Derek Hess Angelo Merendino Derek Hess
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As the lights go up in the 1920s-style Capitol Theatre, audience members tentatively raise their hands. 

Derek Hess stands at the foot of the stage next to filmmaker Nick Cavalier and Hess’ manager, Marty Geramita. For the last 96 minutes, Hess’ life, his art and his struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder have been laid naked on the screen in Cavalier’s documentary Forced Perspective

Now, the 52-year-old with a blond buzz cut, rich blue eyes and more tattoos than he can count is offering to expose even more by taking questions. Most have little to do with Cavalier’s moviemaking process or Hess’ iconic concert posters and haunting images of fallen angels and battered humans. Instead, usually hushed phrases hang heavy like the theater’s velvet red curtains. Bipolar disorder. Mixed state. Mania. 

“Do you take your medication?” a woman prods. 

“Yes,” Hess answers. 

“Have you taken it for a long time?” she asks hurriedly.

“Yes,” he replies. 

“Could you tell us what it is?” she presses.

“I love it when bipolar people meet each other. They all compare meds,” Hess cracks. 

The crowd exhales with laughter. 

Behind the trio, the screen announces in red letters why they’re here: “Acting Out!,” Hess and Geramita’s three-day festival of comedy, art, film, music and talk to raise awareness about mental illness and addiction. 

Below the title, Hess has sketched two drama masks — a wide-smile comedy and a misery-torn tragedy. They appear to fall away from the central figure, a man with heavy eyes, downturned lips, lines of torment and a single tear streaming down his cheeks. 

It’s easy to see the tragedy. But keep at it. With the masks and the drama of mental illness removed, the person underneath — vulnerable and exposed — emerges and even rises above. He is no longer a caricature. He is real and raw, even when acting out.

This is deeply personal for Hess, just like the rock ‘n’ roll posters that skyrocketed him to fame in the ’90s and the fine art figures that inspire devotees around the world to get tattoos. He has always been an enigma, choosing to speak through his art rather than opening up about the meaning behind his work or his personal demons. 

But Forced Perspective’s local premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival in 2015 drew back the curtains and offered the first public glimpses into his struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. As more audiences connected with the story, Geramita and Hess saw last fall’s Acting Out as an important means of outreach. A second festival is planned for September.

The jovial mood in the theater fades as a blonde shyly raises her hand. She stutters. Her dad hit her after admitting she might suffer from mental health issues.

Hess, wearing a navy zip-up hoodie and jeans, grabs hold of the tension. “That sounds terrible,” he says. “What an ass. Your dad’s reaction was wrong. There’s plenty of help out there.”

The rest of his answer meanders like an early sketch, but eventually it comes into form. “When I was I kid, I was disruptive,” he says. “I was a drugged out maniac: They’re all out to get me.” 

The audience chuckles again. Hess is new to this role, but he makes up for it with blunt force and dry wit.

Then Cavalier, who also has bipolar disorder, takes over. A high school art teacher helped him get a scholarship to art school, he says. It eventually led him to make the film.

Toward the end of the program, Hess’ one-time doctor, Joseph Calabrese, stands up at the back of the theater and asks the toughest question of the night. The mask is off. 

“Derek, when you were depressed, and it was bad,” says Calabrese, a professor of psychiatry at University Hospitals Case Western Reserve University, “how bad did it feel and how did you manage?” 

“You didn’t want to get out of bed,” Hess says slowly. “The only thing that really got me through it was my dog.” He shoves a hand deeper into his hoodie pocket. 

“I had to take care of it, but being depressed really hurts,” he says. “I don’t know how to put it into words. That’s why I’m a visual artist.”  

*****

Hess has always been sketching. 

When his dad, Roy, returned to their Cleveland Heights home from the dry cleaners, Hess took out the cardboard from the hangers and started doodling. Stegosaurus, T. rex and triceratops. Superheroes, especially Captain America. Images of tanks and planes from his father’s days in the Army Air Corps. 

