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An Interview with Artist Shane Coffey

by Gordy Grundy


In June and July of 2020, creative polymath Shane Coffey began a journey in search of self. His resulting collection of photographs has been curated into a virtual show "Fact Face: Finding the Truth Inside" at Gallery One.


What is this work about? A search? What did you discover?

I'm interested in the characters we all possess - the ones inside that we usually keep hidden in the shadows. Or masked. There's this Bob Dylan quote I like: "When somebody's wearing a mask, he's gonna tell you the truth. When he's not wearing a mask, it's highly unlikely." That could mean a hundred different things (and good luck getting Dylan to tell you), but I was certainly thinking about that while shooting, sometimes surprising myself. I'd be interested to see what other people would make if they were assigned this project. It'd be very revealing. What are your masks?


Why make this series of work?

To better know myself.

Is it related to anything else that you do? Or is it a reaction to Covid?

Everything I do is related in one way or the other. I suppose this particular project is Covid-related as well. Masks. When I was shooting the self-portrait titled Space Face, I was definitely imagining the looks I'd get if I was out in public, social distancing behind a giant glass bowl. 


How does this work relate to your acting life?

In acting, your body is your instrument. The way you hold yourself gives the audience knowledge about your character's mood, pain, history - without speaking one word of dialogue.

I'd say the same thing goes for this project. Each self-portrait tells its own story, hopefully giving viewers a glimpse into each character's soul.

Who are you? Actor? Writer? Producer? Photographer? Explain. 

These days, I'm inclined to just say human. You know? The pandemic has really made me examine my life, my work, the things I hold important. I've been acting my whole life, on stage and in front of a camera. It's what has always paid the bills, so it's what most people see me as.

Writing is my true love but I've yet to get paid for that - as if getting paid for something means you are that something. I'm not sure I agree with that anymore. I've been telling stories since I could talk, wearing the hat of the writer, the actor, the photographer, the director. It's all story-telling.

I'm currently sending my latest film "McCrorey Rd." to all the festivals. I directed and co-wrote this one. When you see an old friend or something, you're always asked, "What are you working on?" I usually answered with a list of things that relate to the entertainment business in one way or the other. Now I just say, "Myself."


This work is very personal. What have you learned in the process?

The more I learn, the less I know. I guess I've learned to be okay with that. I'm more myself these days.

E.E. Cummings once said, “To be nobody but yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.” I feel that.

With so much to learn, self-realization always stands on shifting sands. What truths have you learned about yourself with this series?

I spent a great deal of time in my 20s trying on different metaphorical hats and masks, seeing what fit and what didn’t, actively running away from myself in a way.

When I realized I wasn’t and will never be any of my dead heroes - Philip Seymour Hoffman, River Phoenix, Sam Shepard, Henry Miller, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ana Mendieta, Kurt Cobain, Bukowski, Kerouac, Baldwin, whoever - I was free.

We’re patchwork quilts, all of us, but our threads are unique from each other.

With this series, I was focusing on the darker threads - the ones that are usually eclipsed by my brighter colors. Mental illness is tough for people to talk about - that needs to end.

Someone once told me that sadness is as important as happiness just as failure is as important as success - as long as you remain an eternal student, eyes open, learning from every experience. This person also said, “There are no good or bad experiences - just life.”

When I turned 30, I started believing that. I can’t sit here and say the boat hasn’t been bumpy, but at least I accept and honor the choppy waters nowadays. There’s beauty in the storm. And the sun is always shining somewhere. Moreover, there’s a healthy amount of confidence and self-love that comes with the acceptance of suffering. Certain fears clouding my mind aren’t as thick as they once were. My ego’s got its back against the ropes. I’m more comfortable knowing that right now: all of us are floating in space. 


Where did you grow up? Please share your experiences.

I grew up in Spring, Texas - a suburb 30 minutes north of downtown Houston. When I was two years old, I was already attempting to get the hell out. My brothers and I shared a power wheel. Remember those? Wearing nothing but a diaper, I found my way out of my mom’s sight and into the garage.

My poor mother, oh how I love her so! God bless her. My dad worked, so she had four wild boys to look after. From time to time, one of us could disappear behind the couch or in a kitchen cabinet or inside the washer machine - or on a power wheel, hitting the streets like a baby Jack Kerouac. I traveled about three miles down Cypresswood Drive to the Morse’s house - family friends who lived on the opposite side of the neighborhood.

I don’t remember any of this, but it certainly makes sense considering I still have the desire to pack up my stuff and leave like a character from a Sam Shepard play. That bug in me grew especially large as a teenager when I was pouring great cinema and theatre all over me.

