Leon

Leon

I spent most of my childhood in Castle Hill, which is the whitest place in the world. My family home was about 300 meters from where Hillsong Church was started. My father was Indian and my mum is First Fleet white Australian, so I am a half caste of sorts — a mongrel.

I tend to come across as a white guy with a tan. I don’t know if that makes a difference, but I don’t feel I have experienced racism. Being half Indian itself is interesting because half of my family is from a culture that I was very unfamiliar with and didn’t relate to at all until I traveled to India when I was 22. Dad was quite strict…as a lot of people who come from India are. They can have an attitude of “the west is best” and India is dirty and India is not a good place to be – I was raised with that attitude.

My mother was the first person in her family to go to university — that was met with a great deal of anger from her mother. So I grew up with an Indian father trying to do everything he can not to be Indian, and with a fairly strong independent woman ahead of her time.

One other thing in the mix was that dad was a Catholic priest for 25 years before he came to Australia. Leaving the priesthood made him leave India, as it caused such a great a level of social shame it was easier for him to leave the country. He was much older than mum and came from a very different background so he was independent in other ways.

There was great beauty in the life I had at the time, but as much as I loved my home and suburban adventures and all that stuff, there was a lot of horror too because I was coming to terms with my sexuality and struggling. My school life was quite good. I took refuge from my family life in school and by mid-adolescence when puberty was kicking in and it was very clear that I wasn’t quite heterosexual, life was much harder, internally life was much harder. I came out at around 8 or 9 or 10. It is not that uncommon, a lot of people have said, to realise your sexuality that age no matter what it is. It just sticks out more if you’re not straight.

It got really difficult by the age of 17 when I was coming out. I went to a selective high school and that it itself has its challenges, but I’d never put school as a dark patch in my life. Coming to terms with sexuality and coming out when I was 17 was really tough and I ended up going to a psych ward for five days because it was easier to come out in a suicide note than to tell my parents what was going on. So life got dark at 17 and I overdosed on sleeping tablets.

I was drinking really heavily and sneaking mom’s sleeping tablets all the time. Throughout the year guess it dawned on me that there was a darkness there. I didn’t necessarily attach it to sexuality, I didn’t call it depression, but it just felt like a heavy black darkness that would descend at times. One night, I took a big overdose of Benzos and a lot of alcohol and I woke up in hospital the next day. I’d written quite a thorough suicide note and it was 20 something pages long. It had quotes from Shakespeare — the written communication was quite elaborate, but I came out in that note. I can’t remember doing that.  I think in hindsight the act of overdosing was attached to sexuality and coming out.

The darkness returned regularly over the years, until several years ago I was diagnosed with bi-polar. I took the diagnosis with a grain of salt, but the darkness came again and again throughout the rest of my life. My life has been about 87 percent pretty good, but 13 percent fucking shit!

Eventually I took the diagnosis more seriously… I became comfortable with it and started taking medications.

One of my most exceptional highs was after two years of absolute sobriety. That was a rare window of opportunity in my adulthood. I went through what I described at the time as a spiritual awakening, although I don’t describe it as that anymore.

I am a painter and I painted quite frantically. I started believing that I had magical powers and doing things people could call manic. No one really picked that, people just thought I was mad, but not mad enough to worry! But it was then a great darkness came after that it was apparent that it wasn’t drug induced.

My dad said to me, and I remember it clearly, “I don’t really care that you’re gay, what I really care is you’ve been depressed and haven’t talked about it” and he hasn’t shifted much from there. Being gay, he thought about it philosophically, and I know that it would have challenged him philosophically.

Mum really struggled with it, and being both independent and quite loud, I guess she verbalised her struggles more than dad. So she was much harder. She’d say stuff like, “I don’t mind you’re gay but I just hate the fact that gay people molest children”. She had those attitudes and admits that she used to say stuff like “AIDS cures gayness”. She had a really reactionary attitude when I was growing up which really affected me.

I got a bit fucked up, but I felt like this sane guy came through the mix. Nowadays they’re both incredibly supportive, they’re very proud. Mum is actually quite an advocate and a crusader against homophobia. I don’t think she quite knows how she got that way, but she felt she needed to make amends. Dad is quietly supportive. Every time I go to a family thing they invite my boyfriend and it’s a very inclusive environment.

I floated though my HSC, I don’t remember any great levels of anxiety around it. I did pretty well. I got into university, drank my way through six months, didn’t produce one hour of work and left a week after my last exam. I went straight to Enmore and didn’t go back. I stayed around the inner west, moved overseas… I was quite transient. I guess I lived in circumstances that made my parents very anxious.

There was a lot of drinking, drugs started getting involved, and for most of the 90s, I was a fucking mess; the best of times and the worst of times. I started working in a refuge with drug users. I’d call myself a participant observer, so I was working with drug users and using drugs and drinking heavily. I loved a lot of those times and I really struggled through those times as well, so they were character building years.

I’ve always painted and made art since I remember. It was always something I did at the corner of my house, there were always paintings being made. I believed without quite realizing it, that the only reason I was painting, and other people weren’t is that they were somehow how getting life right and I just had this spare time to make paintings as a sign of not getting life right. I believed that everyone else was doing things right and I was struggling, which I don’t believe anymore — I think we’re all making it up as we go.

