19 October 2009
It’s rare and ever more so that one encounters not only grace in the face of life transforming adversity but inspiration, humour and most of all, perspective and calm. An artist, a photographer, a designer, burgeoning film maker and gentleman raised by Fundamentalist parents in South Carolina and now living, loving and making New York both his own and his home. Pandorians it is our pleasure to introduce Mr Christopher Stribley.
PP. Your name contains another within it, Christ? Do you think that was intentional by your parents?
CS. My parents were actually going to name me Christian. So that was some foresight there, I reckon.
PP. What do you mean?
CS. Well according to them I’m quite the opposite of Christian. So they must have had an epiphany to not name me that.
PP. Do you come from a Christian family?
CS. Yes. My parents are deeply religious. They subscribe to the Independent Baptist church and are among those who proudly wear the badge of Fundamentalism. They have very strict codes and adhere to the Old Testament law, the Ten Commandments. Much as that sect seems to think they’re closest to God, they seem to push people further away from this God of theirs than perhaps any other with their rampant condemnation and disapproval.
PP. So I assume you spent many days in church while you were young. How was it to grow up in such environment?
CS. Three times a week we were in church. More, if at all possible, such as when they had Bible Conference, which was a week of services held three or four times a day. Thorough indoctrination.
But we attended church twice on Sunday and on Wednesday evenings at the very least.
The environment was utterly stifling. Even at a young age I felt that, I knew who I was and so for the longest time I felt being suppressed and punished. There was always a desire for approval, paired with the knowledge that I’d most likely never earn it.
PP. Could you talk to your parents about non-religious matters?
CS. To the smallest extent, especially my father. Pretty much everything at least lead back to their religious beliefs. Everything required consultation from the Bible. Where normal people THINK, the Fundamentalist answer (and I’m sure that of other religions/sects) is somewhere in the Bible.
Free thought was considered as blasphemy. You either read the Bible for the answer or prayed for one. Of course, I’m sure you can conveniently make the Bible support or condemn whatever you’d like it to.
My mum I could talk to a little more freely, though I always approached her with great apprehension as well, since she does still subscribe to this belief system.
There were some points of contention that arose between my parents, especially regarding my interests and hobbies. My mum was more accepting of my creative side, where my dad was dismissive of it and didn’t like her encouraging me, as I should be doing more “manly” things or something. I’m sure that’s in the Bible somewhere.
PP. Do they know about your sexuality?
CS. Not per se. I’m sure they make assumptions and think they know, but they really have no idea. It’s something that would have a typical knee-jerk reaction to it, along with biblical condemnation. Never mind that such references are always misquoted and out of context.
PP. When did you leave home?
CS. I left home perhaps later than some people do. I was about 25 and in their home in South Carolina. The buckle on the Bible belt. A safe-haven for people of the Fundamentalist mindset. Truly a scary place. I left home because it was high time and I needed to start living life truly on my own. I could only do that so well down there though as the environment is so stifling and backward and I’ve always tended to be far more considerate of other people’s belief systems than they’ve ever been of mine.
So I lingered in South Carolina until August of last year when I finally moved here to New York in the midst of the worst possible circumstances, pretty much. But I’d waited much too long for the “right opportunity” to come along and was finally sick of waiting.
Perhaps more importantly though it got to the point where moving to New York was a choice to live because I was quite sure that staying any longer in South Carolina would be a death sentence. My therapist was also quite sure of that and told me to get the hell out of that place and not look back!
PP. I am truly amazed you managed to stay there for so long.
CS. I am too really. But I can’t think about that now. I’m now finally where I need to be and I’m doing the best I can to get on with my life. I’m not going to pretend that the setbacks have magically disappeared or that it’s all been a bloody gorgeous rose garden since I moved here, but I am happier now than I have ever been.
PP. And that is something to celebrate.
CS. Yes it really is. There is such an abundance of opportunity here that it is truly a new lease on life and I’m tremendously grateful for it. There is so much that people take for granted on a regular basis and it just floors me when I see it.
There’s such a wealth of inspiration in New York and I feel so fortunate to get to be surrounded by it and share in it. And then there are the wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and forming friendships with. All so very precious.
PP. Friends indeed, a treasure worth having.
CS. Oh absolutely. They’ve all been such a tremendous help and been so supportive and encouraging and helpful.
PP. Do you find easily to make friends in New York?
CS. On one hand it’s a little difficult, due to my current condition and how self conscious I am about it, but on the other hand I’ve made some of these friends via Facebook which allows us to open channels and warm up to one another, so then when I get to meet them in person it’s all ok. There are some friends who I met in person though because they’re in the neighbourhood and we’d heard about each other and happened to bump into one another.
