Pat Perry Features

Pat Perry

The Detroit-based illustrator infuses his art with street style, social justice and his native Midwestern sensibilities.

Jennifer Conlin

Visual artist Pat Perry is often described as an “adventurer,” likened in the past to Jack Kerouac because of his itinerant lifestyle. He crisscrosses the country, documenting his travels through art, whether sketching a waitress in a diner or photographing a field through a window. He jumps freight trains, hitchhikes, drives a pickup and a motorcycle, has been arrested, had a gun pointed at him, and has landed in countless small towns, countless times. But despite all this, he wants now to set the record straight. He is not like Kerouac and never has been. 
 

© Nate Pelak

“The Kerouac stuff is flattering, but in reality, I started traveling that way only because I had no money and I wanted to see the country. And I sketch in journals because I want to keep making art and that is all I can fit in my backpack," Perry says, sitting outside his small trailer in Detroit, where he has lived for the past year and is now thinking he might settle for even longer.

Five hundred feet away, through a small garden of sunflowers in an otherwise dilapidated neighborhood, is a backyard shack with a broken roof. On its front wall, Perry has painted a mural of a man in army fatigues lying tangled on the ground, his eyes peeking out from the jaws of an animal mask that looks like a cross between a horse and a wolf. 

The recently painted mural was a gift to the friend who owns the house and lot where he currently parks his trailer. It is a present he would like to give others in the neighborhood still waiting for the empty houses around them to be boarded up or fixed up. He has his eye on a mechanic’s shop down the street—the owner has to buff the walls regularly to get rid of the tagging spray-painted by kids. “I would do a mural for free, as I have the paint, and kids generally don’t tag murals. But I want to respect the cultural fabric here. Maybe the folks who have lived here forever don’t want my style of art, and I am not entitled to put stuff just anywhere I want,” he says. “Even in the most vacant-looking areas like this in Detroit, what few realize is there are still tons of people living here.”

Perry has chosen to make Detroit his new residence not just because it is affordable for an artist, but also because he finds creating here both fulfilling and challenging. He could be living a much more lucrative lifestyle had he chosen to take on all the commercial work he has been offered lately—Heineken, Converse and Acura, to name just a few. But for both professional and personal reasons, he has turned down some big money projects. “I only want to make work that reflects what I care about,” he explains. 

Despite this, his portfolio includes everything from editorial illustrations for the New York Times and Atlantic Records to the hand-assembled book Drawings about Black Holes, now in its second small printing, published by Issue Press, a small publishing and print shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Perry grew up. 

Integrity rules his career choices, no matter how difficult. Recently, he was offered $40,000 for a two-day Taco Bell shoot in Los Angeles in which he would be filmed spray-painting a mural. He said no. “I would never judge anyone harshly for taking work like this, and even for me, it was a hard situation I mulled over because I could have used the money,” he says. “But I just don’t want to be remembered for that. Maybe it would have been a flash in the pan, but maybe I would have become the Taco Bell guy.”

I want to make paintings that just softly whisper to you the thing that you forgot.”

George Wietor, a friend and the founder of Issue Press, says, “I can’t stress enough how talented and genuine he is about his work. He just has this catalog of images coined from his travels that he uses to be not just a storyteller, but also an activist.”

To that end, Perry’s work also appears regularly in collaborative projects he takes on for the Beehive Design Collective, a national arts-centric social justice project—he is one of two dozen volunteers who are working, according to the website, as “word to image translators,” who share stories “through conversations with affected communities.” Through Beehive, he has been working with other artists to draw Detroit’s problems in graphic novel–like posters that can help explain the pressing issues behind food and water security, unemployment, and education. The Beehive posters are then used as teaching tools in a wide variety of environments, from lecture halls at big universities to church basements.

For the past few summers, Perry has even traveled to Europe, invited on each occasion to speak about the philosophy behind his work at international design/arts festivals—twice at the OFFF Festival and once at MAD by Domestika—because his attitude toward work is decidedly different from that of many artists today.

“I spoke about my responsibility as someone making art and about having some integrity about doing it,” he said. “But there is also power in saying something with your art that is important and that maybe no one else can say. Even with my small little voice,” he says, mentioning the great architecture of downtown Detroit that still stands even if the structures are empty inside. “They thought about craftsmanship back then. Now it is all cheap vinyl siding,” he says.

