Cleveland artist explores his dual diagnosis in '31 Days in May'

Flipping through Derek Hess' new book, 31 Days in May, which collects drawings the Cleveland artist undertook exploring the symptoms brought about by his dual diagnosis of alcoholism and bipolar disorder, can be a harrowing experience.

On the page, wild-lined figures contemplate suicide (one holds a gun, the words “It would be nice” scrawled beneath him); shield themselves with garbage can lids from streams emitted by urinating angels; and float adrift in wild, expansive oceans, just out of reach of helping hands. And yet, the collection is bookended by a pair of hopeful drawings, including the final piece — a sketch of a hand holding a heart painted with an effortless grin.

“I couldn't leave it as one gigantic bummer,” said Hess, who will be signing copies of the book at various times throughout the weekend at Hell City Tattoo Festival, which runs Friday to Sunday, April 20-22. “I'm sure I'll get some criticism — ‘This so dark. Every day is doom and gloom.' Well, I'm not making it up. But at the same time there has to be hope, because there is hope.”

Hess undertook a similar project last year, posting a different image to Instagram each day in May to help raise awareness for Mental Health Month. The drawings wrestled with depression, mania, suicidal thoughts, detachment, addiction and more, though the contorted, oft-bleeding figures — and a fondness for spiritual imagery (angels, crucifixion, etc.) — made the collection feel like an extension of the work the artist has been making from his earliest days.

“I started being more aware of what the source was probably in the early '90s. I was drawing angels, devils, the nooses and things like that, and I started putting it together: ‘Oh, I've kind of been being self-therapeutic with these images,'” said Hess. “Then I got diagnosed [as bipolar and alcoholic] in the '90s and it all kind of came together and made sense. Obviously I'm expressing myself, and my dual diagnosis is part of me.”

Just as Hess' mental health issues occasionally bled into the images gracing his early concert posters, music helped inform certain pieces that appear in 31 Days. A striking series of iceberg drawings, which depict large figures curled under the water, only a crowning peak visible above the surface, are rooted in Rush's “Distant Early Warning,” which includes the line, “I know it makes no difference to what you're going through/But I see the tip of the iceberg and I worry about you.”

“I get a lot of my images from one-liners in songs,” Hess said. “It doesn't necessarily translate what the song is about. It's just a tip of an iceberg, a launching pad into doing a piece of art.”

In the book, each drawing is accompanied by a brief written description, many of which double as plainspoken advice. In a series of images grappling with suicide, for instance, the accompanying text reads, “Part of a healthy attitude towards your mental illness is knowing when to ask for help,” which was a hard but necessary lesson for Hess to absorb.

“I feel grateful I did ask for help before it became a life and death issue, although it has gone up to that line, at times,” Hess said. “There shouldn't be a stigma on asking for help. If you're manic and out of control, you ask for help. Where do you go? You go to a psychiatrist. Or if it's really that bad, you go to the emergency room. You take care of yourself. That's what it's about.”