“I would copy drawings of superheroes,” Hess says. “You have to think like the person laying down the lines.”

By sixth grade, Hess was already honing his artistic talent. On Saturday afternoons, he took life drawing classes, learning to sketch the human form, at the Cleveland Institute of Art where his father was the head of industrial design. 

While Hess showed early promise as an artist, his torment appeared just as quickly. At 14, he started hanging out with friends who drank and did drugs. Hess took advantage of Roy, a drinker who seemed to have things under control. 

“He would have two bottles of vodka in the car,” Hess recalls. “I would steal one and drink it, and he wouldn’t remember.” 

After high school, Hess enrolled at CIA. While his natural gifts put him ahead of his classmates, those friends from his youth were still hanging around.

“None of them started going to college, so they’re like, ‘Let’s go do this, let’s go do that,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, that sounds like a great idea, blowing off school to go do bad things,’ ” he says. 

His exquisite eye and artistic hand couldn’t overcome all the partying and skipped classes. Eventually, he failed out. 

Hess thought he could fix his problem by transferring to Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. “It’s a classic alcoholic cure. You just move,” he says. “You bring all of your problems with you.”

Alone in a tough city, he fell into the same pattern of drinking and cutting classes. After two years, he failed out again. It was enough for him to make a drastic change: He enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous for artists. 

“I figured Dad wasn’t going to give me any more chances,” Hess says.

Finally getting sober provided some clarity too: He wanted to study printmaking and life drawing in Cleveland. So he came home and re-enrolled at CIA in 1989. 

Something else felt wrong when he returned, though. There wasn’t a drop of alcohol in his system, but hopelessness pulsed through his veins.

*****

At 24, hess was diagnosed with depression. 

He finally understood why he had been reaching for the bottle for 10 years: The booze was a mask for the emptiness he had been feeling. He began medication and therapy. 

“It was good initially,” Hess says. 

Needing to support himself after the move, Hess got a gig chopping chicken wings at the Euclid Tavern. An avid music fan, he wanted to bring in the post-hardcore, rock and metal bands he followed in Detroit. 

To spread the word, he papered telephone poles with black-and-white Xerox fliers he made with raw, aggressive images that played on the band’s name, music or look. An image for Helmet featured a flexing muscle man wearing an oversized military helmet. A poster for Motel Shootout depicted a couple in their skivvies peeping out the blinds with guns drawn for an impending showdown.

Those controversial images lit a spark in passersby and in record stores. Soon, the slow Monday night shows were selling out. 

Over the next two and a half years, Hess produced more than 150 fliers. His life was chaotic: He was taking classes, landscaping, chopping wings, booking bands, working as a bouncer and doing art. 

“It was part of me wanting to make up lost time because of the drinking stuff,” he says. 

He got a huge break when Geramita picked up a flier at a record store. A transplant from Austin, Texas, where the rock poster scene was booming, Geramita offered to make and sell silk-screen color posters out of Hess’ fliers. 

“He was different than everyone else,” Geramita says. “Everyone was doing the same really bright colors, clip art. He was creating art — like real art.”

Although Hess’ father wasn’t a fan of the music, Roy was excited about the posters and permitted him to use his photocopier. 

“He was able to do really great stuff with moving and bending and stretching,” says William Busta, director of William Busta Gallery. “He was able to riff off the name of the band in a cool and interesting way.” 

Hess took these oftentimes obscure, sweaty bands and translated them into incisive, attention-grabbing images. A poster for Cop Shoot Cop depicted a comic book-style guns-behind-the-back duel over a doughnut. A Guided by Voices poster showed a blind man walking with a cane in hand, led by an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. 

The posters helped pack the shows, driving up demand from fans and outside venues alike. He dropped his side jobs and put in long hours booking acts and making posters. 