When people would ask me who my favorite writer was, I always said Sam Shepard. In one of his short stories - titled “Berlin Wall Piece” - he wrote from the point of view of his youngest son - it’s about a middle schooler who has to interview his father about the 1980s for his 7th grade social studies paper. The only problem is: his father doesn’t remember a goddamn thing about the 80s except for meeting his wife and the births of his children.

When the son tells the father that the interview isn’t “supposed to be about personal stuff, [the father] says, ‘What else is there?’” The son goes on to listen to the father tell him that everything else - style, fads, music, clothes, what was going on in the country at the time - is basically a lie. “None of that has anything to do with reality. Reality is an internal affair and all the rest of that stuff is superficial.”

Sam Shepard, to me, was as real as it gets. I knew this at a young age after reading True West. I remember where I was: my childhood bedroom. I remember the posters on the wall and the color of the carpet. I remember spilling a cup of Coca-Cola onto my sheets during act two. I remember not wanting to take a piss-break until I finished reading. This was around the time I had gotten into acting - memorizing scenes and monologues for drama competitions in and around Houston.

Soon after True West...there was Fool For Love, Cowboy Mouth, Curse Of The Starving Class, A Lie Of The Mind, Angel City, Seduced, Action, Melodrama Play, Suicide In B Flat, Buried fucking Child. While many of my fellow students in high school were working on lighter stuff like Barefoot In The Park or Into The Woods.

I remember cutting a pivotal conversation in The Late Henry Moss so that it read as one long monologue. This monologue, accompanied with a piece by Euripides, would eventually get me into every single college I auditioned for. I felt as if I had found my guy, you know? I was a Shepard-guy. That was me. “Hey, Shane, who’s your favorite playwright?” — “Sam Shepard, duh.” - I related to everything he talked about and didn’t talk about, real and imagined. I thought life itself was Shepardian. The occasionally violent brothers, the occasionally drunk father, the occasionally worried matriarch - this wasn’t exactly the same, but it was all relatable in one way or the other. The home - or lack of a home - or lack of feeling at home while in this place everyone else calls “home”. Gotta get outta here. Gotta get outta Houston. Gotta find this place they call “home”. The road - the veins of this country, stretching across the land like concrete rivers. Tobacco and horses and lassos and coyotes and weathered furniture. Stepping on anthills then feeling bad about it. Taxidermy. Dad’s cabinet of booze above the microwave. Ice cubes on a black eye. Bloody elbows and broken branches. Broken windshields looking like spiderwebs. Lemonade in the summertime. The moon glowing like pregnancy. Yellow sweat stains on my white t-shirts. Wasp stings and stepping on a rusty nail. Going to juvenile halls for making a dry-ice bomb. Freckles after a sunburn. Sneaking out of the window and jumping off the roof to meet up with my first love. Biting my fingernails and playing with matches. The Gulf of Mexico. Hank Williams. Peeing on a jellyfish wound. The smell of burnt toast. The taste of sex. Spinning on a carousel, turning the world into a Pollock painting. Searching - always searching inside and outside and all around. Tracing one’s life all the way back to the beginning - all the way back to the first family member and beyond, before borders separated humans. Before church and state. Before America. Before Judas betrayed Jesus and Cain killed Abel. Before God! Before dinosaurs and constellations and Time itself. “Straight back into the corn belt and further. Straight back as far as they’d take me.” 

What is the best gift you have ever received?

In 7th grade social studies class at Strack Intermediate, we were told to write a paper about Thanksgiving. I proudly turned mine in, thinking I just shared my best work to date. It was about the genocide of Native Americans and how the pilgrims stole this land. It discussed how Christopher Columbus was a racist, raping, murdering psychopath who had a talent for slitting throats. It questioned why our Texas textbooks didn’t mention much of this. I want to say I remember the books even referring to slaves as unpaid workers

Anyway, on the day we got our papers back, the teacher asked me to stay after class. Was she going to personally congratulate me for writing such a thoughtful and intense piece of work? Was she going to tell me that she’s submitting my paper to some prestigious writing competition? After all, she didn’t give my essay back like she did the other students’ papers. It was damn good - what I had written - probably the first time I thought that maybe I wanted to be an author.

The bell rang and I approached her desk. There was my paper with a red failing grade circled over my words. Then the school police officer stepped into the classroom. He asked, “Everything okay?” Mrs. Miles dramatically lifted her finger towards the cop as if to say, “One moment.” She looked at me, concerned, and asked, “Is everything alright?”

I didn’t understand. She asked, “Why would you write such awful lies, Shane?” Then she pointed out how violent my writing was, circling in red ink where I had cinematically chronicled the torture of a Cherokee by way of a pilgrim carving stars into his chest.

