To the Depths of Despair and Back —
Cleon Grey's Book Sheren

Interview by Eugene Kan
Photos by Cleon Grey

Interview by Eugene Kan
Photos by Cleon Grey

One of art’s most powerful applications is how it conveys an idea and moment. Effective work brings viewers along for an emotional and visceral ride. For Cleon Grey, the work he shares is few and far between, but when they immerge, they embody intense viscerality that speaks to his inner workings. This desire to lay low and let his work do the talking withholds perhaps greater opportunities and visibility. There is however a silver lining. Ignoring the market, any market, means that the only person who needs to be satisfied is you, the person putting it out. Cleon Grey’s book Sheren is an intense journey that has come to represent one of the most intense periods of his life.

The book is a culmination of a two-year journey across the United States. The subsequent experiences and documentation make for a fascinating and soul-searching read that speak to how one personally views their own internal conflicts. No stone was left unturned in Cleon’s search for harmony and peace.

As we leafed through the first few pages of Sheren… Ok that was a lie, as we pressed next on the PDF, we were taken aback by a multitude of factors. The fact this emotional experience occurred through a computer screen speaks volumes to the consideration of it all. The design, the photography, the words. They all culminated in such a powerful and intense moment where the very pain and struggle presented itself with such ferocity that several months later, it continues to have a lasting impact.

Cleon’s work and his words deserve far more attention than currently given. But we suspect, his disinterest in putting out anything substandard to his own exacting standards mean he’s perhaps not built for the social media cycle many of us are inevitably dragged into. Some may see this as a limiting factor but for artists who seek to create truly unique moments, consider this the only true marker of success.

Sheren is available now at Sheren.co.

A photo of Cleon by Rog Walker, from our previous story on Creatives of Color.

Can you introduce yourself and what you think most people know you for?

My name’s Cleon Grey, I’m a design director, writer, photographer. Maybe I should probably start calling myself an artist and accept that.

But most people may know me as a guy who’s probably had a couple of different photography websites based around style. I’m the friend of your favorite creative, your favorite photographer’s friend, and this is really the case! You’d probably have cases where it’s “oh, that’s Josh’s friend!” or “that’s Adrienne’s friend” or “Andre Wagner’s friend” or “hey, that’s Travis Gumbs’ friend.”

I’m the friend of other well-known artists. That’s what most people would probably say unless they’d read one or two of my past books.

Do you think that as you described it, does that inherently make it difficult for your work to be known or to be discovered?

Not me personally. For one, I’m honestly not really trying to be a photographer. I really love designing and storytelling more than anything else. I happened to take photos in the service of telling the story. If I didn’t need that photo, which I hadn’t in the past, I wouldn’t be concerned about saving it.

I personally don’t see it as being in anyone’s shadow. It’s just these are my friends who are people that I care about and love. If anything, they’re my muses and they make the reality of being a creative real. They took the chances when there wasn’t any pot of gold at the end.

I think they should be lauded and praised and realized as visionaries and trailblazers. I was just talking to Josh (Kissi) the other day and I told him, “whether it’s realized or not, you are a creative Tupac in a sense, or a creative visionary.” Like, no one was getting these deals before him.

No mainstream media outlet was looking at a blog before they ushered in a new wave, at least not in our communities. Something like that should be applauded. I don’t really see it as a shadow. I see it as a sun and with it, they’ve shone more light on me.

I like to ask for someone's attention when I have something worthwhile to share. And in my mind, this book is the first thing that I have done significantly where I'm like, 'I can stand behind this 100% and I don't mind taking the spotlight towards me, because there's something for you to see here.'

I remember vividly when I first saw your work. I was like “holy shit, everything is so well done.” The writing was super impactful, as were the photos, the layout, the graphic design. Why don’t more people know about you?

I just have this thing that I really despise attention for attention purposes.

I like to ask for someone’s attention when I have something worthwhile to share. And in my mind, this book is the first thing that I have done where I’m like, “I can stand behind this 100% and I don’t mind taking the spotlight towards me, because there’s something for you to see here.”

