Meeting Gabriel Combs again after nearly five years was a shock. All the former young-punk anger and wiry strength that I had seen when I first met him was gone, replaced by frail deliberation, lumbering gentleness, even a kind of solemn grace. “Can I offer you some coffee?” he asked apologetically when I arrived at his small apartment in the rough and densely populated Stevens Square neighborhood of Minneapolis. He seemed unwilling to look directly at me, turning his back to the sink of his tiny kitchenette. “It’s fairly fresh. I just need to heat it up.”

I demurred, and held up the bag of Middle Eastern food I had picked up on the way over. “I can’t drink coffee this late in the day,” I said, “but I am hungry. You guys want to eat?” (Another artist named Ray, who has long spread an itinerant life between an old RV and the couches of friends, was also present.)

They accepted the food without thanks, like prisoners do, and ate mostly in silence. I swallowed pieces of spinach pie and chattered nervously, trying to get conversation going. I mentioned I was specifically interested in their artist careers, and how had art had perhaps let them to their current stations. This got them both started on a littany recitation of the slights, insults, and the past treacheries they’d endured in their lives, jobs, art pursuits, and so on.

I didn’t take careful notes (I wasn’t thinking of this as a journalistic visit), but I learned a few indelible facts that I record here. Combs had been supporting himself by selling art on eBay for more than two years–ever since he’d quit a job at a photo processing place, supposedly because of “some bitch” coworker who was blaming him for things that had gone wrong at work. In a typical month, Combs makes 25-30 small art works to sell, working in series to save time and reuse colors between images, thus conserving supplies. He couldn’t say exactly why he started selling art on eBay as a “survival thing.” It just happened “by chance,” he said, as he was applying, unsuccessfully, for job after job to replace the one he’d left. “I saw some others doing it on eBay, and I thought I’d try. I just put it out there. I weigh it against all the jobs I’ve hated, and I like this much more. I just need to figure out all of the marketing strategies.

“I feel like I got pushed into this… but I’ve made a pretty good run of it,” he said of selling his art at $10-$20 a pop, mostly to collectors from Europe.

While Combs luck seemed to have run out finally, it lasted awhile. And his art got sent out all over–Germany, England, Spain… “A bunch of people in Spain have my work,” he said. “If I could go anywhere, I’d go to France or Spain. The street art there is just incredible.” But Combs doesn’t have money to get to those countries, let alone to sustain himself for any length. He hadn’t paid his rent since November, and in the weeks leading up to his call-for-help blog and forum posts in early February he had been dealing with the heavy-handed mechanisms of the legal system.

Prior to ending up at the photo processing place, Combs had attended school in Minneapolis for graphic design. I can’t recall which school he attended, as there are several for-fee schools here that purport to train the next generation of working designer. I don’t know the details, other than Combs left school with a degree and a sizeable debt, but he was unable to find work in the field. “I really liked graphic design,” he said. “Really. It just was impossible to find a job doing it.”

The littany of blame, excuse-making, and self-demurral tossed out by Ray and Gabe against all the people in the art and professional world who were keeping them from success reminded me of some recent blog-writings about work and creativity of another Minneapolis artist who seemed to have hit rock-bottom of late.

I’m making no money on music. I can’t get a gig. I can’t find a decent job. And I don’t have a social life because I’m too broke to do anything, and besides, I should be at home recording anyways… Taking a chemical won’t change who you are. It won’t change your brain. It definitely won’t make your life situation any better. It can only promote change. So I’m trying to see what I can change and how I can help myself. I’m just afraid that the answer is to “find a job.”

Any job that fits my qualifications does not fit my skills or personality, and vice versa. That’s the trap I’m stuck in. I’ve gone after jobs that “fit me,” and I don’t get hired, usually because someone more personable is just as available. I was able to slip in to jobs only to get treated passive-aggressively, and sometimes even used as a scapegoat. If I’ve ever had a job that did not fit this profile, it was low pay and small hours.

EVERY employer wants a “motivated, team-oriented, self-starter,” which I can be if I were running a gallery or something. I can’t be that while answering bitter emails from dissatisfied Target customers. And I can’t pretend I’m going to. What the fuck is the point of that?

I’ve always known this about myself and that’s why I fight against the odds and work my ass off in my spare time, making music, making art, promoting the arts, volunteering, running a zine fair, etc. hoping that it will pay off down the line. The fact is that it WILL NOT pay off…

Based on former experience, the best case scenario is that I will settle for something that will pay me to simply maintain my human existence. If I save anything, it’ll cover the hole that I create when I get pissed off and quit. My only life, it seems, is a flat line. It also seems my creativity has been dwindling since I stopped getting student loans and switched to paying them. I made a huge mistake. I invested in myself. I thought being educated would get me somewhere. I didn’t realize that you’re more prepared for the workforce as a high school graduate than as a college graduate.