I genuinely feel like my main concern is making the best work that I can, and if that means staying out of the spotlight for a while, that is fine.”

Perry, who reads and quotes such great writers and philosophers as David Foster Wallace, Max Horkheimer and Friedrich Nietzsche, thinks a lot about the processes that fuel his work. It is also one of the reasons he travels so much. “Sometimes I just run away. I need to. It is how I get to be alone and be a silent observer for a while. To not talk, but listen and watch and build up a visual vocabulary of what I have seen,” he says. 

His journals are filled with sketches and writings, full-blown drawings, and quick studies of the people and objects that move him while he is on the move. Filled with a mélange of images, all drawn with a black Bic pen, the journals feel like a travelogue not only of the places he has visited, but also of his mind. There is one drawing of his grandfather just months before he died and another of a man and woman on top of a car floating in a flood. On another page, faces and figures appear to be growing out of a feral garden. He is good at the quotidian—a guy riding his bike, a family waiting for a train—but he then turns them into haunting, harrowing, human narratives. 

Incredibly soft-spoken, Perry seems almost embarrassed to speak too confidently about his talents, though he is quick to credit his family and upbringing for the success he has achieved. Growing up, he waited at numerous hospital appointments for his twin sister, who was born with spina bifida, and he occupied himself by drawing what he calls “typical” boy obsessions—robots, army men, monster trucks—remnants of which can still be seen in his work. In high school, realizing college would be a reality for him only through an arts scholarship (his mother worked as a school-teacher; his father, as a copy editor), he decided to set aside time each day to work on his art. When he then got a moped at age fifteen, he took his sketchbook to every “weird part of Grand Rapids” to draw.

Though he was accepted at the Art Institute of Chicago, even with a one-year scholarship, he knew he could not afford to attend. So he attended Kendall College of Art and Design in his hometown. But three years into his degree, he dropped out. “I felt like I was growing my technical skills, but I was not being pushed the way I wanted,” he said. By that time, he was already a working artist, having done his first illustrations for the New York Times—one to accompany a crime story, the other for a technology article. He has no idea how the venerable publication learned of his work. Now he has a website he updates regularly that showcases his portfolio, and to this day, he enjoys working for editorial clients, including VICE magazine, Science News and Malibu Magazine.

Fortunately for Perry, he had an early mentor in Chuck Anderson, the founder of Chicago-based creative art and design studio NoPattern, who encouraged him to follow his instincts. “[Perry] wanted to drop out of school and asked me, ‘How can I make just enough money to do my passion projects?’” Anderson recalls. He encouraged the young freelancer to follow his instincts, but also advised him to save money wisely in order to have the freedom to do what he wanted creatively. “What is great is to see he is doing that now in Detroit and controlling his work and career beautifully,” says Anderson. 

Perry finds steady work because his illustrations speak for themselves. Jeremy deVine, the owner and art director of Temporary Residence Ltd., a Brooklyn-based record label, wanted a single piece of artwork for the band MONO’s new two-album set and was happy to discover Perry’s work on the art and design blog Colossal. “I wanted something that the viewer could get lost in,” deVine says, adding that Perry more than achieved his vision. “I often found myself fixating on small sections of his work for what seemed like an eternity when I was laying out the record.”

For the moment, Perry is enjoying his time in Detroit, though a few side trips are planned. “I genuinely feel like my main concern is making the best work that I can, and if that means staying out of the spotlight for a while, that is fine,” he says. 

He would like to be commissioned to do some more murals in the city (he just helped a friend complete one in the Eastern Market neighborhood). But he is also working seriously on some large-scale paintings, having been offered a one-man show in Italy in October 2016. A second show is also in the works, in San Francisco. The one painting that is nearly completed is of a red pickup truck driving through a landscape familiar to Perry: the Midwest, gray and flat. Although the road looks endless, it also looks reassuringly familiar. 

“Funny American details of my family’s past and upbringing in Michigan, in this normal Midwestern place, are so special to me now. It is something universal that I think folks can identify with,” he says. “I want to make paintings that just softly whisper to you the thing that you forgot.” ca

Jennifer Conlin has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times for more than a decade, writing most recently about Detroit’s revitalization efforts. She is the founding editor of Creative Voice (creativevoice.buzz), a social media–based arts journalism source that produces and posts videos showcasing the arts and culture in southeast Michigan. 

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