PP. What do you mean by “my condition”?
CS. My condition, being that I’m still in recovery from a severely fractured jaw – an injury I sustained on January 1, 2005, for which I’ve just had the 7th surgery, almost three weeks ago. This last surgery brought with it some facial paralysis, so I’m especially self-conscious right now. It was bad enough before, which a lot of people don’t seem to realise.
PP. What happened on the 1st of January 2005?
CS. I was out ringing in the New Year with a friend in South Carolina. We were about to wind down the evening and we’d stepped onto the back patio of the club we were at to get some fresh air and talk. As we were standing there talking my hearing started to go in and out. I tried to tell my friend that I needed to sit down, but before I could get the words out, the whole world spun around and the uneven pavement rose up and whacked me with full force on the chin. I’d blacked out.
I awoke, face down on the pavement in a pool of blood, with my friend standing over me telling me to wake up. I’d heard him frantically calling my name and he’d said to an onlooker that he thought I was dead, as there was blood coming out of my ears. Perhaps hearing that is what woke me up?
I drowsily tried to look up and speak. I had to spit out a mouthful of blood and teeth and bone fragments. When I realised there were teeth in there I tried to discreetly put them in the pocked of my jeans for safe keeping, thinking at the time that it would be a simple matter of a Dr just pushing them back in. Little did I know that not only were those teeth gone for good, but subsequent surgeries would see the removal of most of the rest of them.
So my friend ran inside the club to ask the owner to call for emergency help. The club owner refused, as he didn’t want the party disrupted, for surely the police would come and it would cause a scene. Like my bleeding to death there on the cold pavement wouldn’t have? So when my friend came back and told me that, I reached in my jacket pocket, still laying face down on the pavement, to fish out my mobile phone and hand it to him so he could call for an ambulance.
PP. What a horrifying experience that must have been.
CS. At the time I handled it pretty calmly, I think. It wasn’t until sometime in the five days in the Intensive Care Unit that followed that I began to realise that something really bad had happened. Thank goodness for the shock mechanism!
PP. Time for a coffee break, I think.
CS. Alright then. I think I’ll go make a pot of coffee! Could do with a shot of whiskey right about now!
PP. You are a bad influence.
CS. I’m terrible.
PP. You are terrible Muriel! Do you know Muriel’s Wedding?
CS. I’ve actually not seen it. Am I missing out?
PP. Yes! It is must!
CS. Then I shall look it up!
PP. Where were we?
CS. Lost in a forest all alone?
PP. And then a great big leather man came and saved you.
CS. Thank goodness!
PP. What is your biggest dream?
CS. Oh, see that’s a tough one. Other than tea with Siouxsie? I’ve always had a rather big picture, to be quite honest and I’ve always been told I was foolish for it, so I stopped telling people. But here it is, just for you, dearest Predrag.
I would LOVE to work in film! I want to take all my creative powers and my art knowledge and experience and work in film, either as an art director or creative director. Perhaps even in wardrobe. There’s been nothing pedestrian in my studies, but really only I’ve known that, all these years. Now whether I’ll see it come to fruition is another matter entirely but I do feel that I’m finally in the right place for it to even be in the realm of possibility. And I’m not good at taking no for an answer.
PP. Have you made any short films or videos?
CS. I have not. I’ve been in a couple of films since I moved to NY, neither of which has been released yet, but they are on the way.
PP. Wow so a lot to look forward too.
CS. Oh yes. Very much so.
I had the pleasure of taking on a bit part in a recent Morgan Spurlock’s venture, which I imagine will be coming out before too much longer. It’s a film adaptation of the book, Freakonomics. I played the part of a tweaker, more or less. It was just a couple of group shots, but it’s a start.
Then I will also be appearing in a film starring Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci in which Neeson portrays a serial killer mortician. I was photographed as one of his victims. The film will feature his prized collection of photos that he takes of his victims and I’ll be amongst those. No idea what the film is called yet and I wasn’t anywhere near the set, rather in a photographer’s studio.
PP. You also work as a graphic designer.
CS. Oh I have the distinct pleasure of getting to work at the LGBT Center here in Chelsea where I do design work for various events that they hold or are involved in. I do posters and flyers and magazine ads and whatever else they might need. It is such a wonderful opportunity for me to give to my community and to get to meet others who are involved in it. I feel so very fortunate.
PP. Photography is also something you love, isn’t it?
