for Johnny's Quake "clan," learning the rudiments of their trades.
These were the bright spots in a high school experience that Twiggy self-consciously classifies as "not bad," before padding the description. "I was an eccentric outcast who frightened the other students and perplexed school administration," he admits.
Oct. 31, 1997. A cool Friday morning finds 17-year-old Jason Lott standing in his usual schoolyard cluster, biding time until the bell signals home room. He's wearing a vintage suit, platform boots and goth makeup. While chatting with friends, he casts sidelong glances at the school principal, who eyes him nervously. As Mr. Thornton strolls his way, Lott grimaces at his best friend Johnny. They know the drill.
Thornton pulls Lott aside, politely requesting he wash his face. It seems a group of freshmen are huddled in the band hall, frightened to enter the main building. Barely four weeks before, Luke Woodham had shot two students at neighboring Pearl High School, and everyone's edgy. Jason sighs, ducking into a nearby restroom.
"Pearl really changed the dynamic of things," Twiggy notes a decade later. "Afterward, people were more afraid of me than just befuddled. I wore a trench coat. Unfortunately, those dickheads that shoot up schools made trench coats a stigma."
He recalls another incident, involving a special-ordered West German military jacket. Once again, Mr. Thornton sought him out, requesting that he leave the jacket in his locker.
"If people weren't being straightforwardly aggressive, they'd just say, 'Why do you look like that?' and I relished it," he says. "I'd give them the most nonsensical answers like, 'Because I wanna kill myself,' or 'You know, I got this door at home, it's painted pink and green, and it just makes me dress this way.' Of course, that only confused them more … ."
Twiggy gestures as he speaks, maybe to dismiss the intensity of his next statement. "People thought I was Satanic, or for whatever reason, you think someone like that is homosexual; I don't understand the association." He breaks into a sardonic chuckle, before muttering, "You know how f*cking rednecks are."
It's his intonation, the way he practically spits the syllables, that reveals the lingering truth of high school. Even all these years later—when close friends, an enviable girlfriend and multiple successful careers mark Twiggy's brilliance—remembering is still painful for him.
"In high school, Twiggy did his own thing. The majority of the kids thought he was a little strange, but I guess we thought they were strange, too," his friend Johnny says now, hesitantly. "They all thought he was trying to be Marilyn Manson."
A self-described "nerd and loner," Twiggy spent high school developing interests that would later inform his art and career. He became captivated with World War II and Cold War history, because "absolutely everything that we are and everything that's around us pretty much spawned from World War II, and those five to seven years of humanity going as fast as it could to create new things," he says, citing the invention of plastic as an example.
Twiggy studied World War II's contribution to the Cold War ethos. He wanted to understand the German use of visual propaganda and the dark, moralistic absurdities depicted in Kurt Vonnegut novels. "After World War I, Germany was falling apart at the seams, and they turned to Hitler because they thought he was the solution," he marvels. "That's so fascinating to me, how the solution turned evil … ."
These observations and the implications of media manipulation, population control and mass hysteria became thematic on Twiggy's canvases and in the life-as-art aspect he cultivated in his early 20s. "One of the things I enjoy most is making people question, but on a limited or one-to-one basis—doing something only a few people will see, that is very, very strange," he says.
Consequently, Twiggy tries not to seek overt recognition for his art. He appreciates the recognition but makes a concerted effort to remain humble. "One of my potential flaws is vanity. It's easy for me to lose perspective," he says.
Twiggy logged a semester and a half at Mississippi State University, majoring in the "graphic art" of fermented substances and extreme pharmaceuticals, before returning to Jackson to take a full-time job at an ad agency called Mindbender.
"I was 19, making good money, living in my own place, drinking and smoking plenty of pot. I never realized how paranoid pot made me and how much it contributed to my natural social anxiety. I would drive to a coffee shop and then be unable to get out of the car. Of course, to medicate that, I'd smoke more pot," he says laughing ruefully.
One night there was an unexpected knock at the door. In party mode, he flung the door open, enveloping the waiting officer in a haze of marijuana smoke. Twiggy found himself facing paraphernalia charges, a suspended license and a year of probation. "It was just this bad joke," he says now, plucking at his scruff with nervous fingers. "I didn't want to quit. I was really angry."
Twiggy's probation ended on a Friday. The following Friday, he and his friends were "blazin'" at his house, "smoking a big fat 'J' out of these American-flag rolling papers," and having such a grand time that they almost didn't hear the second fateful knock. The cops were after a roommate who had skipped out on court. The roommate wasn't home, but Twiggy's new rolling machine, purchased that very day, was on a table in plain view. Exactly a week after coming off probation, 21-year-old Twiggy found himself with another court date and two more years of penciled-in appointments with Flowood cops.
