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For Painter Visiting Jacksonville, Art Is Mightier Than Madness

Ryan Benk
Sammy thrashLife seldom takes breaks while painting his mural. Here, he makes some adjustments to his work Wednesday night in Five Points.

Anyone who’s walked through Five Points recently might have seen the painter with a jarring sign hanging above him. Next to a colorful mural, it reads:  “I have borderline personality disorder. I used to manage with heroin. Now I make art.”

Sam North is no stranger to noise. On Thursday, the disheveled 30-year-old artist was wearing pants splattered with paint and setting up a table and canvas in front of the Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points under an overcast afternoon sky. Raucous punk rock music blared from a set of speakers plugged into his phone.

Now he goes by the name Sammy thrashLife. He's been in and out of therapy since he was a toddler and has struggled with heroin addiction since graduating high school.

“They made me do expressive art therapy, and I really didn’t like it all. I thought it was a waste of time,” thrashLife says. “From my perspective it was like, ‘I can’t keep a needle out of my arm. I’m dying. I’m ruining everything, and you guys want me to color? You’ve got to be kidding.’”

Credit Sammy thrashLife
thrashLife's work is often chaotic and draws upon themes of mental illness and punk rock.

He says it wasn't until recently that he saw how art could help draw the pain out.

He travels around the country in his van that doubles as his home. He’s had art shows in Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York City and Chicago, but he always comes back to Jacksonville.

“You can’t do nothing and just succeed as an artist, but as long as you’re willing to put yourself out there and push and promote yourself and be your own biggest advocate, you can totally succeed in Jacksonville,” he says.

Before turning to art full time, North graduated from Georgetown Law School and ran a punk rock record label. Thursday, he worked on a brightly colored, chaotic mural. A giant, pink cat is front and center. Other characters looked sad or angry or manic.

“The things that are so embarrassingly personal that I hesitate to even write them down, take them out of my brain and put them somewhere where the rest of the world can see, those are the things that people really connect with,” thrashLife says. “It makes me realize that it’s okay that I have these thoughts or that I feel a certain way”

And it’s that connection that’s helped thrashLife support himself. At the One Spark crowdfunding festival this year, he was able to take home around $3,000 in a single day. He says people especially like how personal his work is.

“There was a girl from here in Jacksonville that I was exchanging emails with for the better part of this year who I had never met, but she was familiar with my work and it meant a lot to her,” he says. “And she would ask me for advice on my process or how I got things done, and she was struggling with a lot of her own—you know, the kinds of mental issues a lot of people have.”

Every painting he sells includes a written story behind the work. thrashLife says he hopes that helps people struggling with mental illness know they’re not alone. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.