Although Hess didn’t realize it at the time, he was experiencing another aspect of his mental illness that was beyond depression and hadn’t been diagnosed yet. Known as hypomania, it’s characterized by euphoria and a surge of energy. 

“I was up,” he recalls. “You are manic, pretty elated. I was producing a ton of artwork.” 

The images hooked a network of underground rock concert collectors and buyers. Newsweek praised Hess’ “edgy, sketched immediacy” in an article about the second coming of the U.S. rock poster artists. Spin featured him. European art journal Affiche called his posters “the most highly sought after concert posters in the world.” 

In 1995, Hess did his first solo show at the William Busta Gallery, where he had regularly been selling his art. 

Then, before he had even cracked 30, he received a request most artists wait for their entire career: The Louvre Museum in Paris wanted his posters in its collection. Next, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum asked, and his art was among memorabilia of the icons he worshipped. 

He couldn’t be riding any higher. 

“I just felt really up,” Hess says. “So I figured the depression was under control.” But he also began to notice other strange behaviors: He started buying comics, toys and CDs from eBay he couldn’t afford. He was dating multiple women and acting aggressively. He could not understand why. 

One day when he was driving, a kid in a storefront window aimed a laser pointer in his eyes. The pesky red dot set him off. “I drove up on a sidewalk,” Hess recalls. “I went in the store and confronted him.”

When he told his doctor about the incident, the response made all those erratic moments make sense. He wasn’t just depressed. He had bipolar II disorder. 

“It was a relief,” Hess confesses. 

Individuals with bipolar II experience extended episodes of depression and periods of hypomania with mild to moderate short spurts of increased energy. Bipolar depression can be severe, lasting for months and causing feelings of worthlessness or suicide. Hypomania is often immediately followed by severe depression, so patients are prescribed mood stabilizers to avoid rising and crashing. 

“It’s all about treating the hypomania first, so you don’t get depressed,” Calabrese says. 

Hess’ diagnosis meant he had answers for why he was acting out. It even explained that extra energy he was putting into booking the tavern and doing the posters. He began taking mood stabilizers but finding the right balance was difficult. 

“There were times when it wasn’t working and had to be tweaked,” he says.

Accepting the diagnosis also meant a lifelong manic-depressive battle of ups and downs. It meant facing hopelessness time and again. It meant constantly being overtaken by intense behaviors that felt beyond his control. It meant being suicidal — and taking the steps to save his life each time. 

*****

In the Derek Hess Gallery at 78th Street Studios, a banner with a stunning blue angel next to Portia Nelson’s inspirational poem “There’s A Hole in My Sidewalk” graces a white wall.  

Throughout the fall, people signed it with messages of support that read like Chicken Soup for the Soul: “Thank you for being brave!” “There is always help,” and “You are loved.” After Acting Out, it’s destined for Connections, a Cleveland behavioral health care center, to encourage the patients there. 

Then Hess happens.

“Look, it says, ‘Mental health is dumb!’ ” he announces while approaching the banner. Or, it’s about to. He grabs a marker. “It’ll be OK. I’ll take the blame for it.”

He writes in an empty spot. “JK — see? Just kidding,” he says while stepping away. Some nearby gallery staff hope he’s actually joking — but no. 

It reads: “Mental health is dumb. JK — your pal DHess” with one of his freehand angels added to his signature. Hess is just being Hess, a devious jokester with a wry sense of humor. It’s off the cuff. It grabs attention.

When the doors open for the Acting Out gallery show, a father and son mill about, looking at work from 25 artists who have dealt with mental illness, addiction or both. As the pair strolls by the banner, the dad points out Hess’ “JK.” 

The son smiles. It’s small, but the note gets the family to loosen up at an art show about mental illness. It’s all part of the Acting Out approach to mental health. 

“It’s a big deal, but it isn’t,” Hess says. “Everyone knows someone one way or another suffering from it.” 

