A Conversation With Es Devlin at HXOUSE

The other weekend, I was with my wife as we drove through my alma mater, Trinity College in the University of Toronto. It’s been over a decade since I dropped out just a few months shy of graduation, and even after all those years, whenever I’m back on campus, memories I’ve buried deep within, inevitably claw their way back to the surface.

At the time, I knew I was making a big decision. Dropping out right before graduation is a strange thing to do. The timing of it, for those closest to me, made it an impossible thing for them to comprehend or support. That was the most difficult part of it. For me, however, the decision was straightforward, I was unhappy with the path that I was on, and needed to step off. 

A decade removed, the only words I can think of to describe the gravitas of that decision in the outcome of my life, belong to one of my favourite poets:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

As our driver pulled up alongside Varsity Stadium, I glanced across Bloor Street, and my eyes were drawn to an old familiar building. It was a place I’d called home for a brief period of time. Amazingly, until that moment, I’d completely forgotten that I’d ever even lived there.

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. How does one forget where they once lived? I turned to my wife, pointed at the building, and asked, “I’ve told you I lived there right?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t think so.”

The windmills of your mind.

It’s very interesting what we choose to share in life, and even more so, what we choose to forget. My mind is a vault with many safety deposit boxes; treasures in some, mementos in others, and secrets in most. Starting It’s All Sad was in many ways about entering the vault, and opening up all those safety deposit boxes, one by one, revealing whatever it is I found in each. Things like this, a home, a time, a life; purposefully locked away, and long since forgotten. This box contained all three. Specifically, it contained a failed relationship.

Es Devlin – “Process” ©

My high school sweetheart and I had broken up after five years together. It was a tumultuous time in my life. I’d known a great deal of pain in my younger years, but up until then, none of my own making. It was the only love we’d ever known, but innocent love, the kind without scars, and bruises, and calluses, is often ill-equipped for the viciousness of adulthood, and thus, upon first blows, fragile, it breaks. Ours was this kind of love, and suddenly, in my third year of university, I was homeless.

Luckily, or unluckily, depending on which side of the situation you were on, my grandmother was also experiencing a period of tumult in her own life. Her and my step-grandfather had recently divorced, her finances were depleting, and so, she was trying to quickly sell her condo, which was conveniently located on the corner of St. George Street and Prince Arthur Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar with that area of Toronto, it’s one block away from Trinity College.

The condo was empty, because she’d already moved out, so I asked if I could stay there for the interim. I was given permission to do so, with 3 caveats. First, the condo was always to be kept clean. Second, I was to hide everything when there were showings. And last, when it sold, I was back out on the street.

In essence, for an indeterminate amount of time, I was meant to learn to live as though I didn’t exist. It was my first foray into this kind of deep nothingness, something I’d get very good at in the years that followed.

As such, unhappily, on a cold fall night, I arrived with two suitcases of my belongings, and a thin mattress. As I write this now, I can understand why I chose to lock up this particular memory for so many years. 

I can remember waking up early on that first morning, given there were no window coverings to prevent the light from pouring in. I leaned up against the wall and allowed my eyes to adjust as I observed the unfamiliar surroundings. The room was big, bigger than the entire condo I’d called home for the previous two years, and along the entire length of the wall opposite me, were floor to ceiling mirrors.

As I slowly took in the reflections, that’s when I saw him, that sad young man, all alone in the vast emptiness, with tears flowing down his face, and I finally understood. He wasn’t crying because of his unfortunate situation. He was crying because it was the first time in his life that he had seen himself for who he truly was.

In a half-forgotten dream.

Reflecting on that moment, brought forth other memories, so I started opening up the nearby safety deposit boxes, and found that many of them contained similar things. 

There was that time when another relationship ended, along with a business we shared, and I couldn’t afford my own place because of paralyzing debt, so I lived on my friend’s couch for two months. There was that other time when I could afford rent (kind of) but not a bed-frame. There was that time, I was building another business, and lived on another friend’s floor, and another’s. There was that time in the attic on a blow-up mattress for one summer. There was that time in LA when we were selling a television show. There was that time… Well, you get it, there were times.