Raised in Southern Baptist churches, Twiggy's beliefs had disintegrated by age 18. Even so, "that second time, the circumstances were so serendipitous that I felt like God, the universe, whatever, was trying to tell me I don't need to indulge in drugs anymore," he says.
The first night after the second bust, Twiggy couldn't sleep. In fact, he tossed in bed, finding it difficult to breathe. His chest was tight, his throat constricted with dread and fear. Sitting up, he gulped oxygen and grabbed the phone. He did the only thing he knew to do. He called his parents. They told him to pack his bags and come over. Essentially, he moved back home that night and hasn't really left since.
Twiggy was exhausted. He gratefully entered court-ordered rehab, eager to be done with bars and parties. Everything made him uneasy, anyway. For a year he was, as he puts it, "just dry." He wasn't using or drinking, but he continued to struggle with anxiety and depression. He hit an even lower point when Mindbender, his employer of three years, went under. At a general loss, Twiggy stopped making art.
Then one night, in a Belhaven apartment, he met another artist. William Goodman was the same age as Twiggy, vibrant, happy, painting and sober. With William at his back, Twiggy began to seriously focus on sobriety and, slowly, began to paint again.
Pictures of You
William's first impression of Twiggy was a jumble of "skin and bones, glam make-up, an intimidating, picturesque dreamer and a bad-ass designer," probing the nuances of a "challenging new outlook on life." The two artists bonded immediately.
"Twiggy can be intense," William concedes. "Best just step out of the way … I mean, Twiggy is S.W.A.T. If the Bigfoot creatures come, he will be ready … but he's also like the brother I never had."
Twiggy credits William with "essentially, everything. When I first met William, I didn't have an artistic 'voice.' What I knew was design. Even with painting, things were design-oriented—lots of lettering, images that were explicit and smooth."
Collaboration was inevitable, but the two were different types of artists that "found each other's styles annoying," Twiggy admits. If he needed a straight line, he got a ruler, while Goodman blithely freehanded. "It's kind of like, 'Wait, I had an idea, but you just f*cked it up by painting that thing in there, and I just f*cked your idea by putting that there,' so it's a huge part ego and letting go," Twiggy explains.
One night while working together, nothing interesting seemed to be happening. Frustrated, Twiggy stepped back to survey the canvas. Then Goodman confessed: "I don't really know what to paint."
"Paint the one thing you know would be wrong to paint. Do it now, do it now, do it now," Twiggy practically shouted. "Do it before you have time to talk yourself out of it!"
That was the night Moe Ffitsle was born. Moe became a recurring character in a well-received series of 20 paintings.
"We never started with preconceived notions," Twiggy says. "We'd just get to a point where a painting made zero sense, and then we'd sit on the floor and tell each other stories about it. Later we made up stories while we were creating a piece. Like I'd say, 'Make Moe jump out of an airplane,' and one of us would draw a plane."
Moe was about exploring freedom, with both artists pushing each other to break personal boundaries. "It was an experiment and playtime, but it wound up being really cool stuff."
This was the early millennium, a time of dynamic youth, urban revitalization and fast evolution in Jackson's art scene. The Fondren Corner building was a raw hub of energy, housing the studios of emergents such as Ginger Williams, Josh Hailey, Jason Marlow and William Goodman. Along with Twiggy, these five artists were the core of an ever-changing group that called themselves "The Projectors," a sort of audacious take on rock-star artists or "art-stars." The idea was a parody and a joke, but the glamour was real.
The art-stars dressed outlandishly, staging impromptu photo shoots and spectacular stunts around town. They hung posters portraying themselves in imaginary rock bands, painted murals and threw belligerent rooftop costume parties, spending entire nights as characters.
"It was full-blown manic energy," Twiggy reminisces. "We'd be hanging out in William's studio, and, suddenly we'd be like, 'Let's go see what people are doing,' and we'd go down to Ginger's studio and get into something there, or Josh would be running around saying, 'Let's do a photo shoot,' and it was just this amazing, all-night, every-night free-for-all."
Ginger Williams says the scene had two crucial components. "Sobriety was a big part of it. We were on this total natural high, because William and Twiggy were sober, and we were always together, so we just fed off each other. Sleep deprivation and caffeine were our drugs of choice." And despite the fact that everyone was professionally crowding a tight marketplace, "we were absolutely noncompetitive. In fact, that was the most supported I've ever been."
She pauses, then adds, "You know, it takes a village to raise a person."
