DIY or die
Brontez Purnell on making art that’s needed
The world would need to start turning twice as fast to keep up with Brontez Purnell. The Oakland-based artist takes the do-it-yourself ethos to a new, inspiring level, one where he continually creates bold work as an author, choreographer, zine-maker, musician and documentary filmmaker. Purnell has no problem pursuing new interests; when he sees a need somewhere, he sets out to fill it. It’s an approach to art that started with zinemaking as a teenager growing up in Triana, Ala.
“I was a punk kid,” Purnell said in a recent interview. “I was never the kid who wanted to go to the store and read Rolling Stone or Spin. I wanted to be my own editor; I wanted to create content. I wanted control over what I was reading, because no one was ever specifically speaking to me. I wanted to see a thing I wanted to make happen in the world.”
True to form, Purnell will be giving two performances featuring multiple disciplines when he comes to Chico this Saturday (March 30). The first event will be an afternoon reading of his new children’s book, The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett, at Blackbird, and the second will be an evening screening at 1078 Gallery of selections from Purnell’s documentary, Unstoppable Feat, The Dances of Ed Mock, plus a performance-art piece followed by a short Q&A session.
By 2002, Purnell had moved to Oakland, where he started playing in punk bands (including lively Kill Rock Stars electro-pop crew Gravy Train!!!!), lived in a warehouse with 20 other people, and collected writings for what eventually would become a new zine, Fag School, centered around sexual experiences—though that wasn’t the original intention. The underground classic nonetheless became a definitive voice on the matter, one that spoke openly and frankly about queer sexual encounters.
“I never set out to write about sex,” Purnell said. “I usually wrote about what was awkward about sex, or what went wrong, or the human aspect about sex.”
In the decade and a half that followed, Purnell continued to publish zines, comics and books as well as tour with punk bands, create documentaries, and even open the Brontez Purnell Dance Company. In 2017, he released the novel Since I Laid My Burden Down, after which Purnell received the 2018 Whiting Award in Fiction.
The fictional story follows DeShawn, a young man living in the punk-underground community in San Francisco, who finds himself returning to his small hometown in Alabama after his uncle dies. Upon his return, he’s confronted with a slew of relationships from past and present, left to navigate his place within each. The real-life parallels are clear, and on many levels for Purnell, intentionally autobiographical. He said the writing process was one of learning to tell a fictional story interwoven with his own “very intense vulnerability” and catharsis.
“It was a time in my life where I’d just gotten a grant, I was making a documentary, a lot of people in my life were dying or going away, and I wanted a focal point,” Purnell said. “I wanted to write a fictionalized book about loss.”
More recently, Purnell released Jacuzzi Gaskett, a story centered on a young boy caring for his sibling while his single parent is at work.
“I always wanted to see a story about a kid who maybe didn’t have the best circumstances, but you knew somehow that he was gonna be OK,” Purnell said. “I knew so many kids who grew up like Jacuzzi, but I didn’t see books about kids like Jacuzzi, so I thought it was an important thing to have.”