That’s why Geramita and Hess decided to make Acting Out an arts fest, so it would be fun, casual and informative, not bogged down by medical speak. In addition to the film and art show, they booked the Happy Dog with performances by comics diagnosed with mental health issues and addiction; a panel discussion on the link between mental health and creativity; and a concert by local bands with a tribute to musicians who struggled with the issues.

Hess and Geramita even partnered with local hospitals and mental health and addiction agencies to offer immediate referrals for anyone in need. To their surprise, many people who came to Acting Out weren’t just seeking awareness; they actually came for help. 

“Breaking down the stigma and telling people that there’s nothing wrong with seeking help is super important,” Geramita says. 

Referrals are significant, Calabrese says, because mental illness often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Seeing someone like Hess speak out can give others courage to address their own issues. 

“He engages people in the here and now in a nanosecond,” Calabrese says.  

For the gallery show, Parma painter Chuck Taylor has slathered a canvas in red with disruptive jagged black lines and splatters of red and white. It represents the isolation he feels when dealing with depression, anxiety and a disconnected sense of self. 

Taylor identifies with Hess’ Cardiac Arrest, a gruesome, hunched figure presenting a bloody heart freshly ripped from his chest. 

“It brings up some negative feelings,” Taylor says. “But I’m trying not to run from fear but sort of embrace it.” 

*****

Hess’ Euclid living room looks like a Big Fun showroom. The artist who draws skulls, peeing angels and hangman nooses has shelves, tabletops and wall-mounted displays overflowing with vintage toys. 

It makes Hess’ house look like the doodles of his childhood come to life. There are dinosaurs, fish and monsters. Tanks like the ones he drew with his father. Stacks of Marvel comics. Lost in Space robots. Mr. Peanut and Godzilla. 

Plastic tugboats are docked on a large fish tank in a back room with a Hess World War II fish sketch next to it inspired by Roy’s World War II service. 

Hess turns up ’70s rock as he heads up to his small back bedroom art studio, where torn-out sketchbook images cover the walls. 

One drafting table holds finished eight-track tapes painted with a menacing skull, depressed faces and an eerie red-haired lady. There’s also a spread of his new work that pulls from his frequent imagery: angels in wastelands, tortured figures walking among gravestones and comic characters emerging from trash cans. Cut from thin cardboard, they’re layered to create 3-D pieces for EDP: Emotionally Disturbed Person, an April show at Inner State Gallery in Detroit. 

“I’m working through my issues visually,” Hess says. “It’s therapy for sure. Instead of journaling or talking to a therapist, basically my artwork is my diary to me. I remember what’s going on with almost every piece when I was doing it.” 

He allows emotions to be his muse, channeling his depression into images of worthlessness — a man with a crumbling skeleton, a person underwater with the beacon of hope, a boat, far off. “That’s who I am,” he says. “That’s going to reflect on paper.” 

At times, spurts of hypomanic energy translate into more agitated and reflective works such as Nine Track Mind, an ominous face on nine eight-tracks created for Acting Out. 

“He doesn’t communicate these things verbally,” says Jesse Cory, co-founder of Inner State Gallery. “He communicates through his work.”

While he and Hess have been friends for six years, Cory didn’t know about his bipolar until Forced Perspective. It’s one reason the upcoming EDP show is significant. “The title of the show is a direct indication he isn’t hiding it anymore,” says Cory. “He’s ready to become an advocate to let other people know it’s OK to have these issues.”

Hess pulls out the thin cardboard and sketches on a second drafting table. He’s redoing a 3-D piece that accidentally got some orange paint in the gray. It’s an outline of a sullen man whose body is hollowed out to create a window into an orange sky and gray background with an upside-down cross where his heart should be.

Usually bopping from one thing to the next, Hess is suddenly Zen. His glasses go on. Using a black Gelly Roll pen, he makes loose, brisk movements. He forms the hollow figure’s head with his signature sketchy lines, swiftly lays down the centerline and then creates the shoulders, arms and hands. 