“Why did you keep going back?” Because I had to. “Didn’t you learn your lesson?” Yes, I learned every time. 

Journeys are complex, and for me, I had returned, because I had learned. Places don’t change unless people change. The place, as it relates to the journey, is irrelevant from the onset; it’s you who is meant to change. I had and I was meant to change the place from whence I came.

We experience the world through each other. People will tell you, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. I’ll tell you, it’s neither. It’s just you and what you decide to do with yourself. Nothing changes, unless you do. 

Every time I returned, however, I felt a certain kind of restlessness, I wasn’t done changing, and so, out on another journey I’d go. I could never understand this in myself. It was a constant feeling of incompleteness. I’d lived a hundred lives. Where was I, if not there? It didn’t make sense to me, and in many ways, I think I’ve always been searching for that answer, until Es entered my life.

Es Devlin on the Hero’s Journey.

Six weeks ago, to the day, I had the privilege of attending A Conversation with Es Devlin at HXOUSE.

I was first introduced to her work six years ago on The Yeezus Tour through my friend, and former colleague, Keith Richardson. We’d been around tours of this scale before, but this one felt different, it seemed transformative, and in a way, the first of its kind; a tour made for the modern era.

At the time, the music industry had been fading against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world and Es literally turned on the lights to bring it back to life again. In the era of smartphones and social media, people wanted a unique and immersive experience, a moment, something that felt like it belonged only to them, and she gave it to them. 

During her talk, which was entitled, “Process,” she turned on the lights once again, and coincidentally, it felt like it was just for me. As she discussed her own creative process, she pulled up an image of Joseph Campbells’ “Monomyth,” also known as, “The Hero’s Journey.” 

It was a concept that I was quite familiar with, because it’s generally accepted as a prerequisite for good story structure in filmmaking. Right after dropping out all those years ago, I was commissioned to write a screenplay, and so, without any prior experience, I had to become a quick study. I had to learn The Hero’s Journey, which goes like this: 

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Es, however, broadened this model, and applied it to the creative process. In her application, every artist is the hero of her own journey. The artist identifies her need, ventures out from the known world, fulfills it despite great adversity, and then returns with her creation, to bestow it upon others.

Where her interpretation became truly fascinating for me, was that it wasn’t circular, it was a vortex, and thus, never ended. When the hero returned, she ventured out again. Round and round, up and up, without end. I’d gotten my answer.

Round like a circle in a spiral.

I’d long thought my own Hero’s Journey began a decade ago when I dropped out of university, but that wasn’t the case. It had begun years earlier on that mattress on the floor. It continued onto the next, and the next. Round and round I’ve gone, sometimes with dizzying recklessness, but upwards nonetheless, and likely, without end.

As it turns out, everything I’ve done in my creative career, in my life really, follows this pattern. My current thing is built upon my previous thing. My present is built upon my past. I change and I grow. I take what I’ve learned from my journeys in unknown worlds and then return to bestow it upon the known world. I try to leave that world in better shape than I left it before venturing out again into the unknown.

Oddly, the reason I was able to see Es that night was because of this very pattern. One thing was built upon the next. In fact, it goes all the way back to the very beginning, where on that first Hero’s Journey, I had the chance to get to know my friend, Iva, who is now the Director of Sponsorships & Experiential at Hxouse.

You never know how one seemingly irrelevant thing might lead to that next life changing thing. Blink and you might miss it. 

Like Es, like me in that empty master bedroom all those years ago, as the light pours into the darkness, I hope you can find yourself there, embrace whatever it is you find, and then head back out into the unknown.

Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel.
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel.

Michel Legrand, The Windmills of Your Mind

Let’s have a journey, and while we’re at it, let’s be the heroes of those journeys.

It’s all sad but it’s not bad,


Author avatar
Stephen Shaw
I've worked with artists like Janet Jackson and Sammy Adams, I've helped with causes like HXOUSE and Fashion Cares, and I've consulted for brands like Adidas and Budweiser. These days I make things like Dopesite, Artful Record® and It’s All Sad™ 🌎🌍🌏

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