WHAT HAPPENED [to Jack Dylan]
Sheila Heti wrote somewhere that friends by virtue of their friendship make each other feel famous, and that most of us are famous to at least a few of our friends. Jack Dylan is one of those friends to me, he'll likely always be famous in my mind, beginning from the indelible impression he made on me at age 13. “I feel like this is all a ploy,” he tells me on the phone, “like you know I have a terminal illness and you called me up like I just wanted to record you...could you tell your life story?” Jack doesn't have a terminal illness, but he did disappear from Montreal leaving the life he built here for Toronto, then for New York - so what happened? The following story is the result of an hours-long conversation I recently had with Jack about his career, the result, a sort of bildungsroman outlining the development of the artist from his bold, broke, youthful beginnings to the eventual disillusionment yet financially secure state of adulthood!
Stratford Ontario is a place where white swans swim in tandem down the Avon River and old couples in pastel stroll hand in hand through manicured public gardens. The picture-perfect downtown caters to hives of tourists drawn to Stratford's world renowned Shakespearean theater, and the elementary schools are literally named after Shakespearean characters - Romeo & Juliette, Hamlet, Shakespeare, King Lear, Falstaff, Bedford. Like any pleasantville, Stratford has its seedy underbelly, and like in most well-to-do families, it's kept well-hidden. In the 90's and early 2000's when I was growing up, the local kids were mostly-white; the boys played hockey, the girls wore Roots, and gay was still used as an insult on the regular; it was a bastion of desperately repressed white-washed normalcy full of stages upon which we could project our fantasies of escape.
I met Jack in this town when I was thirteen, exactly 20 years ago, I was in grade 7, he was in grade 8. He wasn't named Jack Dylan then, he was Andrew Attard -- along with gay, retard was also a commonly used insult, so he was Andrew [Re]ttard, and I was recovering from being called Laura-the-Lowlife-Lesbian-Loser the previous year. Anyway, King Lear school, 1997. A group of the "hot" grade eight girls had taken him on almost like a pet or mascot and they were showing him off to the newly arrived students because Andrew was always in the character of Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld at the time, and impeccably so. His voice was still high, and his hair was poofed like Cosmo's. My fascination with this person was born then because - who does that, and with such dedication? In a school where people generally were dull and unimaginative variations of each other, Andrew's stand-alone eccentricity was electrically refreshing, to me it seemed he had been beamed to that school yard from a different universe of pure imagination.
Besides always being in character, Andrew was also that kid who was known as the Class Artist, that one kid in every school who is notably gifted at drawing. After Andrew put his Kramer character to rest, he shaved his hair and dyed it blonde to be Sebastien Valmount (Ryan Phillipe’s character from Cruel Intentions), then after that in high school, he wore army pants and tank tops and got as muscular as possible, so as to always be in the character of Tyler Durden from Fight Club. I believe he even had a fight club in the basement of his apartment building. When I recently asked him about this, he casually boiled it down to, "the usual, trying on different identities, the normal process of trying to find yourself. Plus I was good at impressions. And weird. An only child without many male role models.” Well, that description fits a lot of people's early years, but who of them lived their teenage years fully in character of someone else to cope? He used to tell people he was born in a psych ward, and I later found out that was actually true and at the time it seemed there was a correlation.
In high school, Andrew lived in an apartment building called Park Towers which was perched along the shore of the Avon River. He lived with his mom, Mary Ellen who everyone loved, and his dad, of whom Andrew did and does hilarious impressions. Over his bed in his red-lit room was a giant sculpture (at least 4ftx3ft) he had made of his girlfriend’s breasts, and a huge American flag was always strewn across his bed. On another wall was his comedic photographic rendition of The Last Supper, his closest friends being the disciples and he was, of course, Jesus. At his parties, he'd play 1920's jazz, Jaques Brel, Portisehead. Early on in high school, Andrew had asked me out on a date wherein he just sat in front of his burger and didn’t take a bite. When he asked me out again I said I had band practice and so as not to lie, I joined band and found out I was a trombone prodigy. At the time, I didn't feel anything but admiration for Andrew, since I had no idea who he was underneath the characters he was always in. Further, all the friends in his life he cast as characters as well, so if I had dated him, I wouldn't have been me, but a character Andrew made up. It wasn't until later that I learned that merely being a projection of another's imagination was in fact what dating is, basically with anyone.
