It’s a shame that everybody in America assumes that if you’re talking about class you are Marxist. It’s a shame that in these United States populism became a dirty word — shades of racism, authoritarianism, and Pat Buchanan. I wrote an essay a while back trying to unpack the ways that class dynamics entrench and deepen divides around race and gender.
It was based on my own personal, lived experience. And oh yeah, there was a song that went with it.
The personal is political. That’s an ethos underlying hip hop and also feminism. I remember the day I took my friend for a walk in Forest Park. I don’t know if he’d ever been out that way before, even though he grew up in Portland. We were recording video for a crowdfunding campaign we had planned. Don’t know whatever happened to that footage. It’s probably lost until the end of time.
I don’t know what your street name is by now. You went through at least three in the time that I knew you.
We’re already socially distant. The pandemic is reaction to the systemic distortion of academics. 5G is radioactive pollution while the body succumbs to inner confusion designed and spread by mass media controlled execution. Mistrust is a must in a world built on ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The meek won’t inherit the earth as stock markets crash and cryptocurrency gains its worth. All in all as hysteria rises the unseen government builds firewalls to prevent a scenario that ends in total recall and catastrophic downfall. The love frequency has been corrupted by mental meltdown and deviant delinquency. Stay aware and resilient, maintain your militant stance, we’ve been infiltrated by reptilians. Tomorrow never knows but today the heat signature in the atmosphere grows causing an unprecedented increase in the force of tidal flows. We must dwell and excel together as we have crossed the threshold into the new forever.
Illustrator and puppeteer Geahk Burchill is homeless. That hasn’t stopped him from telling his story. A Portland resident for 18 years, and local to the St. John’s neighborhood since 2005, he spoke with us about his experiences and shared his newest project, a webcomic called Trucked Up.
How long have you been in Portland, Oregon?
I first moved to Portland, from Oakland, California, in May 2001 because of a sun allergy. I made the decision after getting a bad sunburn that February and felt like I could choose a place less difficult for me. I loved Portland instantly but didn’t have much savings. A minor fender-bender drained what saving I had and I spent a few months living in my VW van. Fortunately, I got work as a carpenter, and an apartment, relatively quickly. I had no idea it wouldn’t be the last time I was homeless.
Dr. Hadrian in his Library. (Photo: David Emmite)
I moved to St. Johns in 2005 after starting a marionette company. I worked days for Michael Curry Design, and nights on my own puppets, building up a small theater company. In 2010 I left Curry to start my own design/build business and did reasonably well until about 2013 when I received less and less work. By 2014 I had a personal unraveling after working very long hours and losing money on multiple jobs. I let go of my house, first, and lived in my studio; in late 2017 I lost the studio as well. I converted the old puppet-truck into a live/work space and put everything in storage.
Describe your current living situation.
Oakland, where Burchill grew up.
I live in a decommissioned bread truck in which I built a bed, a kitchen, and work space. I took all the tools which used to make up my studio and made a condensed wood shop to try and continue getting work. For a long time I was parking on the street, moving the truck constantly, from spot to spot, to avoid cops. It made jobs difficult and I delivered projects late. That made it harder to get further work. It was also deeply demoralizing.The body of the truck is aluminum. In the summer it’s an oven inside, and a freezer now that it’s winter. In October the truck broke down and I had to have it towed. It’s now parked in the side yard of a friend, whom I pay to use utilities. Even at the amount he’s charging, I’m often late paying. It’s still a very unstable situation. I’m looking forward to repairing the truck, if I can, and having a bit more control over my life again.
Would you describe yourself as homeless?
I’m not sleeping rough. I’ve made my space as comfortable as I can. I have my cat, who sleeps on a heating pad, and my art desk, which I built to perfectly suit me. I have a microwave, and toaster oven, to make hot meals; an electric kettle for coffee. It’s about as cozy as homelessness can get but there’s a lot of room for improvement. It leaks in places. It was unsafe at times. Someone cut my gas line and stole fuel in the middle of one night while I was inside. It’s old and unreliable. At the same time, it represents a certain amount of freedom. I like the space despite its problems. I can see myself driving to jobs in the future and working out of the back.
Your artistic style for the panels of “Trucked Up” is amazing. What is your process, and what tools do you use?
I started with traditional materials. I grew up poor and my medium was usually pen on copy paper. Five simple supplies. Paper, a good pen, a blue pencil, an eraser and a ruler. Later I began drawing with nib-pen on translucent vellum with India ink. That allowed me to sketch on cheap paper and then trace onto the expensive vellum with the nice dip pen for really crisp results.
I currently can’t do anything very messy in the truck, but I did an ad project a few months ago which earned me enough money to buy an iPad with Apple Pencil. I then recreated the way the vellum and dip-pen work in an app called Procreate. It allows me to be very portable and draw in cafes, where I can get wifi access.
Unfortunately, I bought the iPad just before the truck broke down. For a while I was kicking myself. It was a lot of money, but as I’ve kept drawing, I feel it was the only choice to keep me motivated and focused on the future. It’s become the tool I use for everything, including this comic I’ve started. I’m learning to animate and make videos for YouTube. It’s my connection to future work. A little bit of a security blanket too.
