All visuals in this post are by Nicolas C Grey
The first time I stumbled upon the name Nicolas C Grey was when Ben Liew, the editor for Juice Online, recommended the artist to me.
Nicolas, I’m told, has been residing in Cambodia for over 15 years and has been an underground comic artist and the author of several indie graphic novels.
What’s fascinating about Nicolas is his unique punk-like art style. However it was his choice of topics and art subject which really got me sitting up straight. His artworks, though focused on decay and flaws in society, was alive.
In fact, all of his artworks were breathing. I instantaneously knew this was no ordinary artist. Ben was kind enough to get me in touch with Nicolas. Here’s Nicolas’ story.
Hey Nicolas, let’s start right at the beginning. Do you remember the first time when you were introduced to the arts? What attracted you to it?
My father is an artist, so, I’ve always grown up around art. He would make copies of famous paintings as well as his own drawings. Ever since I can remember, I’ve known the works of most of the major artists, probably from the books and pictures around the house.
I think all children start off drawing in a kind of cartoon like style, and I just never grew out of it. I was probably always drawn to the low brow kind of art, despite being more exposed to the world of fine art. I would like the cartoons on cereal packets, or other things which were not really considered art.
I probably drew my first comic book at 6 years old, and my style has always been, more or less, the same. I was never interested in experimenting much. I don’t remember having any big revelation about the arts, it’s just something that I’ve always done as long as I can remember. I was a shy kid, and people always seemed to like my drawings, so, it was that — a sly way to get positive attention that perhaps propelled me.
It was only later, when I was maybe 12 or so, that I first saw underground type cartoons, and I thought, “This is amazing!” I found it thrilling, that people could express themselves this way and it was “allowed”. There is a comic cover by Robert Crumb called despair, which depicts a man staring out a window while a woman is seated next to a television. She is saying something like, “Do you want to watch some TV?’’, and he replies “Why bother’’. I’m not sure why, but that image was one of the first that made me think I could express what I felt I wanted to express in the form of comics.
I don’t only draw comics, I do other drawings that are less ‘cartoonish’’ that I show in galleries. There are some ideas I have that come to me in a purely visual form, and I’m compelled enough to make drawings of them.
Comics are a little different, I can create narrative type stories, but both are attempts to express certain feelings I have about this world. I do enjoy the culture of underground comics more, I find that world has less pretense around it and I’m more comfortable there. The art world I find more difficult. Like I’m more out of place.
Part of your youth involved drugs and being homeless. You were also placed in psychiatric hospital as well. Could you share more on these experiences?
Like I said, I was a shy and sensitive kid. I was never that great at dealing with people. I had a happy childhood, but as I grew older I was more horrified by some of the grimmer realities of life. Strangely, I was also drawn to it as well. I’ve always been drawn to things I didn’t understand, and I wanted to understand the underbelly of life. Probably, it was a very roundabout way of trying to understand myself, the shadow we all have. It was as if I was forcing myself to live in the shadow self in order to understand and expose that part of myself that I had or have a hard time dealing with.
I also have a somewhat obsessive personality, I guess what you would call an addictive personality, so it was a dumb move to get involved with drugs. I was also never really interested in things like having a career, getting ahead in life, etc. My obsessions have always been more philosophical. Society, understandably, is structured around things that held little interest to me, so, once I got involved in drugs, I just kind of fell off the deep end and got lost in that world. And, in the end, it was harder to function in the world, and that was noticed.
I was never really a crazy person, or at least I didn’t think I was! But what can society really do with people like me? Ignore them, or try to fix them. I do have regrets. I probably worried my family and caused them a lot of pain. I was probably a lot more selfish than I should have been, and hurt myself, but, like I said, for a long while I was just lost in this world. We all are to a certain degree I guess, but I just couldn’t find any equilibrium. I still don’t feel at home in this world, it’s just I’m a lot more accepting of that fact.
To at least some degree, having lived through that, I feel I have accepted my shadow self as part of me, so, most of the time, I’m much more at peace with myself and the world. In retrospect, it was a foolish and dangerous way to get there, but it’s just what happened.
How difficult was it and how long did it take you to get off your drug addiction?
It was very difficult to stop taking drugs. For a long time I considered it impossible, and I assumed I would die a drug addict in some alley. I was a drug addict for over 15 years, most of that, mainly heroin, though I would of course take almost anything. Why? It’s hard to say… heroin is a pain killer, and I was in some kind of pain, and it helped me deal with that. Other drugs where more incidental.
I never went to a treatment place. I was considered a lost cause. By chance I ended up in a self-help meeting, and designed my own detox, which, again, is a ridiculous and dangerous way to go about things.
At the time I stopped, I was addicted to heroin, crack cocaine, methadone, and all kinds of pills from various doctors. I was homeless, and my detox took about 6 months of slowly cutting everything down. I started straight away with the illegal drugs, but it was the pills and methadone that took the longest, after about 6 months I was totally drug free.
I enjoy being sober. I like the clarity of mind, the freedom from the stress of being enslaved to a substance. I don’t have any urges to go back to that. Maybe, occasionally some psychedelic drugs, but I consider those to be in a different class.
A lot of people I knew died. Some after they got clean, suicide, etc. I still have bad days but there are a few people I love dearly in this world, and I don’t want to cause them any pain or worry. I still find regular life difficult, managing my emotions, money, all that stuff, but I’m simultaneously very happy and grateful to be alive, and see the world as both incredibly beautiful, painful, and delicate.