Andrew fast-tracked so as to graduate a year early and attend an art school - Beal Arts - in the neighbouring bigger city, London, Ontario. “I was just excited to have my own place and invite girls over, really. Plus my friend Pete was there.” Pete Ryan who he’s referring to, reappears in this story in pivotal moments in Jack’s life like the Cheshire cat and personality-wise, that’s not too far-off. Andrew's eccentricities attracted eccentrics, and these eccentrics constituted his core group of friends. Having the same taste as him but not the extrovertedness, I knew that staying near Andrew would mean staying around my preferred type of crowd - get friends who do the work for you! It was his and their influence on me that duped me into (very wrongly!) thinking artistic types were more interesting than others. It took a long time for me to understand that it was art that I loved, not artists. It was his confidence in his future career as an artist that largely inspired the same possibility in me, but as a writer. Often in small towns, one doesn't grow up considering a non status quo life an option. Now, for my current existence - two books published, but woefully poor (or should I say "bohemian") - I should really be wearing a T-shirt that says, "I blame Jack Dylan."
It was at Beal Arts where Jack really amped his identity as an Artist and started making large canvases resembling old pulp fiction book covers. The posters had their own imaginary publishing imprint, Park Towers (named after the apartment he had lived in with his parents), and the pseudonym Jack Dylan was invented to model punchy pulp fiction author names like Jack Vance. He also felt that a name change was necessary to become the artist he wanted to be - Andrew Attard couldn't do it, but Jack Dylan could. His penchant for playing characters never wore off. It was around the time of his first real art shows that Jack started talking to a couple of older friends - Nick Kuepfer and Matt Miller - about moving to Montreal and starting an art venue in a warehouse like Nick’s friends at Seripop had done (who - Jack emphasized to me - always - at least in his mind - thought him uncool). This prospect was a deeply romantic one to 20 year old small JD, and to his dumb friends, too, like me.
On his 20th birthday in November of 2003, Jack moved to Montreal and after a few months of roaming the frigid streets looking for à louer signs (this was still mostly pre-internet!), he found a 1500 sq. foot warehouse for $2500 - a lot for even then, the glory days of cheap rent in Montreal. Jack gave his best friend from Stratford, Graham Van Pelt (of the bands Miracle Fortress and Think About Life) the hard sell to come join him, to be a musician there. It wasn't too hard of a decision for Graham because he, like many other young musicians at the time, revered Montreal's Constellation Records and Alien8 Recordings, besides, all he was doing in Stratford was "being a barista, macking on 17 year-olds, like anyone who stays in their home town does after high school." My highschool sweetheart (also very good friends with Jack and Graham) and I followed suit after a year of travelling, moving into a downtown studio apartment, knowing little else of the city except that we wanted to be there with our boys. So the very motley crew of Jack, Graham, Nick Kuepfer, Nader Hassan and Matt Miller started to "renovate" the space with no skills or experience and with mostly found materials, naming it The Electric Tractor, a "nonsense name that didn't mean anything, we simply took letters off the initial sign that was there, Baycore Electric Contractors. That was the other guys' idea, I would have named it something awful, like The Mansion."
Jack had the "dumb notion" that the space would be used for visual art and poetry readings because this is all he knew from his small town experiences; he quickly learned from the musicians that it was much more interesting to have the space as a venue for music because when you do that, you can get hundreds of people to show up, which they often did with bands like Aids Wolf, Chinese Stars, Les George Lenningrad, "which was a total sound, noise and liquor violation. We were such an obvious target for the police but we somehow got away with it. Had we been fined, we never would have afforded it." We were all 20 years old at the time, and I thought what Jack and Graham were doing was terribly exciting, there was always something going on, and what they were doing was perfect for my temperament since they could put themselves at the center of attention, draw the various crowds of which I could stay on the periphery and fiercely observe like an anthropologist, and assiduously choose the few I’d befriend. Basically, I was more than happy riding on Jack’s coat tails as I toiled away in the now infamous (for sexual harassment) Concordia University English Department, as I would for 8 years on and off, resulting in an MA, massive student debt, a twice-dropped PhD, and two books published by small independent Canadian publishers. When Jack gets down on himself about his life, I just remind him of mine.