“Always find the center,” he says. 

This mastery of form is part of his genius. He sketches on scratch paper to demonstrate that the shoulders need to go one way while the hips must swing the other to get a central line of motion. 

He reaches for an X-Acto blade and runs it along the edge of the figure, being careful around the thin hands. “I’m playing to my strengths,” he says as he carves out the center. “I’ve done this stuff before, guys with holes in their chests, it’s like an empty thing.” 

He cuts the other piece with the upside-down cross. “I’m into this band Ghost now,” he says. “They have an upside-down cross.” He points to a similar cross on the back of the Ghost hoodie he’s wearing. 

The steady drumbeats, singing guitars and chant of “The Boys are Back in Town,” by Thin Lizzy fill the room. Hess paints a color wash of red and orange for the sky. He adds texture with a sponge dipped in a muddy shade. Carefully, he colors the figure. 

Hess jokes that Thin Lizzy is the key to channeling “the source.” “I feel like I’m in it now because this is going well,” he says. “The key is to let go and let be.” 

He’s only partially joking. Music has always been a spiritual experience for him. The angels in much of his work were first inspired by Black Sabbath’s 1980 Heaven & Hell album cover with pristine angels pictured devilishly smoking and playing cards. 

“[It] really had a big impression on me,” Hess says. The juxtaposition of the deviant and inherently good stayed with him. Hess creates startling images of an angel pointing a gun at another’s head, a winged teddy bear with a smiling bomb ready to explode and a barren skull with Mickey Mouse ears. 

Music helps him turn off his racing mind. Although he isn’t religious, the source is as close as he gets to God and his way of ensuring his art is coming from authentic emotions. No bullshit from himself or anyone.

When generating ideas for a piece, Hess flips pages of his sketchbook until he is pleased. “I know what it needs to look like,” he says. “I’m channeling out whatever my energy might be.” 

How Hess taps into the human experience has resonated with fans worldwide. For example, after the death of his beloved dog Jose, Hess created Heavy Heart. A man’s bony hand cradles his skeletal, crestfallen head. A tiny coffin and red roses weigh down his back. The muscular shoulder descends into a frail wrist about to snap from the despair. 

“It isn’t literal. It’s representing certain feelings or emotions,” he says. “If people tune and catch that, it’s very satisfying.”

While many of his images have characters trapped in a box, crushed from weight or skewered on a pole, each sings with a kind of freedom born of raw honesty. They serve the truth, no matter how difficult to digest. 

“There’s something so organic about what he does,” Geramita says. “If you just look real fast and move on, you won’t notice it. But if you really look at it, it’ll pull you in. And it might not be something you want to see.” 

*****

Hess has been cut off from the source before. 

Right before a flight to Zurich, he got dumped by a girlfriend of five months. Off to do publicity for a book, he had an entire eight-hour flight and international trip to dwell on the breakup. 

Depression took him hostage. Walking around the city, he saw a bus. For a moment, he wanted to hurl himself in front of it. An end to the misery. Then, splat! A pigeon got flattened by the tires. 

“I’m like, That’s not a good idea,” he recalls. After 16 years suppressing the urge to drink, he caved. “I started getting drunk because no one knew me over there,” he says. 

He began drinking vodka before the book signings and quickly became the lost party boy of his youth, before his diagnoses, before his fame, before he knew better. 

Hess came home, but the drinking continued just as it had overseas — hidden, even from Geramita. For nearly a year, Geramita didn’t know about Hess’ alcoholism. 

Yet during the tumult, Hess created one of his signature pieces. Hemorrhage depicts a man’s head buried in his chest, consumed by shadow with his sinewy hands crossed, pressing on bleeding heart. He’s trying to close his wounds, but three bright red streams drip from the cavity. 

