Ryan Brewer is a Los Angeles-based artist and carpenter. He does custom-built furniture and art installations.
Ryan’s art often, historically, included performance components; not long after he and I were roommates, he installed a dancers’ pole (or a stripper pole, if you prefer, and who could blame you) to practice on. He built large scale artworks that became interactive and physical performances: installation and stage in one.
“I was interested in ritual. Not like a brushing-your-teeth ritual, but almost a sacred thing. And that kind of ran its course because I had synthesized ritual in my every day life by then, so I didn’t need to externalize it in my art.”
As an aside: I love the way artists and academics speak about their work. I always have. It always seems to hint at some grander intelligence, a universal truth, a secret code to which only initiates gain access.
Recognizing his enjoyment of performance/art/creation, Ryan founded a business called Bebe Daddy Services, which was a gloriously tongue-in-cheek sexy-carpenter/artist-for-hire business.
It needs to be said here that Ryan is a serious artist and an extremely talented maker. He’s also super clever and playful, and he loves to bend a convention.
He solicited clients through Craigslist and began to see word-of-mouth referrals. And although business was good, he started to feel lacking about the work.
“I started asking questions like what does performance-as-commerce look like? And I realized I didn’t necessarily want to explore sex work as performance,” he says.
He said he was occasionally hired out for projects where the artistic and even the handyman component would be thin, or missing altogether, at which point, all that was left was the sexy performance part. He felt some disillusionment about that.
“I had to ask how far would I go before I would feel like I’m exploiting myself.”
Nothing against sex work, he said, but for him, that sort of commission didn’t feel fulfilling.
He decided to shut down the business and move himself in a different direction. Literally.
“When I got to Los Angeles, I had no real community, and I had all these dream projects, so I needed to decide what my projects would be. Because of my exploration of performance, I don’t think it’s coincidental that I ended up in West Hollywood.”
He completed a series of works at the ArtCenter College of Design wherein he explored cultural material from the early 20th century. He started with the Russian Revolution, wherein everything was about social rupture, and drew a line to queer mythology.
“So there was an element of subversion, but I was trying to make it more nuanced than having my ass up on a stripper pole. That was my last performance in New York, which was great and super fun, but I felt like I had moved on.”
Ryan got sober around this time, too, and met his longtime partner, Alan. He says from a spiritual perspective, he can see now that he was using art to save his own life, as he’d been told by an undergraduate professor once.
“I couldn’t see that at the time,” he says. “I could just see that I wanted to kill myself, frankly. And I slowly was, through drinking and not taking care of myself. So I was using art as a spiritual tool. Some of it was misguided, and some of it was super magical and effective.”
Ryan began to realize that his spiritual life could be its own thing, and that he didn’t need to put it on display, formalize it, or, as he says, “swing around on it.”
“I’m in a good place based on the way that I treat people, so I don’t need to formalize these inquiries in artistic achievement anymore.”
I ask him about how this spiritual inner world and interest in ritual gets expressed nowadays, and he says that for him it’s mostly about caretaking. He has a rescue dog, Frances, and a back garden outside his studio where he grows lemongrass, peppermint, chamomile, poppies, Meyer lemons, rosemary, citronella, papyrus, sage, calendula, and tulsi.
“You and I love animals,” he says, “and that goes back years. Now I watch animals and care for them. That’s a huge part of my spiritual life.” Ryan’s been a vegetarian for four years and sober for nine years. He also quit smoking. Now he’s helping people who are new to sobriety gain footing and sponsorship.
The caretaking and connection to living things shows up in his work, too.
“One of my favorite things about working with wood is that it used to be alive. It sounds a little woo-woo, but it’ll almost tell me what it wants to be.”
I love this concept. I wonder aloud if he experiences this as a sort of communion with the tree it once was. Not quite, but he does get a sense of the material’s boundaries, knowing what it will or won’t do.
“Tough spots in the wood, like knots and burls, they can be a pain in the ass, but now it’s sort of a beauty mark, whereas it used to be that might be something I’d try to hide.”
There’s an image hanging in his shop — the only image he has in there—which is a poster from Suspiria, and the image is of two hands that have eyes in them.
“I connect with that because seeing is feeling, feeling is seeing.”
Ryan says the best way for him to work is slowly and intentionally, which is also in line with the way he makes sculpture. His shop isn’t, and he wouldn’t want it to be, a factory pushing out thoughtless, mass-produced furniture pieces. His commissions often take months to complete.
“I design with an idea in mind, and even if it’s something that’s used every day,” he says, “it’s not something you’d get at just any furniture store.”
His work used to be about opposition and aggression, he says. Before he got sober, his art performances would often include him building helmets and bashing his head against things he’d built.
There were times, he says, where he would stand on the roof of his apartment building in Brooklyn smoking, and looking at the New York skyline thinking, “god, this is fucking impossible.”
Things felt oppositional in many ways for him back then, but now, he says, he can better trust his intuition and his instincts, and move only toward things that serve him.
He’s very aware of his own instincts now, and uses his ability to tune into this awareness to guide him through decisions: “I can’t name one thing where I’ve gone against my instincts and ended up being right.”
At the lowest points of his depression, Ryan remembers feeling identified with his own darkness and with suffering. “I felt that there was power in it, and that it would protect me. And as much as those two things may have been true, they also turned on me. What you put out there comes back on you.”
He doesn’t buy into the idea of destruction begetting creativity anymore, if he ever did. He sees it the other way around; when he looks back, he thinks he used his creative force to save himself from destruction.
“The dark forces that were tinging some of those choices at the time, they were not interested in beauty, certainly, but they also weren’t even interested in keeping me alive. So I would say to anyone struggling with that same thing: What are you getting out of that? How does it benefit you? What do you want?”
“At some point,” he says, “and now, I’m going back to my art, head banging and breaking things, I think I was assuming that by muscling through that, that I could change it, but I couldn’t. I just perpetuated it for myself.”
Aggression has by this point in Ryan’s life given way to intuition, spirituality, and calm.
Ryan says his path toward giving up smoking, booze, and meat was one of those intuitive choices that he just went with, without fully knowing why.
“I just felt like I was taking death in and taking suffering in,” he says. “I would feel so sensitive all the time. If I can feel some life force coming through wood, I feel even more sensitive about eating flesh. I mean, these creatures do not want to fuckin’ die. Why would they?”
“And I’m not interested in suffering anymore. Period.”
Ryan Brewer is an artist who lives in Los Angeles with his Brussels griffon, Frances. He collects tarot decks and met his partner, Alan, as part of his sobriety journey nine years ago.