Jack did host some early literature readings when the space first opened, "we had one poetry reading and I started reading a poem that I had been doing to great acclaim in Stratford and London, but as soon as I was reading in Montreal I realized, Oh this is a much more sophisticated crowd. I could feel it just bombing. It's not appropriate, it's really distasteful. About me smoking weed in the bathtub, and me beating off or something. I actually was reading it in a dirty old bathtub on the stage. I realized people in big cities have real addictions, playing at this Kerouacian character...in the real world it was pathetic to play at it." This wake-up call didn't deter him from continuing a literary magazine he had founded before moving to Montreal though, named after his made-up publishing imprint for his pulp fiction paintings, Park Towers. It was originally based on “poetry jams” Jack hosted in our hometown, and - though I’m a poet now - at the time I believed I hated poetry and I still kind of do, but kudos to Jack for unabashedly embracing the least popular of all art forms before I did! "I always liked magazines and loved magazine covers but being dyslexic and really a very slow reader [he called himself the "editer-in-chef" because of this]...I probably had a 5th grade reading level at that time...it wasn't the most appropriate fit for me to be doing it. Zine culture was still a thing back then, blogs weren't. It was only 2003."
Through the shows that were happening however, Jack started making posters to advertise them, though he had to fight for his right to poster since Seripop wanted to do them "who did not think I was cool, so I had to fight for this right, even though it was literally my venue and I was a visual artist." Little did Jack know that it was this venture into poster design that literally would dictate the next ten years of his life. It would have been hard for him to believe at the time, considering his dank circumstances.
Dank, but romantically so - at least to a 20 year old. "None of us had jobs, but everything had come together, I thought wow I'm living the dream with my art friends in a warehouse in a cool city and I can just make art all day. But it was within a few months of this I realized how terrible it was because I hadn't thought about this too hard before but I was like, Oh I'm really poor...I'm a poor person now and this place is really messy and it's going to take me at least ten years to crawl out of this. No one's cleaning, this place is a dump, it was a rude awakening."
Poor and jobless, Jack did manage to make a living off paintings alone. "A stupid plan in retrospect, I don't know where I got the idea that I would generate money from artwork at the age of 20. But I sold paintings at that point on a kind of regular basis, a couple a month. A thousand dollars a month, you know, which then was a huge amount of money, it just covered my rent, minimal food, and art supplies. Had I gone to Toronto, it would have been very different, I would have met someone and be offered a job, as all my Toronto friends had. Montreal did not work that way. When I went to Toronto for a show, I'd be embarrassed because I couldn't afford drinks. I realized people in other cities get jobs. But we just didn't get jobs. We didn't get jobs for like 4 years."
After one year of shows, the landlord kicked the boys out of The Electric Tractor. "I felt like I'd failed, and now I had to try and navigate the adult world for the first time. I remember being on the bus, the bus was just a normal bus ride in Mtl. I didn’t know how bus fare worked. It was like $3, and I thought that covered you for a “round trip” the extra $3 devastated me, I had to walk home for hours. Montreal was big, French, alienating, snowing all year long. We had one last party, and that's when we all went on the LAM."