Hess says it’s about dealing with “abandonment and lack of closure” from the breakup. He has it tattooed on his back, and it serves as a logo for Strhess Clothing, the merchandise company he and Geramita created. 

“It’s part of my history,” Hess says flatly, struggling to find the words. “I’ve worked through it.” 

Still, the early and mid 2000s were amazingly challenging. Once Geramita discovered Hess had relapsed, he started getting other graphic designers to help with Strhess projects. But that just enabled Hess’ drinking. Over the next few years, Hess would go to rehab, get clean, then relapse. 

After a rehab stint in 2006, Hess went to California to help with a Strhess Tour, a lineup of post-hardcore, metal and rock bands that mirrored Hess’ art. He wasn’t drinking, but the music fest was too overwhelming. 

“It was a roller coaster,” he recalls. “Being in rehab is traumatic. It was an overload when I got out there.” 

Hess’ memory of those lost years is a fog. He says he was still making art, yet he wasn’t satisfied with it. It left Strhess with few pieces to sell. Money was tight. 

“He was dealing with his own problems,” Geramita says. “His heart wasn’t in it.” 

Change didn’t come until Hess went to a routine psychiatrist appointment in 2009. “I was drinking at noon and I was suicidal,” he says. “She put me in the pysch ward.”

He spent Christmas in the hospital to straighten out his meds. He underwent electroconvulsive therapy, where small electric currents trigger a brief seizure to reverse depression while asleep. For a while, he wasn’t depressed. “It worked,” he says. “For me, it wore off, but it was really good.” 

His depression crept back, but he was sober. As Hess started to become more satisfied with his pieces, Geramita recalls, “we just got right back to work.”

*****

“We got the whole gang here this morning,” says Dan Lenhart into the mic at WCSB 89.3 radio. “Derek’s here, he’s getting some ink done, you might hear some buzzing.” 

Hess holds a needle up to a mic.

The group is gathered to watch Hess get tatted up live on his radio show Overrated. He started the program through Cleveland State University’s student-run alternative radio station about a year ago as a way to play his favorite music and chat about topics such as comics, animal adoption and bands. He picked the name, because like himself, he views the show as “not that big of a deal.” 

He has a good time and it lets him get his feet wet in advocating about important issues, including mental health. But as the host, he gets only as vulnerable as he wants.  

Rodney Rose dips the needle in black ink and continues a tank tattoo, an image Hess copied from a ‘60s G.I. Combat comic he loved. Rose has done 10 of Hess’ tattoos, including a Hess-drawn monster with spikes, a Chief Wahoo, a Brownie, several Captain Americas and a portrait of his late dog, Jose. 

Fans around the globe connect deeply with Hess’ work, often drawing on it for inspiration. To many, a Hess tattoo serves as a painful reminder of survival, whether enduring the loss of a loved one, drug addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder. “If it helps people then that’s great,” Hess says. 

But he just as quickly confronts its limits. “I don’t want to be responsible for this stuff,” he says. “If all of a sudden it stops working, it wasn’t intended to work that way in the first place. It was intended to work for me.” 

This isn’t a selfish assertion. It goes back to authenticity. While his meds work, he still experiences weekslong depressive spurts. Occasionally, he still has suicidal thoughts and struggles with hypomania and the symptoms that come along with it including aggression, overspending and hypersexuality. 

Art is his lifeline. 

“I can sympathize with other people but I don’t know their issues,” Hess says. 

Esther Spafford, a San Francisco resident, has followed Hess’ journey ever since she saw him on an episode of TLC’s LA Ink. Like Hess, she has dealt with substance abuse and is bipolar. Growing up, Spafford felt pain all the time. While her peers were happy, she felt isolated. But she has found a kinship in the suffering Hess depicts. She feels less alone. 

Her Hemorrhage tattoo is a reminder to express herself even if it’s painful or is different from others. “I love his artwork,” she gushes. “Some people may say it’s dark or twisted, but I think it’s a good thing. It’s important to acknowledge that people suffer.” 