For my day job, I redesigned this whole media site a year ago. There’s no Instagram for that work unless on Dribble or Behance. I’m accustomed to working on these 20 hours of my day for the next two years or whatever, doing something and having that thing evaporate over time once we do an update.

But I get it in the sense of if I was someone pursuing something full-time like an artist or photographer, then maybe I would have put myself out there more.

The Joshes (Joshua Kissi), the Micaiah Carters, they are the Louis Vuittons. They are the luxury brands of creativity, the sartorialists, almost the main brands. That’d be how I imagine it would be trying to start an indie brand to get to, just for the reference, an OFF-WHITE level. Without having the Kanye West co-sign, it’d be damn near impossible: you’d have to pay a shit ton of money on marketing, and have the right co-signs and the right placement.

It’s very rare, that you can think of someone in any creative industry that came from nothing burst onto the scene and where the work was so undeniable that people had to look and invest in — particularly with the creative and structures that we create. There’s not too many social applications, particularly with Instagram and Zuckerberg’s bullshit-ass monetization schemes, where he gives none of the fucking creatives creating so much money on his platform anything to make his platform relevant.

We exchange our audience and our talent for free, which is something I 100% despise, so that may be another reason why I’ve chosen not to engage in that exchange where I give you my talents for free. You give me nothing in exchange other than eyeballs, which I can already get, but then you put an algorithm on it. And then I have to pay you to get to my own audience, so there’s more than enough reasons why you’d hate it.

What was the thing that you intended to create and what has come out of it? You think now that you have the chance to publish it, it’s sitting in front of you. how, how would you describe it and give it a run down to somebody? 

I would say from the dream that I had in my mind, it’s about 95% there, which is the highest actualization rate that I’ve ever had outside of work! This is the first thing that I’ve created where I’ve said, “I want to do this, this and this. I want it to look this. I want to feel this. I want it to give this emotion and intention.”

As far as day-to-day work would have looked, it fit my nature. I like to do a lot at once. So, my computer from the past eight, 10 years has maybe 50,000 design references: photo references, location references. So I start with that process, particularly with the design. I got to that point with the imagery, but it’s the daily “I’m going to write something today or I’m going to design something or I’m going to photograph something today.”

So I always had something new to do, which fits my process. I need change and I need things to be different. Honestly, it was a lot of time obsessing and always in the back of my mind, 24/7 seven, just being incredibly selfish with this project.

I wanted something that was worth putting on paper.

Your medium is both visual and written, but invested so heavily on the writing side. What is the relationship between those two for you between the visual and the writing?

Cleon: I hope this doesn’t come up weird, but I think both of them fuel each other. Because I would get excited about a design and write something just for design, or I’d get excited by something I’ve written and design, which is something I’m not sure many artists would say. “I wrote something because I liked the design.”

That was completely something that I put together because I wanted that design to flow on both pages. So they definitely fuel one another and that way after they access different parts of my brain because in one sense, the design is much more meticulous and technical and “pixel perfect” driven and the writing is a place where I can almost freestyle.

And it’s this interesting harmony that’s created from that precision and all that orchestrated chaos.

In terms of the book itself, did you have a, a deliberate goal to go and do this? Or was this a loose idea that you left open-ended?

Honestly, when all this started two years ago, I resigned from my job, and I went on a trip for three months. That was literally how the book started with the trip and trying not to get emotional about it, but it really was a moment that I needed to be a catalyst. The book started with “you need to go.” You know what I mean? “You need to get away to escape. You need to escape everyone, everything. This shit is not working for you. It’s not feeding you.”

I wanted to be free. I wasn’t trying to make a book after the last two books I did. I decided I wasn’t ever going to write anything again. I had nothing else to say. Instagram and Twitter had taken all my words. There was nothing new to share.

So for the first couple of months of going, even when I got back after that, I didn’t do anything for maybe a year after I got back.

Adrienne was the one who saw how much my actual day job was taking out of me. She was like, “you should write a book.” She had read the past two and I think her being an artist and her being in tune like that, she knew that I would probably get something out of life if I did a book and it all unfolded from there.