The scene was rooted in geographic proximity. Over the course of a few years, as the key players grew older and moved away or turned their focus to individual projects, it dissolved almost as organically and haphazardly as it had transpired. But those years revived Twiggy's confidence, filling his emptiness with rowdy purpose and ushering him into adulthood with a redefined model of "everything as art," and mindful living.
"I usually just paint without any concept of what I'm trying to make," he says. "The painting only means something after others see my work. They say what it means to them, and then I feel like, 'You're right, you know, I think that is what I was trying to say.' … more and more as I've painted, it's become about process." He rolls his eyes at his own rhetoric. "Everyone says that, but when I paint a red canvas, and somebody's like, 'What? I could have done that,' then I know it's true."
He describes his recent work as extremely physical.
"I'll move the canvas around, from the easel to the floor and back, and my wrist is just going like this," he says, demonstrating a spastic back and forth flick in the air. "At the moment I'm heavily into Rothko, these huge planes of color."
He views his personal art as an escape from the excruciating detail of design, although he's quick to mention that he genuinely loves graphic work, including the advertising angle. "I don't think people are sheep. I think they're generally smart and savvy, but like I said earlier, I'm intrigued by mass manipulation," Twiggy says.
"We're saturated with so much information, we just can't help but buy into it. And that's interesting."
Just Like Heaven
Two days later, crouched in a beige bathtub, scraping caulk, Twiggy is finally ready to talk about 2008. Apparently he expects the year to be largely defined by his relationship with a saucer-eyed, flaming-red-haired girl from Louisiana—one Karen Hearn.
"I've never been to this point in a relationship," Twiggy says, tugging at a particularly tough bit of caulk. "Everyone says I have a fear of intimacy, and I know that's trite, but I guess it's true, because usually when things get close or something makes me uncomfortable, my gut reaction is 'Well, obviously we need to end this.'"
But with each day that goes by, he grows more comfortable with the escalating intimacy of his nearly two-year relationship with Hearn. Where he used to look forward to coming home from work and watching the History Channel, now he looks forward to coming home to whatever the two of them have planned.
"Aw, that's so sweet," he gurgles, self-abashed.
Twiggy and Hearn met on a church trip in 1995. "He was really quiet and shy in those days, but around his friends, he was the most hilarious person I've ever known," Hearn says. "He could do these great imitations, and he was always wearing silly hats." Afterward, Hearn and Twiggy lost touch for several years, rediscovering each other on MySpace in 2006.
A smudge of burgundy coat and ballerina flats, Hearn stands in the beige doorway, watching Twiggy in the beige bathtub, all of which resides in a cozy three-bedroom house just south of County Line Road. Twiggy purchased the house as an investment, but he also bought it with Hearn in mind, thinking they could "really start" their lives together.
So at the moment, 2008 is about making the house habitable. In a few weeks he and Hearn will move in, and, for the first time in a long while, Twiggy will have plenty of studio space.
"How has Twiggy changed? Well," she giggles, "he doesn't wear silly hats anymore." But for Karen, "it's hard to say, because he was a kid, and now he's an adult, and I missed those crazy teenage/early adult years. Since I've known him the second time, he's become increasingly self-aware. He's constantly monitoring his interaction with the world, trying to remain a productive and positive force."
One of Twiggy's tenets for 2007 was to have faith in a higher power. He hopes to continue that development as 2008 unfolds. "Just this past year, meditation took on new meaning for me. I studied yogic or Eastern meditation, which helped me learn to truly be quiet," he says, freezing with the scraper, sensing a stillness necessary to comment on stillness. "I love that about Eastern culture. In Western culture, we have a hard time conceiving of nothing happening. We even make small talk when we're by ourselves, thinking about what we need at the grocery store, etc."
The phrases "prayer" and "interacting with a higher power" roll off his tongue, along with "getting in touch with the world beyond the physical" and "seeking power beyond communication." For Twiggy, seeking his higher power is more about connection.
"He's less anxious," Hearn notes. "There's been a recent loosening inside him. He doesn't think about all the bad things that could possibly happen and probably won't. He thinks about the future in an optimistic, forward-thinking manner."
In many ways, Twiggy's life has become outwardly small. He traded his glitzy makeup and "art-star" antics for a house in the 'burbs, a traditional career and a committed relationship. But for a man who has seemingly given up much, he is satisfied in his current position and path. "I think every day is as interesting as every other day. I have ridiculous fun doing the most mundane things," he says, grinning.
Asked for resolutions, Twiggy shrugs. "My goals for 2008 are about the same as my goals for each day. I want to have a good day. I want to help somebody. I want to be the best I can at what I do.
"Ultimately," he says, nodding contentedly, "it comes down to perspective."