Jack went to Korea to visit his dad who was an English teacher, and while he was gone, Graham found out a place he had done sound for in Griffintown was for rent, a two-floor loft called E-Cube. Graham and Jack happily took over the lease to run a new venue this time on their own terms creatively and with more age and experience behind them. It was 2005, Graham was with the band Think About Life and touring with Wolf Parade, and Jack "kind of ruined things by asking a girlfriend I had just basically met to live with us immediately." They named the venue Friendship Cove, Jack continued making art, Graham continued making music and recording from his now home studio. It was huge and freezing. "I loved it so much at the time, but it didn't have any heat, it was filthy, in a miserable part of town that nobody went to, it was a half an hour walk to the grocery store, not that we could afford groceries anyway." Still, Jack and Graham ran Friendship Cove better than The Electric tractor, often bringing in hundreds of people for shows and renting out studios in the huge space as jam rooms or artist studios. Never being too far away from Jack and Graham those years, I briefly moved into Friendship Cove after my first horrible breakup (one of many Jack would see me through throughout the years, he marveling at my gift for remarkably and consistently nuts end-scenes). I stayed at Friendship Cove until I couldn't tolerate it anymore - I had moved into an ex-darkroom that gave me hives, with a single window that looked directly into the kitchen of our middle-aged bachelor neighbor, and the punk shows outside my door were too much for my pathological introversion - often I’d pee into a vase in my room just so I didn’t have to interact with people.
Through the shows at Friendship Cove and his growing presence as a poster designer, Jack was moving away from painting and becoming more interested in illustration and comics. He fell in love with graphic novelists like Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware, and had a "very good girlfriend" later on who turned him on to The New Yorker and he became obsessed with their covers. "I moved to Montreal to begin my art career not knowing much, not aware of art history. I realized these Pulp Fiction covers I started my painting career mimicking were done by illustrators, not painters, it was a completely different industry." Jack's illustration style changed drastically because of these influences, The New Yorker aesthetic "opening a gateway to a personality I didn't know I had."
Still, all this time at Friendship Cove (3 years in total), Jack subsisted solely off his artwork, still selling paintings for $700 dollars, or picking up $200 a week for poster design for the music scene, beginning his Pop Montreal poster series and doing spreads for alt.weekly papers like The Mirror (RIP). "I was dumb enough and ambitious enough that it was that combination that sort of worked. But it would have been much better to be smarter and more talented."
After a three year run, Jack went to Tokyo “for a wonderful month long trip, and it made me realize I had to get the fuck out of Friendship Cove and into the big world!” This is where Jack - “Uncle Jack” I call him in these instances - likes to chastise/remind me that “Everything in the small world is a waste of time! You shouldn’t be interviewing me, you should be getting paid for a feature in Esquire!” I haughtily defend myself, stating that I’m far happier in the quiet, calm, sunny corners of the small world, that I find the vicious ego of “the big world” other people’s game, that the small world is plenty big if you shrink yourself enough! Uncle Jack thinks that line of reasoning is a total cop out. Anyway. Through Graham's connection to a Japanese record label and Jack's album artwork for Think About Life, he was able to make a stop in Japan, having no idea what he was in for. Japan was expensive, but the label kindly took care of him, room, food (fine dining!), an art show at their record store. Jack came back with a wider perspective than he'd ever had and a real resolution to no longer be poor. He continued to illustrate and make posters for Pop Montreal and his reputation as an artist was growing.
Because of his posters, selling them at Puces Pop, Expozine and other fairs, a music festival in the Netherlands paid for him to design posters for them and paid for him to come to the festival. Jack stayed in Europe for half a year, where he met and fell in love with a beautiful fashion model who contacted him because she had seen his posters in Dazed magazine. They ended up being together for a good chunk of time, eventually moving in together in the Mile End. "I realize now it was really in the strength of my stupid posters that my whole world opened up." While they were in Europe, they rented a flat in London and Jack briefly took to painting [her naked] again. Jack's romantic dream was alive and well.
I remember Jack coming back from Europe notably changed. He began dressing better, for one, and he just seemed to have adopted a far more polished approach to work, more interested in "grown up" professionalism than ratchety, bohemian, DIY venue life. While he was in the UK, he met up and lived with Pete Ryan (Pete again!) who taught Jack how to be an editorial illustrator proper for magazines, which he was mainly doing upon his return to Montreal. I would often spend time with Jack when he lived in the Mile End, as he lived around the corner from my work at a used bookstore. His work ethic was better than ever (it was always great, better than anyone I've met, regardless of what he may say about his earlier years), his studio was brightly lit, tastefully decorated. He was working more editorial jobs and was ready to make more money, seriously flirting with the idea of becoming an art director.