It wasn’t until the sobriety period ended around 2007 that these paintings started coming really thick and fast. It really extraordinary how much I was painting, I was dreaming and painting and it got to the point that I couldn’t actually get into my bed because my bedroom was filled with paintings. My friend said to me, “This is fucking ridiculous, you need to just have a gallery and an art show because you’re an artist”. I just thought it was a wanky term, I fucking hated that term.

I ended up having the exhibition. Many people turned up and most of my friends said “I didn’t even know he painted”, and I sold out. I put big prices on the paintings because I didn’t care, I didn’t think I’d sell, but I sold all of them. So I’ve put on several exhibitions since then, and now people identify me as an artist. I still make a lot of paintings, it comes and goes and currently as of this week it’s come back in massive force. It’s a blessing to have back in my life.

There is simplicity in it. I like the patterns and playing with those patterns. I think beauty in itself is really lovely. Sometimes I think I’m a bit superficial. I reflect on that a lot because I do think about art a lot. And a lot of artists I admire do things I’m not brave enough to do. There can be darkness, it’s starting to emerge in my art. I am starting to be more confident to show parts of myself that I don’t necessarily like. Parts of me that I’m not necessarily willing to share publicly are starting to emerge in my art, and I’m doing it in a measured way … I’m including drug use for example.

When the Olympics came to Sydney, I really hated the idea of them. I moved from Newtown to Fitzroy, which is culturally similar but half the price. Those years in Melbourne were one of those golden periods — the drug use was really heavy and I was doing a lot of drug user advocacy work. I was working needle exchanges and in AIDS and I really felt I was again living life well. I adored that time and I did lots of really good public advocacy work.

Then I moved to India. My first overseas trip was to go to India for a conference about drugs when I was 22. I was terrified, thinking “I’m gonna hate this country”. I just thought I was the kind of guy who would see that sort of chaos and really find it terrifying. And within half-an-hour of getting off that plane in New Delhi, I just loved every moment of it. I planned to move to India, so when i returned to Australia I slowly packed my life up and left there for India a year — it was just beautiful.

I started in Delhi and was there for six months. I worked at a harm reduction organisation called Sahara and it was amazing. I just sat there drinking up the amazing things that were happening. After six months, I travelled throughout India making big murals. And for that six months I really believed I was making life right (in sharp contrast with the rest of my life). I thought, ‘I’m getting life right, I’m traveling India living cheaply, finding beautiful places and stopping there, finding big walls and making paintings on them’.

I continually assess and evaluate  — “What path am I on? What are my indicators of success?”

I’m always quite vigilant about my mental health. I’m always aware if it’s getting dark. For that reason, my levels of intoxication for the past few years have been much more measured and my health-related behaviour, my exercise and stuff, has been much more measured.

I’ve got a job I love and wanted to do for a long time. I’m making art and that’s come back in a really good way. I’m renting a cute little house in Newtown, I’ve got a dog and I’m about to have a kid …

Yes, a kid.

Me and my best friend Sky have a long friendship, and we traveled through India together, and we did that thing in your early 20s where you say one day, if you get to a certain age and you want to have kid… then a few years ago she said we really should do that kid thing. I laid all my fears and all my hopes and dreams and terrors on the table and she said okay let’s park it. It was definitely not a yes, and definitely not a no.

The conversation just occurred more and more, then about a year ago she said “let’s really do this”. So I said great, and we did a lot of negotiation and discussion — how shall we do it, and where will I be — she lives in Byron, what will it mean, how can we make it work? What are the financial and emotional and geographic consequences, the legal ones? We negotiated the hell out of it!

It’s amazing how quickly my trepidation turned into joy and enthusiasm, and I’m really looking forward to the next step. Her family, my family, extended families … everyone is so supportive and excited about it. So it’s in a very good place, that part of my universe is very joyful and I anticipate there is going to be a lot of joy and hardship and fear and horror and delights.

It feels like I’ve got two intimate relationships in my life with my partner and Sky, both very different relationships. He and Sky haven’t even met that much because she is up in Byron and he is here. We’ve been going out for three years. So this is much more a beautiful slow relationship. Like a tidal wave it slowly, slowly grows bigger. I adore him it’s a really beautiful relationship.

I’ve never actually identified as being a user. I regularly injected drugs for about 16 years. It’s the same with bipolar, being bipolar is not part of my identity, it’s a diagnosis, and injecting drugs is a behaviour. It’s been part of my life for a long time and I do like drugs, now I like them in a more measured way.

I consider myself a real participant observer. Currently I teach drug and alcohol studies, I’ve worked with people in rehabs, people whose goal is abstinence while I’m consciously aware that I’m not that. And again, that’s a philosophical thing for a lot of my life — I don’t identify as an artist, I am a painter.

If there is one theme that runs through my life and my art, it is the peaks and troughs and with not a lot of space in between. It’s interesting because I’ve been trying to do subtlety with painting and understatement. I hope there is something of a middle ground there now, something of living a life that is more measured, having a child in a measured way, and taking drugs in a measured way, and I’m starting to make paintings in a more measured way. That is the theme that has emerged over the last few years.

It is less measurable, because it is in flow or balances — in contrast to art exhibitions or jobs or income — where the good stuff emerges.