An Artist's Journey

By Dorri Olds 07/13/17

Dorri Olds shares the evolution of her work from early sketches influenced by drugs and self-destruction to the vibrant and life-giving paintings of today.

Artwork by Dorri Olds
Art is way better without drugs. Art via Author

Mom says as soon as I could hold a magic marker, I drew. When I ran out of paper, I switched to marking up my belly. I inherited the art gene from my Uncle Buddy. Sadly, I also picked up his penchant for self-destruction and bought into the myth that troubled emotions, lack of impulse control, and suicidal tendencies were the necessary ingredients to create magnificent art.

Works by the mentally unstable stole my attention: Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. Sketchbooks since third grade are stacked in boxes in the back of a closet. It took a long time before I could look through the dark days of my addiction. When I faced the pages, they made me cry.

Benjamin “Buddy” Wendkos, my mother’s older brother, was an astounding painter who actually made enough money selling his art to support a wife and three kids in Florence, Italy. Sadly, by the time I reached five, cigarettes had killed him. Years of smoking four packs a day gave him a heart attack and doctors warned him if he didn’t quit immediately, he would die. But Buddy kept on puffing.

Four-foot tall portraits of me, my sisters, mother, and grandparents covered the walls of our home. Those paintings kept him alive in my mind. If I begged, Mom told me stories about him. One year she lived with Buddy and his family. Through a cracked bedroom door, she bore witness to the way he woke up. With eyes still closed, his hand hunted the nightstand until his fingers landed on the rectangular pack. Still without looking, he’d pull out a cancer stick and place it in his mouth. With his hand free to roam the table again, like a homing pigeon, it landed on his resting matchbook. He lit the match and brought it to his waiting cig. Mom saw his chest swell while he took in a long drag. Then, as he let out a slow exhale, Buddy opened his eyes and began the day.

Uncle Buddy never quit. Never even cut down. A second heart attack stole him at age 43. I still remember when Mom got the call. I was five and had never seen her cry before. As she sat beside the phone, curled inward with her head down, my pudgy little hands patted her rounded back. “There, there,” I said, mimicking words she used whenever I was sad.

My childhood bedroom was situated next to a staircase. Mornings, when I padded down for breakfast, I paused on the bottom step to say a silent, “Good morning,” to the mesmerizing self-portrait of Buddy. His Mediterranean skin looked so real, as did his thick eyebrows. His eyes stared back at me, while an unlit cigarette dangled from the side of his lip. His hands are forever frozen, about to light a match.

Self-portrait by Benjamin “Buddy” Wendkos

After my father died in 2009, Mom sold the house. That painting was the only item I asked for. After pleading with my mother and two older sisters, they finally acquiesced. Since then, every morning when my eyes open, the first thing I see is Buddy’s beautiful face staring back at me. It’s as if he is saying, “I’m with you, kid. You’re gonna be okay.” Unlike him, my addiction didn’t kill me.

My first foray into drugs began at age 11 with a shared joint passed around with camp friends. Quickly, I moved onto alcohol, amphetamines, acid, and cocaine. My scariest sketchbooks date back to early teen angst.

I Don’t Live Today

This sketch was named for the song by Jimi Hendrix. I considered him lucky to have escaped planet earth. When he sang, “I’ll meet you on the next world and don’t be late,” I thought it was a message to only me.

At age 15, I ran away to Greenwich Village. Fascinated by the hectic pace of New York City, I dreamed of becoming a rock star and began writing song lyrics:

Wild youth
Gone loose
In sunny subway station.
Give the girl a break now.
Tokens on a chain.
Choking up a neck.
Such a pretty neck.
Greasy men on steps there.
Sweating, greasy, staring
Girlie must go wild now
Wants to poke their eyes out.
Sitting on the train while
Men leer from their seats.
Falling helpless at her feet.
So much fun in dreaming
To pass the ride away.
It’s crazy on the train.
So caught up in her brain.
Wild youth gone loose
In a sunny subway station.

Wild Youth Gone                                              Loose in Sunny Subway Station

By age 17, I moved onto shooting cocaine and gulping down alcohol to take the edge off. My drawings grew scarier. Throughout the drinking and drugging, I frequently did self-portraits. One shows me resting my head atop a bar to stop the spins. I call that one The Fun I’ve Had. Another drawing was a needle tangled up in tubing. It came to me while Joe Walsh sang his hit on the radio: Life of Illusion. That was around the same time that Jim Carroll was shouting about all the People That Died.

The Fun I’ve Had                                                     Living a Life of Delusions

By 19, it wasn’t the fear of death that made me quit shooting up; it was vanity. I’d seen a guy’s forearm blow up like a balloon. My junkie boyfriend explained, “That’s an abscess, hon. We gotta be careful when we buy those used needles.”

From 19 through 21, proud of kicking that loser life, I rewarded myself by snorting lots of crystal meth. Getting whacked on that stuff was so fun but crashing was the worst. Shadowy figures lurked everywhere but whenever I turned my head to look at them, they vanished. Spooky noises. Paranoia. Devastating despair. In that state, I drew one of the hallucinated ghouls and called it Death Comes Knocking at my Door. As for the self-portrait with capsules flying out of my head, that represents days when I couldn’t find meth and had to make do with something else. This is me after a three-day run on diet pills, cigarettes, Bacardi, and no food.

Death Came Knocking at my Door                                                  Kaleidoscope Eyes

By age 22, my meth connection began twitching and mumbling. Oozy sores on her face made it hard to look at her, and then she disappeared. Thankfully, it was the eighties, so cocaine was everywhere. My daily dose—a gram of coke—cost a hundred dollars. The justification was I needed that coke to get through my grueling 10-hour waitressing shifts. Despite knowing I was stuck in a dead-end job, my rationale told me I needed the money to buy cocaine. By then, my sanity was circling the drain so I was “snow” blind to the circular reasoning.

It took four long, decrepit years before finally admitting defeat. That’s when I dialed my cousin Angela, Uncle Buddy’s youngest daughter, who’d always said to call if ever I needed help. She swooped in like an angel, drove us to the airport, schlepped me onto a plane to Florida, and delivered me to rehab. Time passed. I came out of a blackout on a cot in the detox unit, with no memory of how I got there. I was 26.

During my 31-day stay, I sketched ferociously, mad as a hatter, and frightening images continued. But, as toxins wriggled their way out of my body, I began to feel better and got a job teaching drawing, painting and pottery at The Children’s Aid Society. The director invited me to be in a staff exhibit, which let in a light of hope and my artwork changed.

At that first sober exhibit, I sold all three of my paintings. That success led to a dozen more shows, including 7 solo exhibits. In total, I sold 51 paintings. It seems ridiculously obvious now—getting clean was the only way for me to grow as an artist, and without a head clogged with toxicity, my creativity bloomed.

Birch Trees

Challah Bread


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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.