CS. I adore photography. Always have. It took me much too long to get into it though. I’m still just a fledgling, but my photography I feel is a way of expressing my aesthetic as well as sharing the things that I come across in life on a daily basis. I mean, I see it as being a precursor to working in film, if that makes any sense at all? I approach my imagery much the same way I would art direct a film. I like to pursue a certain look and feel to really express something, rather than just throw an image out there and hope anyone gets it.
PP. Who are the most important influences on your work and why?
CS. I have a lot of points of reference and they mostly go back to my love of music and my art background. Siouxsie is as much an influence as Warhol. I often name my artwork after songs – usually a fragment of a lyric or sometimes a song title. I think it’s because I’m synaesthetic that the two just naturally mesh with me.
Whatever the case, music and art have always been intertwined for me and I couldn’t have it any other way. It just makes sense to me and so I go with it. It’s true even with my paintings, though more so with my abstract expressionist work. Sometimes it’s even a puzzle to me, but I just have a strong feeling that this piece should be named for this song. With my photography it seems more obvious to me and I hope that’s not perceived as conceit, but more a reflection of where I’m coming from. Such as when I did a series of photos of peeling paper on the walls around the East Village and named them using a snippet from Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Peekaboo.”
PP. Do you always play music at home?
CS. It depends. I have to recognise that it can be distracting to me. I have ADD and I’m not taking anything for it, so I have to choose my battles carefully. Sometimes I just can’t concentrate with music, but it’s always there. It may not be playing out loud but you can be sure it’s going through my head.
The music I like was forbidden when I was growing up and I had my tapes confiscated and burned a few times, but it just made me more determined. I enjoy a very broad spectrum of music.
I also got into The Cure around the same time and then The Smiths, Sisters of Mercy, and Depeche Mode. Those were my starting point for my personal discovery of music, as opposed to what I had crammed down my throat. But they are such a tiny dark corner in the wonderful world of music. When I was much younger I always enjoyed hearing the Carpenters and ABBA from our neighbours in Perth, Western Australia. So perhaps that’s really my starting point. I think what we enjoy in our formative years certainly informs our later years. For instance, I think Goldfrapp has acquired a healthy dose of glam from the likes of ABBA and I adore her. But then I also love Diamanda Galas and well, I think that perhaps falls back on my upbringing in an odd way. She’s some sort of catharsis and not one that many people can handle.
PP. Were you living in Australia?
CS. I was born in Perth and we first moved to the States in 1980 so that my dad could study to be a minister! We lived in South Carolina for five years while he got his degree at the most wretched institution known to mankind and then we went back to Perth so that he could unleash his belief system on an unsuspecting and quite unresponsive community.
PP. This world is a small place
CS. Oh it’s ridiculously small! People don’t realise.
PP. And what happened then? You went back to States I presume.
CS. Well the attempt to indoctrinate the people of that community in Perth failed abysmally and the failure was blamed squarely on me and my satanic ways, rather than my dad admitting that he hasn’t a single ounce of leadership in him. So yes, it was back to the US to the safe haven of the Bible belt. To quote my father he was, “fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah”! A little ironic I feel, but who am I to point that out.
My parents feel more or less safe and happy living down there, though they’ve since learned that the area they live in isn’t quite the heaven they’d originally perceived it to be. Holy disenchantment Batman! They’ve attended the same church that churns out the same mindless doctrine for almost 20 years now. Thankfully my mother became a bit wiser, but my dad is quite content with being told what to think and feel. Personally I rather enjoy being able to discover and think things through for myself and if I need outside help I’m pretty good at finding it, though it won’t be in any long outdated documents.
PP. And here we came back to the place we started our conversation. What do you think about religion?
CS. Ah yes. Now there’s a can of worms! In a nutshell, I feel that religions do more damage than good in general. There is so much exclusivity and backbiting and finger pointing that goes on between religions and it’s all about one-upmanship. Who’s better? Who’s right? Who’s going to hell? Who has prime real estate in heaven? It’s really all quite despicable. So much damage is done in the name of “God”. So many lives shattered, families torn apart, individuals and groups persecuted in the name of religion or God.
So I can’t subscribe to or support that. I will respectfully observe other people’s right to do as they will and I expect that they return the favour, though they seldom do, as I am of course the one who needs indoctrinating or “saving”.
PP. Are you happy?
CS. I am happier now than I have ever been, which is saying quite a lot, considering all that I still have going on. I would much rather be here in New York, dealing with a little adversity, so that I can get on with my life, than suffering another day in the living hell of my previous existence. Life can only get so much better from here on out and it’s thanks to wonderful people, such as yourself, that I am able to see things looking so much better already.
Text: © Predrag Pajdic
Images: © Christopher Stribley