Can you talk a little bit about the past books you did?

The past ones definitely all started from relationships. The first book was about the first relationship that I had ever gone into that I truly cared about someone, and not knowing what to do with those emotions. It was a diary more than anything else. It had some structure, I have interviews in it and stuff. It was more of a magazine or a ‘zine in that sense. The second one in the same vein. It is a little more stylized version of the first. More interviews, more conversations, but again, more magazine than autobiography in a sense. I probably wrote one or two essays in there, maybe three, but definitely not a whole book of stories from my life.

They were definitely beta tests and experiments for this fully realized form.

In terms of the words, they’re so full of emotion to the point where I’m curious if those feelings are something you carry with you today, or they’re more referential to that point in time?

The book is literally a fucking trip, not in the sense of, “I went on a trip,” but that I’m tripping in the book literally and physically — and it’s a drug-induced trip as well. But the whole book is a loop. It begins where it ends. It ends where it begins. The job that sparked me leaving, I went back to that same job.

And I thought I was stressed out then! I’ve been there for 18 months now and I had a higher position, which had more money, more stress, and less help. I wrote that from the most aggravated, frustrated point. And it’s so strange writing something from the past, but being more frustrated about it in the present. So that’s why those emotions feel so real.

When I was making the book while trying to actualize a dream, I was trying to push a new life into existence. It felt like giving birth and I needed it to be as raw as possible. I felt if you don't like the fucking photos, great. Whatever. If you don't the design, great. Whatever. But when you read this book, if nothing else, you're going to be like, 'he told the fucking truth. He meant that shit. And I understand.' And that's all I wanted.

Even if that was still a few months ago, when I was making the book while trying to actualize a dream, I was trying to push a new life into existence. It felt like giving birth and I needed it to be as raw as possible. I felt if you don’t like the fucking photos, great. Whatever. If you don’t the design, great. Whatever.

But when you read this book, if nothing else, you’re going to be like, “he told the fucking truth. He meant that shit, and I understand.” And that’s all I wanted. The words had to hit. I wanted them to be vicious. I wanted them to knock. I was trying to make rap with words, but not just soliloquies and all that, but I needed to put the gangster rap in a sentence about someone’s life. I wanted it to cut as much as possible.

Cleon Grey, on the road in Arizona.

Can you walk me through the art direction? Did you have a clearer thing in mind, especially when you’re doing something for yourself versus doing something for your client? How did you balance that as well, knowing you yourself are the client? 

Oh, I did hundreds of designs, hundreds (laughs). I’ve had probably two or three different versions of the cover and five that I loved before I got to this one — and not five that I love with just the images but that have a completely complete format.

Even the book itself is supposed to have three covers and I only chose one to begin with. It’s thematic.  I wanted people to go through a journey — not through the reading, but through the book itself.

I knew that I wanted the cover to echo the design of the book, so each chapter almost seemed to be a cover in and of itself, a little play on visual motif as you go through. I wanted each location to be a chapter and the story to expand once Adrienne was acknowledged in the story. That’s why you see all that color when she comes in.

Every chapter opens up with a location. You get a feel of the location that you're in. I thought that was important to set the stage of the photos that then come into the chapter as it's revealed. I love when you watch a movies or you watch sitcoms specifically and they have the establishing shot and it's someone's house now.

You could see that she added the spark, which references the words. So, that was intentional. The use of lighting was intentional as was the use of colors. A lot of that was fueled by Adrienne, but when the lights turned on was definitely something that I wanted to echo the words.

Other parts of the art direction, I would say every chapter opens up with a location. You get a feel of the location that you’re in.

I thought that was important to set the stage with the photos that then come into the chapter as it’s revealed. I love when you watch a movie or a sitcom specifically and they have the establishing shot and it’s someone’s house.

Contributing artist on Sheren, Adrienne Raquel, in Las Vegas.

You mentioned you got 95% of what you wanted out and actualize it what’s the missing 5%?

