Julian St. John's portrait "Crucifix Dreamz" looks lonely and haunted, not unlike the circumstances that created it.
The image, mostly in blue pen, features a bearded man with ringed, blood-shot eyes staring almost vacantly at the viewer. Over his white face, from the forehead down to the left cheek, are words that form a miniature poem: "Pain is my love shun'd by the herd like a bird sent down from above."
Across the nose is etched an affirmation: "I stay lookin up."
St. John, who will display 17 pieces Friday at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art, drew "Crucifix Dreamz" in a park bathroom in Canoga Park, where he lived several months ago. It wasn't a case of homelessness due to poverty; St. John is the son of a champion boxer and an Emmy-winning actor.
Instead, the artist, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic at age 18, left home voluntarily and lived an itinerant life for more than a year. Sometimes, his family tracked him down, housed him temporarily or set him up in hotels; other times, they had no idea where to find him. But with St. John committed to his medication now and his one-man show set to open, he considers himself on an upswing.
Not that he's about to crow just yet.
"I just showed it to my mom and she hooked it up," the 23-year-old said outside the gallery earlier this month, when asked how he went from being a transient to a headliner in Laguna Beach in just a few months.
Even though he's a star of sorts at LGOCA, St. John seems blase about the attention lavished on him. When the doors open Friday, though, he may have some high-profile attention. Among those who plan to attend are his mother, boxer Mia St. John; his father, Kristoff St. John, of "The Young and the Restless" fame; and Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, who has partnered with Mia to push for a bill improving mental health care in schools.
Napolitano, who joined forces with Mia three years ago, said she has only met Julian once but considers him an inspiration for her cause.
"To be a noteworthy and talented artist is kind of a role-model situation for others," she said.
Forging a crooked path
Growing up in Calabasas as the son of an actor and a boxer, Julian seemed destined for art and sports. He got there, but not by taking the paths his parents had chosen.
With his father a daytime soap fixture, the St. Johns' oldest child had a rare connection to the entertainment industry. His father, though, was keen on dissuading him from an acting career.
"I do my best to warn people about Hollywood and the pitfalls of the business," Kristoff said. "My son was no different."
Instead, he and Mia, who have since divorced, found other diversions for their creatively inclined son. Kristoff served as his coach for one sport after another: tee ball, soccer, Pop Warner football. At home between games, Julian let his imagination run wild on paper, inventing his own characters and worlds.
Specifically, he remembers the Froots. Midway through elementary school, Julian created a group of brightly colored characters who "always had a smile on their face" and worked them into comic-book narratives. One story had a Froot stumbling on a black-and-white town and introducing color to it.
That enthusiasm, though, didn't always show up in the classroom. Sometimes, Julian himself didn't seem to be entirely there. According to his father, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder early on, and then a series of other diagnoses followed: Asperger's, autism, bipolar. At 18, the diagnosis changed to schizophrenia.
By that time, school was in Julian's past. He had attended high school for parts of the ninth and 10th grade, then spent time in a psychiatric hospital in Texas. Julian has only vague memories of the years before he turned 21. According to his parents, he was institutionalized more than once, but what most sticks in his memory is that he lived at home in between, worked on hip-hop music and drew.
At least, that's all from real life that stands out. He remembers some of his delusions as well: At times, Julian believed he was traveling back in time, not to any historic period, but to his own teenage years. After one more hospital stay, Julian set out on his own without a job, a high school diploma or any concrete plans.
What inspired him to wander? "Just to live my own life."
His own life turned out to be a precarious one. For a year and a half, Julian crashed on friends' couches, in motels, at parks and wherever else the day led him. What minimal art supplies he had — often just a notebook and a pen — came from friends' kindness. Sometimes, he admitted, he even graffitied the park bathroom walls.
A streetwise tradition
Shane Townley, the director of LGOCA, got a recommendation from a family friend earlier this year.