In retrospect, it was a little disturbing. The police officer had made his way over to my desk. He had my open backpack in his hands. “All clear,” he said after finding no weapons in my bag. Mrs. Miles nodded then: “Shane, you need to go with Officer Kaempfer.” The cop escorted me through the empty hallways until the principal came into view. He had a weird simper on his face, giving him a double-chin. He took me into the office where my mom was sitting. I was instructed to leave school early and spend the next few days writing a more “truthful” paper - which I did, drenching every page in sarcasm, thus beginning my years of teenage angst and rebellion.

It was the first time in my life where I realized the powers-that-be might not hold truth above all. I was rocked and disillusioned for a while - insecure with my voice, my place, my world. I felt dirty - ashamed - lost - in a real way - maybe for the first time. You hand those feelings to the right kind of kid, don’t be surprised if he uses them to his advantage. A lot of strength and self-assurance came after that. It took years to realize what a gift Mrs. Miles gave me.

Throughout the many stages of your life, how has art influenced you? 

As someone who has always battled - or lived with - depression and feelings of isolation, I can confidently say that great art helps me feel less alone.

I saw John Leguizamo’s solo show Sexaholix in March of 2003 - live at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A. - front row center of the mezzanine. I was 16 years old. At 33, it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. What a night - like being electrocuted.

I felt the same thing the first time I stood inside of the Cy Twombly Gallery on Branard Street in Houston. Or when I first looked through a book of Diane Arbus photographs. The hair on my arms was reaching Heaven when I saw Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.

My parents let us watch whatever we wanted when we were kids. Blockbuster was church. I spent hours in there on that blue, dirty carpet, walking down every aisle, giving nods to the cardboard cut-outs of young Leonardo DiCaprio or Eddie Murphy, putting my hands on every DVD and VHS cover, reading the backs of movie cases, deciding whatever experience I wanted to have that night.

My soul exploded when I was introduced to French New Wave. The way these filmmakers found structure through seemingly spontaneous or even impulsive decisions would forever change my life. “Them. There they are. My people. My artists. This is film. This is truth. This is me.”

I would say these things - alone, out-loud, inhaling and exhaling slow and deep in front of my childhood TV. I started making my own films with my mom’s Panasonic VHS Palmcorder. I wanted to surround myself with artists - who I had trouble finding during my salad days. New York or Los Angeles - I needed to get to one of those places and find my people.

I needed to go to theatre school and hone my craft with teachers like L. Zane, Jack Rowe, Joseph Hacker, Charlotte Cornwell, Stephanie Shroyer, Mary Joan Negro, Gates McFadden, Andrei Belgrader. I needed film study courses taught by the Notorious PhD Todd Boyd. I needed to direct Donald Webber Jr. as R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. I needed to start a theatre company with Troian Bellisario, Tommy Bertelsen, Josh Schell, and Peter Vack. I needed to take acting classes with Stephanie Feury. I needed to befriend brilliant painters like Jessica Gabriella Jerskey. I needed to find Nadia Bedzhanova and be a part of her freewheeling way of making films. I needed to meet Gloria Cole and direct ”McCrorey Rd.", our 20 minute film that’s currently in consideration for all the festivals. I needed Igor Kropotov to shoot "McCrorey Rd." Art brought me to all of these beautiful people. As often as my mind wants to fool me into believing I’m in isolation, art always reminds me that I’m not alone. 

In your "Fact Face" show, there is a sense of melancholy and humor. Any insights?

I’m glad people see the smiles behind the sadness. There’s humor in everything, thank God. I’ll quote someone who said it best. Dalí said, “It is not me who is the clown, but this monstrously cynical and so unconsciously naive society, which plays the game of seriousness in order better to hide its madness.” 


What are you hiding from?

Myself. Well, no. Not anymore. Not as much, anyway. I want to say that I used to hide from myself more, wearing those metaphorical hats and masks while I developed into the man I am today.

I feel like a lot of people hide from themselves - say things they don’t really believe in, do things they don’t really want to do. It can be exhausting. You are enough! Like Cassavetes said: “Say what you are. Not what you would like to be. Not what you have to be. Just say what you are. And what you are is good enough.”

What scares you?

Four more years of Trump. A part of me wants to elaborate but I’m just so fucking sick of him. If I continued talking about that whining, immature, racist, sexist, self-serving, wannabe dictator clown, I’d be inviting a lot of anger into the conversation. I don’t want to be clouded with anger right now. The root of all anger is fear. Goddamn. Fear is a motherfucker. I’m also afraid that this interview will be edited or cleaned up in a way that misrepresents me. I want every word of it to remain. I suppose that’s my ego talking - the fear of being misunderstood - the fear of being on trial for my words - the fear of being cancelled. I’m scared of my ego sometimes. If we want to get really deep, I guess that means I’m scared of death. 