A common theme that is prevalent in your art is decay – it is predominant in Life Sucks. You either depict this figuratively or metaphorically. Do you find yourself thinking about death often?
I wouldn’t describe myself as morbid, nor do I think others see me as morbid. Having said that, I do think of death often. I’m not sure how often others think of it, so, I can’t compare. I’m more interested in psychological decay, both in society and the individual. Isn’t everything in a state of decay once it comes into this world? At the same time, there is a lust for life, it’s a contradiction I find fascinating.
The world I live in, that we were born into, is alienating, and that is expressed in a 1,000 different ways. I’m very much aware that life is transitory, that we are caught up in the ebbs and flows of time, but one day all these will be gone.
Every moment dies and gets reinvented into the next. I’m interested in the fragile nature of life. I’m more interested in failure and people’s inner torments than trying to put a positive spin on things. I’m not a pessimist, or a nihilist, though I do find myself having rejected a lot of the premises that make up the structure of the world we live in.
In some ways, I do feel like an outcast, or outsider, I always have. I think this bothered me for a long time, but I’m much more at peace with it now, especially as these structures don’t seem to be working all that well. Sometimes it seems like the world has caught up with the kind of stuff I was drawing when I was young, but maybe I’m deluding myself, I don’t know.
Your artworks are extremely trippy. I showed it to a friend and he remarked, “Damn, these will be best experienced with a tab of LSD.” Has such substances influenced the creation of these pieces?
As I’ve said, I have had a complicated relationship with drugs. There is a cultural myth that drugs enhance creativity, that mental illness is connected to creativity. The opposite is true, both hinder the creative process.
I’m sure drugs have affected the way I see the world, but it’s not possible to compare how I would have seen the world had I lived a different life. I don’t really like to give advice, but I would say, don’t buy into the myth that you can take a drug and it will somehow fire up your creativity. It will most likely hinder it.
It’s true, a tab of LSD can make you see the world in ways not possible without it, but it’s just an experience, like a dream. The world is an amazing place but we don’t really see it most of the time, we are just looking at a map of it created in our brains. Everyone has moments where we feel we are seeing things afresh, drugs can distort that flow. Maybe that’s not such a terrible thing, but really, unrelated to creativity.
In your opinion, why is the world obsessed with enlightenment?
Society has evolved to a point that most people live highly atomized, alienated lives. It’s natural to want to escape this somehow, as we are all connected and a part of everything. This contradiction produces a desire, a yearning, to return to something that may be gone forever. It’s the human condition, both tragic and beautiful. Some may want a new car, a bigger house, some may want to be enlightened, reside in a heavenly paradise, but nearly everyone wants, at least some of the time, to be somewhere else, somewhere better, to forget themselves. It’s like advertising, creating a desire by selling the idea that what you are is not good enough. It’s how the hamster wheel keeps on turning I guess.
What’s the most memorable life altering experience that you’ll never forget?
I don’t know. It’s a strange question. If an experience altered my life, how would I know? I would need to live a life where I didn’t have that experience and compare them. There are things that have happened that have stayed with me, some good, some bad, most of them very simple, undramatic and ordinary. It’s hard for me to point to any one thing that has happened when that cartoon light bulb appeared over my head.
Another work of yours that I find fascinating is This Dog Barking: The Strange Story of UG Krishnamurti. How difficult was it to recreate UG’s story in the form of comic?
I first read UG’s books when I was homeless. All his books were and still are available to download free from the internet — which was a much more radical idea 16 years ago than it is today. Anyway, a friend had printed all the books out for me and I sat on the cold London streets and read them all in a matter of days.
I thought his story, his ideas, would work very well in the form of a comic book, or graphic novel as they are now more widely called. There was something anarchic and freewheeling about it, different than most books of a philosophical nature. That was about 16 years ago I guess. About a year after that, I managed to persuade my friend James to help me write it. At that time I didn’t have enough confidence that I could do it myself and James was the only person I knew that immediately understood and could engage with the material. He is a very gifted writer with a very agile mind. It took another few years for the project to start. I made the occasional drawing, but nothing was really happening.
About 14 years ago I moved to Cambodia. I kept in touch with James, and we still talked about the idea. After a while, he came to visit me while travelling around Asia. He announced that he had practically finished the writing, but, really, he hadn’t done anything but made a few notes in a note book. It was around then that we really started to work on it. We were together and could shape the book.
Originally, all the research was just from the available books on UG, but somehow we had managed to contact some of UG’s old friends. This changed the book dramatically, as it soon became clear that the other UG books only told a fraction of the story.
We made several trips to India. UG’s friends where incredibly generous with their time and supportive of our idea. We were, by then, in regular contact with most of the people that knew UG the best. The book began to take shape. I was drawing pages, and we were writing it as we went, breaking here and there when life events demanded it. About ¾ of the way through, it became clear, as we got to know more, that we had made an error in the story, so, I more or less had to start drawing all the pages again from scratch.
At some point we realized the only way we would ever finish was if I could work on it full time until it was done. Drawing comics takes a long time and it’s time no one is paying you for. But we worked it out and got it done. It was incredibly difficult, in some ways. UG is a very strange guy and there were many conflicting stories about his life, mainly because what he told one person may be very different from what he told another.
James and I would meet up to hammer out the next few pages and these became known as our Maoist struggle sessions. James has said it was like nailing jelly to a piece of wood. In the end, more or less, we managed to do what we wanted, make a book that could be enjoyed by someone who would probably have no interest in Indian philosophy, whilst also being as close to the truth of what it was like to be around UG, so his friends would see it as an accurate portrait of the man.