Survival instincts

A Sacramento artist’s struggle with depression and grief transform his life—and art

Michael Bookout’s art moves through the dark—but brings the artist to a lighter place.

Michael Bookout’s art moves through the dark—but brings the artist to a lighter place.

Photo By Jonathan Mendick

Michael Bookout’s art is on display at the Fe Gallery, 1100 65th Street, through November 3. His current works can also be seen at

Michael Bookout was 36 when he divorced his wife in 1989. In the years that followed, he found himself busy as the owner of a janitorial service, raising two kids and creating art. Then, in his late 40s, like many men who navigated a divorce and split custody, Bookout began talking to a therapist.

Although he’d been through a lot, he never expected to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The pronouncement, he says, came as a huge relief.

For one, it explained why Bookout had struggled so much. The mental condition, perhaps, caused both his crippling depression and the late nights during which he’d created five self-published novels, numerous cartoons, kids’ books, screenplays and poetry.

And maybe it was the reason he created thousands of pieces of art each year, hundreds of which he trashed, burned, smashed and strategically scattered around town.

Later, a series of works were so emotional he couldn’t bear looking at them anymore, so he simply turned them toward the wall. Other pieces found their way onto the walls of other people’s homes, apartment buildings and galleries. Now, an exhibition of Bookout’s art continues at the Fe Gallery until November 3.

Bookout’s therapist recommended he treat the disorder with medication; it took a while to find one that didn’t cause a side effect such as vomiting or dry mouth. Finally, he hit upon the right one.

“Three little pills a day changed my life,” Bookout explained, during a recent interview in his messy downtown apartment.

That was in the late ’90s. His brain chemistry changed, and he finally felt optimistic. He no longer pitied himself for growing up poor, for scraping by for years on a janitor’s salary, for not creating or selling enough art.

His failed marriage, a challenging childhood—his Cherokee father often left for week-long work trips, his Italian Catholic mother was the main caretaker of three difficult kids—all of that was behind him, now.

“I’m as good as [I] can be right now,” he told himself.

Although the diagnosis changed Bookout’s life, it didn’t bring lasting happiness. His disorder also came with a “terrible stigma,” he says; many people, himself included, looked down upon people who rely on medications.

But the condition also explained why his daughter Emily, a blossoming photographer, suffered from the same disorder. It did provide Bookout some consolation, when on February 15, 2007, Emily was found dead with three different drugs in her body, an accidental overdose. She was only 19.

“It was a nightmare,” Bookout says. “I still have terrible nightmares. Fortunately, I had enough animal instinct to survive. I went to therapy and relied on friends for survival.”

On the day after Emily’s death, Bookout started painting; these works—which conveyed the emotions so vividly, he couldn’t even look at some of them after he finished—revealed a sense of loss.

“She just shows up in the paintings,” he said. “The paintings started dark, [with] the processional of the funeral.”

As Bookout’s grief evolved and lightened, Emily started showing up in more whimsical ways: Emily as a princess, Emily as an outer space explorer, Emily as the inspiration for his cartoon series, Sadley Brisbayne. Emily ended up in nearly every painting or drawing in some form, often with the same, large sad eyes.

“I Love You,” part of Bookout’s <i>Vampire Series</i>, 2011, oil on canvas.

Photo By Jonathan Mendick

Then, in 2008, Bookout lost his medical benefits. He wasn’t able to take his medication anymore and stopped attending group therapy. He lost several clients at his janitorial business.

Still, he fought hard for his mental health, staving off depression by staying active at the gym, and in the studio. Friends continued to offer him support, and during Bookout’s ritual of frequenting a local coffee shop, he spoke with many people, some of whom had experienced similar trauma.

“He showed me a painting, and it was of his daughter,” said Ken Fahn, a longtime coffee shop acquaintance. “It was … very emotional.”

Fahn, part owner in a downtown building, offered Bookout a janitorial job and the chance to live in one of his units.

The artist made quick work of creating a studio in the building, across from the state Capitol. Here, he filled the closet with new paintings, painted in the kitchen and living room, and created a fresco behind the front door. His art work filled a hallway, the pantry and even the janitorial supply closet in the basement.

The arrangement seemed a good fit. Though Fahn enjoyed Bookout’s company, he says he also saw in his friend a seemingly unimaginable pain.

“Sometimes we’re mired in mediocrity, and sometimes trauma and [difficult] conditions that people live in bring out the most profound talents,” says Fahn.

In the past few years, Bookout’s work has blossomed; it’s come a long way since he started drawing at 3 years old, reflecting a lifelong evolution. A hitchhiking trip through Europe when he was a teen exposed Bookout to museums. Classes at American River College and a bachelor’s degree in art and literature from Sacramento State University taught him theory. Mentors such as Dewitt Whistler Jayne, Carlos Villa and Calvin Davis pushed him toward being chosen for the 1975 Crocker Kingsley art exhibition. Now, art books and Picasso and Van Gogh prints are scattered through his apartment, and Bookout’s recent forays include abstract art, cartoons and collage.

In 2010, he met art collector Sarah Rocklin, now a close friend and a Bookout collector.

“He’s finding acceptance in people appreciating his art and who he is,” said Rocklin, who bonded with Bookout after her brother committed suicide.

“He’s grown and because he’s puked out so much of the trauma on the canvas, he has now found some peace and acceptance through people appreciating all [of his paintings].”

Still, Bookout isn’t comfortable telling people he’s just met that he’s an artist. Knowing the stigmas attached to a label like “artist”—“they like to talk about themselves,” he says.

Instead, he tells people he’s a janitor and jokes that people are “too stupid to buy [his] paintings.” Sometimes he even threatens that, due to poor local turnouts, his current Sacramento show will be his last.

But, while there’s a fleck of bitterness, Bookout says he appreciates his janitorial work because he’s met great people.

To some extent, he’s dealt with the loss of his daughter, recognizing that his art has touched people in ways he never thought possible.

Now, Bookout says, he’s more “[emotionally] available” and can connect with people who know the same pain. He’s taken on the role of listening to other people’s problems. Sometimes he visits Second Saturday exhibitions and pays aspiring artists twice what they’re asking for their art.

It’s a hectic life, but one of Bookout’s constants is a calming New Year’s Eve tradition he’s carried on for about 10 years.

Each year, Bookout meditates for a few weeks before the day and then, on December 31, opens his journal and writes.

It’s always the same thing: “The greatest tragedy is that I’m not able to get out more art.”