Anyone who sees the way Gabriel Combs interacts with and approaches the world would quickly know that the root of his problems–his inability to keep a job, to market his art, to get along with others in a position to help him–likely lies solely within himself. It is a case where a person’s voracious creativity not only creates conditions for alienation and isolation, but makes the person blind to the reasons why he is shunned.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a good thing to see a person lose his vibrancy and vigor in this way–particularly when it’s a result of a voracious creative drive. Combs, compared to his old self, is a zombie now–diminished, hungry, lacking any spark of joy. It was vastly preferable to know him when even the smallest slight would provoke a shitstorm of rage and spew, when you were afraid that he might explode on you just because you looked at him wrong, and when you knew he was only seeing the world as a canvas on which he could make marks, literally and figuratively.

It was sad to see him like this, even if he told me he was hopeful and optimistic for the future, proud of his petty art sales, and eager to keep making art work. In the course of conversation, Combs brought up several times the name of Van Gogh, citing something he’d read in his letters to his brother Theo or talking up some aspect of his life. He also mentioned he had recently seen the Schnabel film about Basquiat. I wasn’t sure if he was identifying with these famous artistic failures, or if he was just acknowledging those who had previously traveled the path he was now setting off on.

“All things considered,” says Combs, “I’m a happy guy. What have I got to complain about?… I literally have nowhere to go. I could couch-surf, but I have no permanent place to go. If that’s what it is, then so be it.”

The latest updates on one of Combs’ websites suggest he was scheduled to hand over the keys to his apartment to a court representative on Monday–yesterday–at noon. Below is a picture he posted as the last image from his studio, just before it must have been carted away:


Today, just a few hours ago, Combs posted the following on the mnartists forums:

i’m close to kmart on lake… i have’nt been on since friday, so i missed about the painting on saturday. officially without a home now, having handed over the keys yesterday at noon. anybody know how to get a dvd out of a macbook drive? i stuck the last harry potter movie in here and it does’nt know its there and won’t let it out… i hope it does’nt mess this thing up. i got a ton of drawing done, as i’d been holding back from it for quite a bit. lots of thumb nails for paintings to do. have to get back to painting i a little bit here, but had to check the net. ramen noodles and bread… spring should bloom nicely this year. gotta run…

4 Responses to “Doom; Wandering, Voracious Doom: The self-destructing Minneapolis artist concluded”

  1. Ray says:

    I’m pretty sure I thanked you for the food.

    Examples of itinerants include:

    * Jesus
    * Paul Erdős
    * John the Baptist
    * Thomas Paine
    * Che Guevarra

  2. admin says:

    You didn’t mention Vincent Van Gogh…

    All very good role models.
    Jesus, John, and Che (and Vincent) all were dead by their 40th birthday.
    Paine, whom I’m not sure was really truly itinerant (but I won’t argue), nearly died at age 36, of typhoid fever, but he somehow survived…

    So, a question. Would you advise an impressionable, hopeful, eager and young artist to give homelessness a shot? In George Bush’s America? Hm? Would you?

    It’s a frolic in the park, right? A great way to test the social welfare network in these oh so generous times…

  3. J. says:

    thanxxx for sharing all this. I just bid on his work.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for the note, J. I’m sure Gabe is grateful for your bid…

    Just as an FYI, Gabe was none too happy from the get go to have my particular blog-light shined on him… I suppose I can’t blame him, though I figure if you’re going to record your decent into homelessness on a public forum you’re probably really not all that averse to attention.

    But you don’t have to take my word for it, you can read his complaints about me for yourself here. I’ll note that his complaint about my misrepresentation of his educational career (I suggested he hadn’t finished his graphic design degree) has been registered; I changed the information in the original post to match his claims.

    Finally, I would like to point out that the following complaint from Gabe is perhaps the most revealing indication of this artist’s particular psychology. And it’s a fascinating bit of writing:

    i would like to note also. in retrospect, in quitting the “photo-processing” job, i realize i had a breakdown when i left there. i snapped. i was getting no where but slowly deeper in debt, working mandatory overtime, and getting shit on by fellow employees. it was the accepted environment there, to be a dick, as the owner was a hard core right wing republican dick. i watched artwork get kinked and bent up by hands that should’ve never been touching it, watched a coworker destroy sheet film over and over because she did’nt know how to read the notches on the film, (after working there for over three years) and then blamed it on me like the other four or five guys that walked out/were fired in the two years before me. being blamed for mistakes but working damned hard, i got by regardless of being screwed. after i had been gone for awhile, i decided to really try to push art while i was young enough to do it and was’nt getting by very well as it was. now, i think i should’ve used all my vacation and asked for a large raise first, but i got to the point of just breaking down. the day i walked out of there i was at a crisis point and became physically ill. the reason i stuck it out for a year and a half? i thought i would be able to get ahead, move out of the eight year period i’d spent in photo-finishing, and ultimately make enough money to have my child more. my drive is my child, and surviving so i don’t leave her with a burden of two previous generations of suicide to shoulder. make no mistake, i’d otherwise have offed myself already. i have however gotten closer to my spirituality lately which has helped immensely.

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