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.
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.
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.