Just not having enough time to reshoot some things. We also got stuck in a ditch in Death Valley on our way to another shoot. The rental car that we had got literally stuck in a ditch for a couple of hours and we had to get winched out, so we lost a whole bunch of content there. I wanted the last three chapters in the book to be all equal in length, so I had to take some stuff out of each chapter photo wise.

The way I was going losing sleep and being in my own little world, I'm not sure if the book was leading me or I was leading the book, to be honest. At a certain point in time, with any good idea, the idea takes you over and you don't know where the art begins and one's life ends.

Looking at the photos, everything looks super considered. So essentially you guys didn’t really go out on a whim and say, “this is a cool spot. Let’s shoot a photo.” You guys actually did some location scouting and all that stuff to capture the photos you wanted to?

Some of the locations were intentional. Arizona was a place that seemed to make sense with what we were doing in life. I didn’t say, “Adrienne, let’s go to Arizona only to shoot this book.” We loved this house that we found and it aligned with everything. We wanted to take a vacation and it was shot one day where we were there for five hours, literally one afternoon.

And then the rest of the book was more intentional. We actually wanted to go to Mexico and shoot some other stuff, but I decided last minute that Las Vegas would be really good to end on. As I was mentioning in the New York City chapter, I wasn’t going to intentionally stay there forever and that made sense for life and I moved to Jersey City.

The way I was going losing sleep and being in my own little world, I’m not sure if the book was leading me or I was leading the book, to be honest. At a certain point in time, with any good idea, the idea takes you over and you don’t know where the art begins and one’s life ends.

Over the course of this process, how do you think that you creating the book alongside Adrienne changed the dynamic? Would have this ever happened solo or would it happen under different terms?

She was the reason why I did it. She was the person who told me to do it. I’ve been a fan of her work for years before I even met her. So there are photographs that I look back to that I was doing before I even knew her on a personal level. Hands in the sky. That’s all her, that’s all her influence.

I may have written it, but the book really is a manifestation of her talent and her love and belief in me. She’s given me more than enough, as a friend, a partner, a lover, et cetera. I really, I couldn’t honestly, thank her more.

There were significant moments of insecurity because I wanted it to be so good. She had to deal with all that fucking insecurity. She had to deal with all that back and forth with the iterations, and on top of that, deal with my fucking job, which was annoying the shit out of me the entire time. In addition to this deal with me being disagreeable because I wasn’t sleeping and not eating. I don’t know how she lasted. But I appreciate that she did.

And there’s nothing I can do at this point in life other than be a better person, be a better partner, and everything that she deserves. This past year was me getting this book out and my next year of life and hopefully in the future is me putting my all into her because she’s all into me.

There's nothing I can do at this point in life other than be a better person, be a better partner and everything that she deserves. The book this past year was me getting this book out and my next year of life and hopefully in the future is me putting my all into her because she's all into me.

How do you think (weed) edibles defined some of the experiences or potentially changed the trajectory?

Edibles were something that I had started two years ago. A friend put me on to them. They were and are the only time that, whether it’s because of my brain chemistry or the way I’ve gotten to this point in life, I could be 100% present in my body and appreciate things in the moment.

I’m a person who is always projecting things into the future. Thinking about this thing about that. What about this? What about that? Even in the most mundane day-to-day situations, I can’t even take a shower without thinking about the next year, right? And edibles are one of the few times where I can literally be inside of my body.

It’s one of the few times that I have peace, when things are quiet when I could literally do in depth, deep dives within myself and reflect for the purpose of reflecting without there being some end goal in place. And that’s what I found.

So those experiences of literally being on a couch in the middle of nowhere in Galisteo, New Mexico with all the lights off. And I had taken a couple of edibles and having my mind wander into nothingness without being distracted by whatever else was around me. That was only made possible in my mind because of edibles. I’ve been on couches in the middle of nowhere before and not had those thoughts come to my mind.