What inspires you?

Besides the Black Lives Matter movement? Recovering addicts. Anyone who has gone through the fire and risen from the ashes like a phoenix. People who take responsibility for their life and gain an interest in not repeating mistakes. People who overcome challenges. Eternal students.

There’s a Jean-Paul Sartre quote I like: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into this world, he is responsible for everything he does.” People who read that quote and understand what he meant whether they agree or not - those people inspire me.

What is your current focus? What are the projects? What will see next?
I can be pretty scatterbrained, which results in me working on 100 things at once. Lately when friends have asked me what I’m working on, my answer is: “Myself.” But I’m doing a lot behind the brick walls of my studio apartment: writing a book, writing a screenplay, continuing my masked self-portrait project. I’ll probably be adding to Fact Face for the rest of my life. Anything to fill up these very strange times.

I’ve been on unemployment for a while due to the pandemic. It’s got me reading more than ever. Flea’s memoir Acid For The Children really blew my hair back. Calypso by David Sedaris is hilarious and heartbreaking. Notes Of A Native Son by James Baldwin is a mandatory read - especially right now with everything going on in our country. Crush, Richard Siken’s book of poems, will do just that.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara gutted me in all the right ways. I ugly-cried over every page and had trouble moving onto another book after that. I settled on something lighter and more familiar: Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. I’ve put literature down for the time being to focus on my own writing.

Other than that, my attention is on getting “McCrorey Rd.” into film festivals. The film is based on true events from writer/actor Gloria Cole’s life, detailing how childhood sexual trauma affects a teenager struggling to cope with her past. Moving from flashbacks to the present day, we follow Gloria navigating through harrowing recollections, pushing away her only friend (Nikko Austen Smith), and struggling to detach herself from her mother, Kate (Jaime King), who unintentionally grows absent in her search for companionship outside of their Texas trailer home. Moreover, Kate's latest boyfriend Frank (Kick Gurry) serves as a reminder of past abusers, complicating Gloria's emotional and mental health. We’re proud of this project and can’t wait to share it with the world, hopefully helping others feel less alone. 

Today, prognostication is impossible through the smoke of forest fires, tear gas, political blather and newfound poverty. Give us an eye on the future.

We all recently found out that the Kentucky grand jury indicted only one of the three Louisville Metro Police Department officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, so right now, unfortunately, any hope for a better future is thin. The cop was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment because, as I understand, a few of his bullets were found in the neighbor’s house. So, are they telling us that if those bullets didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be any charges to speak of? That makes me sick to my stomach.

My heart goes out to Breonna’s family, who loved her before she was murdered and became another hashtag. I want to believe that humans are inherently good, but it’s difficult right now.

I want to believe that - deep down - we know what’s right and what’s wrong. Everything seems turned upside down. Everything feels like the twilight zone or an episode of Black Mirror. Hate’s got Love against the ropes. It’s Orwellian. The world is on fire. We’re in a storm. It’s downright apocalyptic. The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokálypsis, which means the “lifting of the veil”. Veils have certainly been lifted.

I hope everyone is looking in the mirror and doing an appropriate amount of self-examination. I hope epiphanies are had and revelations are revealed. I hope people have the courage to stand up for what’s right - what they have always known to be right, deep down. As tough, cruel, and hateful as Trump supporters seem to be on Twitter, I want to believe that if one of them saw someone drowning in a lake, he’d try to help - regardless of race or religion or gender or sexual preference or point of view or whatever. If humans are, in fact, inherently good, then I hope we can honor that truth and move towards a better future. We’re all in this thing together! Bukowski wrote, “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.” A grim but honest observation. Well, I choose Love, goddamn it - we all did the minute we came out of the mother’s womb. Like I said, my hope is thin today, but it’s still there. I still have hope. Tomorrow’s a new day.

Any parting last words?

Make art. Be nice. Wear a mask. Vote. Dance. Cry.

I’ll end with a Henry Miller quote: “If at eighty you're not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin' and keepin' power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on your way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss - under your breath, of course - ‘Fuck you, Jack! You don't own me.’ If you can whistle up your ass, if you can be turned on by a fetching bottom or a lovely pair of teats, if you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from going sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you've got it half licked.”

Instagram + Twitter: @citiznshane 


About the Author

As a writer and columnist, Gordy Grundy has written for Artillery magazine, ArtNews, the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Coagula Art Journal and many others. He is the author of “Artist Pants”, "Blood and Paint: Essays on Art in Los Angeles" and the editor of the anthology “Gen F.”



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