Out of the woods

Motorcycle accident changed artist's life forever

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2004

It has just finished snowing, the powder makes Blackerby Ridge look like a black and white lithograph, and it's time for a hand-rolled cigarette.

Juneau artist Mark Horn, 45, is smoking, standing on the porch of his apartment in the blue maze of buildings at Gastineau Human Services' sprawling complex in Lemon Creek.

With him are two of the friends that have helped him find stability since moving to Juneau a year ago with nothing but a backpack and an artist's portfolio. Diana Lunde is the director for Polaris House, a support and resource center for residents with mental illness, and Andre Votion is his GHS case manager.

"These guys have helped me," Horn said. "If it wasn't for GHS, I'd be on the street. A lot of these people do it because they care, not just because of a check."

It's six days until Feb. 6, when his second art show, "Multiple Media," a co-exhibit with Michelle Morrell, opens at 4:30 p.m. at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. Horn showed a few of his drawings at the GHS show in late January at Friendly Planet.

Horn used to wear a beard down to his chest, admittedly so people would keep their distance, but he has shaved it to a short goatee. He seems affable, optimistic, proud, not unlike the characters, Native chiefs and Hollywood icons, that he chooses to draw in pencils, 9B to 9H.

"I like living in the woods," he said. "I'm one of those mountain men. I like to disappear. But my art kind of made me come out of my shell, where I have to deal with people. It's brought me out of the woods, so to speak.

"Natives think that a lot of people are born without souls and aren't human beings," he said. "They're just people, walking empty. I'm a human being. I get along better with animals than I do people, and I can't wait to get out of here and get my own place, live on a boat and see Southeast."

Horn has been sober for eight months and is living off $280 a month. He hopes the JAHC show will help him make connections. He received a $375 grant from the arts council in November for visual arts. It was matched by Gallery of the North and Polaris House. Runde put up $200 of her own money.

"He's one of the strongest and most courageous persons that I've ever known, and he keeps going, one foot in front of another, no matter how awful it gets," Runde said.

"I want to have lithographs made, but it takes a lot of money," Horn said. "If someone at this show sees that I have a future, maybe I could start a business."

Horn, one-quarter Blackfoot, spent most of his life in Gardiner, Mont., population 368, near the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. His father, one-half Blackfoot, was a Marine and spent much of his time overseas. His mother worked at a bar. Horn and his siblings spent a lot of their time with their grandmother, a full Blackfoot, who used to live on the Browning reservation, east of Kalispell.

"She used to read everything to us," Horn said. "She told us all the old stories about the Indian wars and the struggles that they went through, how they lost their language, how their kids got taken from them, how they lost the whole culture."

He read about great leaders, Kicking Bear, Kill Spotted Horse, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse. They show up in his sketches.

"I like the ones that have that look in their eye, like Sitting Bull," Horn said. "He never surrendered. He went through everything. He gave his gun to his grandson and said, 'I surrender to no man.' His last words were, 'Get out of my house,' and they killed him in his cabin. He never signed no treaty. I like that. You can kill me, but you can't make me quit."

Horn's room at GHS is covered with his art. His sketches and photographs hang on the walls. Carved boats sit on the shelves. Dreamcatchers drop from ledges.

In Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota he supported himself as a housepainter. He married three times. But until his mid-30s, he had never so much as doodled.

Then, one day in 1995, partying outside Gardiner, he crashed his 1994 Harley into a guardrail while showing off. He broke his back, a leg, an ankle, his sternum and a few ribs. He shattered his right hand. He suffered brain injury. He tore up his feet and one of them is now a size and a half bigger. He broke the hip bone and was forced to lie in a hospital like a crab for nine months. He was comatose for the first nine days.

Horn wasn't supposed to live, but he survived. He was given a 50-50 chance of walking again, but beat that too. Still, rehabilitation meant lying in a bed for 912 months and worrying about what was next.

One day, a friend brought him a book, "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain."

"I was on my back and I didn't have much else to do, so I figured I might as well do something," Horn said. "It's like an art class in a book. You give it an hour a day, and then the next thing you know it's three hours a day. Within six months, it's 16 hours a day.

"Every drawing I did, I could see that it looked better than the last one," he said. "I would fall asleep with a pencil and wake up drawing. It was something that I really loved. It kept me from worrying about if I was going to walk again. The old man saved me, so maybe it was for this."

The drawing process was excruciating at first. He had lost the length of the tendons in his right arm, and still, when he squeezes a ball, he can feel pain in his shoulder from the nerve damage. He has no feeling in the pinky and ring finger of his right hand. He grips a pencil with his thumb, pointer and middle fingers and has to squeeze to hold. His hand usually cramps within 10 to 15 minutes, sometimes faster with Juneau's wet cold. He has to pause for 20 to 30 minutes.

"If you cut yourself open, you'll see red and little white things," Horn said. "The little white things are the nerve strands, and once you sever those and they sew them back together, you only get back what you're going to get back in three years. My hand's just as bad as it was five years ago."

Most of Horn's pencil drawings take four months or more. He draws with the help of Dewar's grid, a teaching method of breaking up a sketch into small squares to focus on detail work. He spends about an hour on each half-inch square.

"This is how I learned to finish something," Horn said. "I set myself to do this part today, and when I finish it, I'm happy.

"All artists get that zone," he said. "You know you have to leave at 4 o'clock, and you sit down at 1 o'clock for two hours and the next thing you know it's 6:30. You didn't get up to use the bathroom, you didn't have a cigarette. Six hours went by and it felt like 15 minutes. That's magic, and that's what made a lot of this come true for me."

Horn's friends saw his drawings and wanted him to move to Los Angeles and try to make a living with his art.

"I didn't want to see L.A.," he said. "I'm from a town of 368 people."

In 1999, though, he tried Seattle. He took a bus with his uncle and lasted about a year, living in the city, camping in Bremerton and selling $20 laser prints, before returning to Montana. In 2001, he decided to try Alaska. He took the ferry to Ketchikan.

"I've been wanting to come to Alaska since I was 7 or 8," Horn said.

When he was younger, one of his uncles returned from crabbing in Dutch Harbor and was able to buy land.

"I can't believe I waited this long to come up here. The first weekend I caught a 22-pound king and a 33-pound king. We rented a skiff for $65 all day and drove around with a 150-pound halibut strapped to the hood of a Dodge pickup. It looked like how we would haul a deer back home."

Horn spent a little over a year in Ketchikan, living out of a tent most of the time.

"It rained 412 inches in 512 hours," he said. "I was growing feathers on my back."

He tried Skagway, but frustrated at the cost of living decided Juneau was a better option. Broke and homeless, he spent some time at the Glory Hole shelter downtown before finding shelter at GHS.

"If you can't pick up two five-gallon cans of paint and carry them up two levels of stairs, the painter is going to send you home and hire some kid who can," Horn said. "I can't carry that weight, not with my hand, not with my shoulder. But I want to stand on my own."

He soon will.

"I haven't done the perfect drawing yet, but when I do, maybe I'll go on to carving," Horn said. "I think that's the drive, to challenge myself."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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