Jack had mentioned to me many times how he felt inferior to his friends who had university degrees. I argued that he was more successful than most of his peers with degrees, having suffered through university myself I knew first hand that it was a total scam, besides, he had done more on his own initiative, his portfolio was great and growing steadily, as was his following in Montreal. Nevertheless, when Jack puts his mind to something it generally happens. So off to Toronto he went, to study at OCAD for three years to earn a degree in art direction which would allow him to progress from there to New York - he needed that diploma to qualify for a U.S. visa. I remember Jack in highschool talking about imagining himself in New York, the dream, I believe, being an artistic director for ballets and operas and/or being a world-famous painter. When Jack left for Toronto, it was a real end of an era for me, since Jack had been a central figure in my life during my formative years in high school, then in Montreal during my twenties. At this point however, I had grown into myself immensely so that I no longer needed to shyly ride Jack’s coat tails. Montreal was and is never boring, but I was losing a very important part of it with his departure. All the good ones eventually leave - this is what all expats dumb enough to stay in Montreal know too well.
According to Jack, his local fame in Montreal meant nothing, really, in Toronto, nor could he carry his large following with him, as this was still pre-Instagram. In Toronto, Jack started dating yet another terrific woman who knew him yet again through his poster art. At this point in our conversation, it really hit home with Jack - "God! everything good in my life has come from selling posters!" Then, embarrassed, "I feel like only 3 out of 250 of them were any good." In the end, the relationship ended because she - though younger than Jack - was more of an adult (as most people are early on in Toronto), and Jack had not yet fully shed his Montreal "bohemian" (i.e. poor) artist side. Just a matter of time before he killed that starving-artist side for good.
What followed was a dark year. Jack was still broke and now brokenhearted in Toronto, whilst completing his degree. His friends Laura Dawe and Pete Ryan (Pete again!) - both artists he met at Beal Arts in high school, both artists who were also famous in my mind both then and now - kept him afloat during that crappy year. Jack's pretty blessed in the areas of friends - always talented and hilarious, and girlfriends - always maddeningly beautiful and intelligent. I asked Jack if ditching the burgeoning career he had created in Montreal to go to school was worth it in the end (I was hoping he'd say No), and he said yes it was, for basic and necessary skills like graphic design, and for acquiring a much broader knowledge of design and illustration history, and of course for the diploma. The poverty portion, at least, of his dark year finally let up when he was offered a position as an artistic director for the Toronto magazine called Corporate Knights, a job he still has along with others today.
Before moving to New York, Jack spent a month visiting there, having been newly minted from actual paying jobs. There, he blew all of his money. “It was a different sort of dark after that.” He stayed in a section of New York which to his ever-romantic imagination was "exactly like 1980's New York," he fell hopelessly infatuated with an unattainable goddess of the New York literati scene, and landed a job as an artistic director for Flare. He moved to New York permanently shortly after; before leaving, he emptied most of his old portfolios, illustrations, paintings, into a dumpster and walked away.
It took three months in New York until he got hired as a junior designer at Popular Mechanics, and he got his first apartment just after his 30th birthday, then moved on to being Director of Mobile Editions at Esquire, producing podcasts and videos; he had manifested his dream in a way, arriving for work at a Manhattan skyrise,wearing a suit, a 2015 version of Mad Men. Four years in New York has meant working more than full-time (often he'd work 80 hour weeks), working multiple jobs. Since school in Toronto until now in New York, it's been 7 years since Jack stopped making posters and "essentially stopped making my own artwork. It's a problem. I've had no time, I've fallen more and more out of practice, yet ideas constantly build upon each other anyway."
He makes it sound creatively drier than it actually was, as Jack's hyper critical mind is loathe to do. He had an illustration published in The New York Times, the White House retweeted one of his illustrations for Pitchfork, and through his wildly talented journalist and writer ex-girlfriend/now good friend, he actually attended a White House dinner while Obama (one of his heroes) was still president. It's posts like these on social media that leads people from his humble hometown who knew him when want to say 'I knew him when.' As always, Jack is quick to intercept the excitement of these events with quips about his actual perceived lack of success. Honestly, I've rarely if ever seen him satisfied with anything, except his cats. I also believe it is this dissatisfied quality that will have him relentlessly pushing himself. Here lies one of the many major differences between Jack and I, as I feel like I’ve Really Made It, I feel wildly happy when I have a roof over my head, a bed, a book, and time to dream, which I do copiously - this may partially explain my lack of Real World success and Jack’s bafflement at my life.