Whether it’s a mood relaxer, body relaxer, or brain expander, mushrooms, weed, or otherwise, they allow me to get to a place where I can truly become… again, I’m a very pixel-perfect type of person giving the things that I’ve chosen to do. Edibles are the one place where I can get away from the pixel. And I’ll get away from my weird ideas of being stuck in loops and the matrix and all those ideas of simulations and stuff. I can actually just live.

Knowing that’s an issue, is that something that you feel comfortable separating in the sense that, “I’ve come to terms with the fact that when I’m not medicated, I will forever be this way” and the medicated part courtesy of edibles is something else? Do you see them as two clear definitive lanes and wonder if there’s any need for you to bring some of the medicated worlds into the real world in terms of thought processes, being present and whatever it may be?

No, I actually don’t think so because I was always self-reflecting before, but again, it was always goal-oriented. So me having done those edibles in the past, I probably did edibles in the past a year, maybe four times, five times max. It’s still not a daily thing that I do all the time because given the nature of my work, if I did that all the time, I honestly wouldn’t get much done because I’d be so focused on the present. I wouldn’t be caring about a deadline. There’s always been a need to self reflect. The edibles allow it to be heightened.

And of course, as you said, the goal now is to get to that state. And I believe I still can get to that state without them, but they’re a cheat code more than anyone else. I’m still working on meditation. That’s something that I’ve been trying to do for over a year, year and a half without much success.

And maybe my mind hasn’t even settled to get there yet. Maybe with some more life changes, I’ll get there, but I’m hoping meditation could either supplement or add to that. There are definitely things where the medicated state definitely spills over into the real world and something that I can access now without the medication, but the medication, again, allows me to get there quicker and for it to be stronger.

It’s definitely something if I can I would want to do for the rest of my life and explore new things if possible.

Once the book was finished, what was the final feeling like?

I felt all the emotions. There’s a feeling of relief. There’s a feeling of excitement, a feeling of anxiety — not in the work itself, but in the sense of when you created something for your own brain, are other people going to be able to digest it as well? Amid the combination of happiness, joy, ease, rest, there was a hopefulness because the process of doing this book was trying to make a dream a reality.

The dream, the thing that I got into in the medicated state with the edibles, that metaphysical state of what if my life is different? What if this is a dream? What if I could dream of a different life? The book was me trying to say these are the things that I’ve gone through my past life and hopefully in doing this book, I can create a new life. When I asked myself what I would want this book to become, I would want it to be the beginning of the release or the reality of realizing a new life or a life without me being at my day job, a life without me having to be in the servitude of getting out other people’s dreams instead of my own.

If someone said, what do you want to do for the next existence? Keep putting out books like this. Have a platform where other people can share their dreams, their stories, and be compensated appropriately, not giving it away for free. I definitely have a vision of what I would want it to become, and I definitely want to do more in-person events when we have that opportunity to do it.

If I die tomorrow, fell out, got struck by lightning, whatever happened, I would feel a hundred, one thousand one million percent happy with the fact that I created this because it’s what I want to be remembered for.

I wrote on the last page of the book, I want my life to have meant something to someone. This book, this sharing is that. I’m done. Everything else is gravy.

I never wanted to be associated with being a creative and an artist. I didn’t think I was talented enough. I didn’t think I was going to add anything that was worthwhile. I didn’t think that anything that I had to share was going to be so much greater than what anything anyone else had to say.

The day you die isn’t the day you die. The day you die is when you stop believing in yourself. The day you stop trying. The day you believe there’s no future. And if I didn’t do this book, I would’ve died years ago. It was my rebirth. It gives me a sense of completion that nothing else, other than in my relationships or my loves, has given me.

So the book for me was the first brick — the first unforced brick. For a very long time there, I was trying to build a world with materials that weren’t of my nature and those worlds kept collapsing because they weren’t made of me. They were made of other people’s expectations. They were made of consumerism. They were made of collapsed capitalism. They whey were made of shit like that.

For a very long time there, I was trying to build a world with materials that weren't of my nature and those worlds kept collapsing because they weren't made of me. They were made of other people's expectations.
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