His wife is friends with Claudia Ollis, a spokeswoman for Mia, and one day, Ollis handed him a portfolio of images: "Crucifix Dreamz," plus other graffiti-style portraits and abstracts. One, titled "Black Frankenstein," shows a doleful Frankenstein's monster, colored green but with African-American features — Julian is half-black, half-Latino. Another features splashes of autumn colors with the words "Bring Da Heap" written across.
Over the last year, Julian had created the work in a series of temporary spaces. Now, he had decided to make a go at a stable living situation again. He and his girlfriend, Krysta McKeeber, who met him in a hospital and often roamed alongside him, found a PennySaver ad that led them to move into a guest house in Canoga Park. Julian, who said he often forgot to take his medication in the past, committed himself to a schedule.
As Mia reunited with her son, whom she had often sought in the previous years by knocking on park bathroom doors, she discovered the drawing book he had worked on in his time away.
"When I found him and found all the drawings, I said, 'Wow,'" she said. "I realized so many of them were like self-portraits and they said so much, because he had the writings with it, and we just found all these pieces and basically scraped them together."
The images, Townley said, struck him as the work of an "incredible raw talent." His gallery was booked in terms of long-standing exhibits, but he squeezed a one-night show, titled simply "The Art of Julian," on the calendar.
The gallery's website isn't shy about Julian's past; it refers to the show as "a journey through psychosis, where reality and delusion become intertwined." It also calls tagging-style art "one of the fastest growing movements in the last decade" and adds that it has caught on increasingly in the gallery world.
Nicole C. Hartshorn, who teaches art history at the Laguna College of Art + Design, said the bigger picture is more complex. She cited Keith Haring, who tagged New York subways in the 1980s, as the first mainstream graffiti artist, but said the form has gained critical acceptance in the last few years. When the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles displayed "Art in the Streets," an urban-themed show, in 2011, it advertised the exhibit as a breakthrough. The press materials declared "the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art."
"Urban art is gaining attention, but the verdict is still out as for its true place in the historical canon," Hartshorn wrote in an email. "The number of artists is growing, it is a topic of conversation, and you can even find entire books dedicated to this genre."
'Good things happen'
Julian's mother, as well as her friend in Washington, hope to make a change that goes beyond art.
Napolitano, a Democrat who oversees the 32nd District, is trying for the fourth time this year to pass the Mental Health in Schools Act through Congress. The bill would provide funds for public schools to partner with mental health professionals to provide on-campus care for students.
Mia, who met Napolitano through a mutual acquaintance — Henry Acosta, then the executive director of the National Resource Center for Hispanic Mental Health and now head of another health organization — has joined the congresswoman and Lakers star Metta World Peace to promote the act. Last September, Mia spoke at a mental health summit in Washington; she's also visited students and counselors to spread the word.
Still, Mia isn't just pushing for more help for teens. Like others who spoke at a congressional hearing earlier this month, she wants parents to have more say in their children's affairs after they hit adulthood. She said it pained her when people asked why she wasn't doing more to intervene during the months Julian spent wandering.
"When they're refusing help, there's not much you can do as a parent," she said. "The officers kept telling me, 'He's over 18. There's nothing you can do. He's an adult, he can do whatever he wants, and your hands are tied.' So I even went to the judge. I went to the sheriffs, I went to the LAPD, and I begged, 'Please, give me some rights to my child.'"
For now, without the benefit of a government intervention, Mia has him back again. His homeless period ended two months ago. He and McKeeber are busy recording a self-produced rap album that they plan to market on CD Baby. And his art career, however far it may go, is guaranteed a few prestigious eyes for one night in Laguna.
"I love my boy," Kristoff said. "He's a good kid. Beautiful soul. And sometimes, good things happen to beautiful people. Maybe this is one of those times."
If You Go
What: "The Art of Julian"
Where: Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art, 611 South Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday
Information: (949) 715-9604 or lgoca.com