Over a year ago, after his first real time off from constant more than full time work, Jack "kind of found [his] bliss again, by making art with low stakes and no stress." He began by re-tiling the mantle of his fireplace by making it look like a New York subway stop. The domestic bliss continued after he decided to leave the fast-paced magazine world and started working from home, freelance. One thing that staggered me was that he said he needed to make a huge amount (by Montreal standards) a month in New York to pay all expenses, and he does, which is a long way away from subsisting on less that 1/10th of what he makes now as he did in his Montreal days. When Jack realized at the age of 20 that he hated being poor and that it would take about ten years to get out of that cycle, he was exactly right. I'm just having his 20 year old realization now which means I'll be 44 when I'm no longer destitute. "There's a thing though, about not being poor that sucks, which is working! Work sucks. You can't win, it seems like."
Around Halloween last year, something happened, a light went on, it was a very inspired time for Jack. He made a New Yorker cover pitch for Halloween, which resulted in his four best pieces of artwork in years. The New Yorker covers, he says, "are a meaningful form of illustration for me. It encapsulates so much of my training and history and takes off from where I left illustration in 2010. The covers are cartoons for adults, always topical." It completely rekindled his love for cover art. Though his cover pitches got rejected from the magazine, they spawned his new current project, a collaboration with Pete Ryan (Pete again!), a website called The Not Yorker, "a collection of declined or late cover submissions to The New Yorker, curated by illustrators who love and admire traditional cover illustration, a site for celebrating cover art, and great ideas that didn't make it."
While Jack wants to go for cover art again, the problem is he doesn't have enough time because he has to be making all this money, "the benefit of which is living in the most beautiful city in North America, but it comes at a cost. The agony and the ecstasy." Jack's visa runs out in two years, and while he once thought he'd be a "corporate chill" for the rest of his life, he now considers it more of an anomaly, just a chapter. If in the next two years before his visa runs out, if he doesn't land a dream job, he's considering moving to a more affordable place, maybe even back to Stratford, our hometown, a place to which we both now hold a deep love and loyalty.
After I had this initial conversation with Jack in fact, we convened in Stratford for Christmas, gathering with a few high school friends (including Pete again!). Jack always makes these yearly reunions with our hometown a joyfully over the top event (until it gets weird), one that I need days to recover from, often ruining my own family’s christmas. There's something about coming from a small town that makes one terribly homesick, and yet for those who did not stay and adhere to the norms of those who stay, they are both lauded for doing something seemingly extraordinary and yet also somewhat looked upon with suspicion.
At the end of our conversation, looking back at his Montreal days compared to his Toronto and New York days, he said it felt like the Montreal days were someone else's life. Montreal was “unrealistic,” while going to school in Toronto and holding multiple jobs in New York “like a normal person was really humbling." And I can see the effect of that humility - Jack is far more restrained than I knew him to be in his early days, realistic, more grounded, very critical and practical, he’s settled in himself, not in the character of someone else. "I'd love to have removed all the parts in these stories that were difficult, but, you know, I like being able to buy a return-ticket." He then had to leave our conversation for the most American reason ever, "because I have to go to Target before it closes.” Later, he followed up with a text: “Thank you for coming to my funeral though, this whole thing made me really sad! All I’ve been doing all these years is chasing a ball around a yard. For what? You realize it’s now you who sees me as a character in your head.” Well of course we mythologize certain friends in our lives, because they’re famous to us! I tried to cheer him up by sending a picture of me wolfing down a huge plate of pasta because anyone who knows Jack knows that the thought of body-positive girls with great appetites will cheer him up any day. That’s what friends are for. Still, this expose on his adventures and successes only depressed him, which was the opposite of my intent, to which I say, Oh Andrew Attard, we love you! Get up!