How has living in a truck impacted your artistic journey (thematically, pragmatically, etc.)?
Though I started drawing comics when I was fairly young, most of my career has been spent with sculpture and engineering. I’ve made puppets for nearly twenty years, including sewing the costumes, and painting the sets. In the truck I’ve been forced to narrow my focus to what I could accomplish in the space. Drawing and writing, mostly.
Even traditional drawing is hard to do in the truck. Ink gets too thick to use in the cold. My career has been built upon getting new work out often. It has to be in the internet age. Returning to comics is something I can accomplish with limited space, wifi, and access to power. It’s also a way to process the frustration and panic I frequently feel about my situation.
I’ve always talked about poverty, to one extent or another, in my work, but now it’s in sharp focus. I find so many situations that are darkly funny about the basic things I struggle with.
I have far more comic ideas than I’ll ever have time to draw. I’ve also wanted to do a video game which utilizes real scenarios I’ve found myself in as puzzle elements. So much of this is MacGuyvering my way through problems that come up. The comics are accomplishable though. Each one takes about five hours, which I can find time for. It’s a resource I have.
What’s next for “Trucked Up?”
I’ll keep drawing and posting to Instagram and Webtoons. I see there are some people who make decent money, once they get noticed, and build a following. I’m currently working on a mural for a client and that’s my main source of income, but it would be great if I could have something more stable and reliable. My income has been feast-or-famine for ten years, with almost constant stress. It would be nice to have some consistent money that I could plan for the future with.
I feel like I have a lot of ideas which extend beyond the scope of just living in the truck. I have a lot of life stories. Just the autobiographical content is enough for hundreds, or thousands of future comics, not to mention all the fictional stories I’d like to tell. Plus there are educational and instructional ideas I have. I’ve been teaching puppets over the years, and I can fold that into didactic drawings, maybe into a book.
Lennie & George from Of Mice and Men (Performed in 2012)
What was your inspiration for the book pub?
A couple of friends had dreamed it up as a pipe dream, and it sounded like something I could actually do. I was living in LA working as a private tutor and a Latin teacher, and I was looking for a way to get back home. In June 2015 I decided I could disentangle myself in June of 2018 without leaving anyone who was still depending on me, so I set that as my departure date and started planning how to get back home to Portland and open the Book Pub.
Are there any other book pubs like this — in Portland or the world?
For some reason, there wasn’t already a book pub in Portland. A lot of people have been surprised that we hadn’t done something like this already. Tugboat had a book theme, but it wasn’t a bookstore. There are other book pubs around the country. A few that I looked at for reference were in New York, DC, and Denver. I’ve heard there are quite a few in Europe.
What is your favorite book or books?
That’s a hard question. The book I return to every few years is Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I see something new in it every time I read it. The last few years I’ve been in love with Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’s part of my fantasy about the Book Pub that Karl Ove will come for a reading and I can have a few drinks with him. I identify very closely with Simone de Beauvoir.
How does it work? Is it a buy or a browse experience?
The Book Pub is a combination bookstore and bar and restaurant. The books are for sale. People are also allowed to bring their own books in to read, and they’re welcome to drink while they read books they haven’t bought yet, but we will ask people not to eat while they read our books. I think most readers have enough love for books that it won’t be a problem. I encourage people to buy a glass of wine or a pint of beer while they’re browsing.
How did you choose the location?
I gave my realtor a few parameters, and this was the property that was on the market that fit my needs. My priority was to find a place on the east side closer in than 72nd because I think I’ll have a local draw, but I also expect a citywide draw and so I didn’t want to be too far out. The other biggest priority was to be wheelchair accessible. I got a lot of things from my wish list, too: a back patio, an old building, lots of wood, and lots of taps. It also happens to be a few blocks from where I went to elementary school at Sabin, so I’m really pleased to be in a neighborhood where I already have roots.
What will the menu (food and beverage) be like?
I have 24 taps! I’m using a few for drinks other than beer: kombucha, cider, cold press coffee on nitro. Otherwise, lots of NW craft brews. I’ll have a house red and a house white as well as a rotating list of spendier wines. We’re going to have a limited cocktail list of 5 signature cocktails at a time, rotating with the flavors of the seasons, all using local spirits and other local ingredients. Otherwise, we will do highballs (1 booze, 1 mixer) of anything we have.
We have a core fixed menu of bistro/cafe style food. Cheese plate, charcuterie plate, warm baguette with Himalayan pink salted butter, a pork shoulder dish, a quinoa bowl, and a few other items. We are going to have a small rotating menu of soups, salads, pastas, and desserts to make use of seasonal ingredients.
When does it open?
I’m aiming for a very soft opening on October 14th, which may or may not happen. If we don’t make it by that day, it will be sometime soon after. We will definitely be open by November 3rd when I’m planning a Grand Opening Party 11 am until 2 am. I’m still working on the line up for that day, but lots of live music, a one-line joke open mic, a pinata, beer tastings, and a lot more.
I’m doing an Indiegogo to cover the costs of the built-in bookcases and the new bar top. It’s all just pre-sales at the same prices the items will be after I open.