Hess’ smallest tattoos are among his most meaningful: a semicolon marks the outside of each forearm. They are an ode to Project Semicolon, a nonprofit for those who struggle with mental illness, suicide and addiction. Bipolar has the highest rate of suicide across any illness, University Hospitals’ Calabrese says. On average, patients’ life spans are shortened by about 10 to 20 years. 

If Hess has suicidal thoughts, he knows to call his doctor, check into the hospital or talk to a therapist. Just like his tattoos, he is always adding more to his story whether it’s a March 17 art show at his gallery, the second Acting Out fest this fall or a recent online social Ask Hess series that broadens the discussion about mental health and other topics. 

“It’s really satisfying some people have the same issues I do [and] that’s what helps them get through,” he says.

*****

Back in the Capitol Theatre, Hess is slouched in a red theater seat munching buttery popcorn. Before Forced Perspective revealed his mental illness to film festival audiences throughout the country, only people close to him knew. 

Hess was misunderstood, which encouraged him to keep it quiet. “A lot of people think, He did this or that. He’s an asshole,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a personality defect, it’s part of the disease.” 

The film was an educational opportunity, but mental health was not intentionally the focus. “Many people saw the movie and came up to me and would go, ‘Wow, that’s really cool you’re talking about it,’ ” he says. 

Benjamin Winters watched Forced Perspective online in Zambia. An American, he had worked in development in the African country for eight years. But he was burning out. 

It was growing increasingly challenging to build a family and raise kids without drinking water and other modern amenities. He fanaticized about an easier life elsewhere. Then he watched the film and was inspired by Hess’ Boo Boo Angel, a dark man with his head down and charred angel-like wings. A thick trail of blood pours from his fists. His corpselike body has given out, but there’s a mysterious upward tension. The blood seems to prop up his heavy, falling form. He looks to be rising from the red ashes of the fight that brought him down. 

“It’s designed to be good,” Winters says. “But the f---ing thing is bleeding. It’s going to be painful and for me, that’s true.”

He realized that when Hess sits with what hurts him, it allows him to create. For Winters, he must grapple with the pain of knowing his life might never be normal. 

“The overarching message from that is stop crying about it and be who you are meant to be,” Winters relates. “That might not necessarily be the easiest thing to hear. But there’s a lot of freedom in that.” 

It was enough to convince Winters to stay. 

In some ways, Hess is like his favorite comic book character, Captain America. Like Cap, he doesn’t know why he’s a superhero or why he’s fighting a war, but he is a hero: to fans, to artists, to people trying to get sober, to people with mental health issues. 

He saved Winters from giving up on his job. He saved a boy in the United Kingdom who was bullied, tore out Hess’ photos and was inspired to turn to a sketchbook instead of get in trouble. He saved a Dallas artist who was on the verge of quitting because her images were too dark. 

Often, Hess throws up a shield. But he continues to fight his battles. Sometimes, he slides back. He relapsed on his drinking and is now only one year sober. Just last year, he experienced a hypomanic state that turned suicidal. Hess admitted himself to the psychiatric hospital for three weeks and underwent outpatient treatment. He got his meds straightened out. He’s constantly saving his own life. Now, it’s time for others. 

On March 10, Hess shares his experiences and how it inspires his art with doctors, patients and community members with a Department of Psychiatry Bipolar Disorders Research Lecture at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. 

Hess and Geramita plan to continue their work by reprising Acting Out Sept. 13-16 in Gordon Square Arts District and pursuing nonprofit status for the organization. 

“Because the subject matter is no big deal to him, it makes it easier for people to talk about mental health issues,” Geramita says. 

But that also means Hess must become more vulnerable with the public, revealing more about his meds, therapy and art. Is he ready to constantly be hit with tough questions like the ones at Acting Out? 

“I don’t care,” he shakes his head bluntly. “It’s part of who I am.”

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