My American Dream: Mystery Train
Gates of Graceland, 2017 oil on linen 32 × 48 in. | 81.3 × 121.9 cm
Gates of Graceland, 2017
oil on linen 32 × 48 in. | 81.3 × 121.9 cm

Graceland is a magical place for Elvis fans like me, and in a previous trip there, I took many photographs of the home–thinking of course of William Eggleston’s famous Graceland portfolio, but much more than this–my very real and sincere lifelong fascination and devotion to all things Elvis. Despite the colonialist politics of how he was able to appropriate music already recorded by black musicians and make it “his own” and how this helped to develop–and maybe take more credit than is due from the African American roots of rhythm and blues–rock n’ roll. Elvis also came from the wrong side of the tracks, the son of a poor “white trash” family that grew up alongside his black friends, and who got much of his inspiration by participating in black culture—he was, for example, a welcome presence to the African-American gospel singing churches and blues environments of his youth. A religious person, I think of him like a Michelangelo, who aspired for the heavens but also gave into his red-blooded male persona and id, but who helped to create music that inspired the world. I also realize Elvis is a sort of ridiculous figure (and grew up thinking of him as a “fat joke” rather than the great musician I grew to love), and think of him also as analogous to a 50’s kind of patriarchy, well meaning but crucially flawed.

In my visit to Graceland before this trip, it was around Christmas time, and as Elvis loved Christmas, the whole place, including the lawn, was adorned with lights and Xmas magic, with many of the same decorations and props that were put out when the King was alive. I was mad at myself for not taking a picture at the time—truly the neighborhood isn’t what it used to be—and I was freaked out by going to the nearby gas station and feeling threatened by the downbeat nature of the neighborhood—there was no place to safely park nearby to take pictures! When I went back with my childhood best friend Dan, he didn’t like Elvis, and so I took an Uber car to the place, and my driver was patient (she had never been there, either!) while I quickly took many photos. Sans Christmas decorations, it was still magical, despite the port-o-potty and the metal parking gates surrounding the famous, “pearly” gates that have an abstracted, almost alien-like, portrait of Elvis with his guitar.

When I paint from my photos, I like to paint everything as if its “real”—the lens flare in this case, from the streetlight by the gates, almost felt like a spiritual (Elvis?!) presence. My friend Dan noticed that my lens for my Sony A7 camera didn’t take full advantage of the image the sensors were catching, and configured the camera so it would—creating the round image surrounding the scene, which in this case feels to me like a giant lens of an eye, or hovering orbs accentuated by the flare of the light.

Sadly, Dan passed away last spring from an auto accident, and although this is an homage to Elvis, it’s also an homage to Dan (and the America I hope we aren’t losing in the current administration!). When painting the lens flare, I was also thinking of Turner, the light of God, and “how many angels can dance on a head of a pin”. Like a method actor, I immerse myself in the world of the subject matter in which I paint, and I listened to most of the whole oeuvre of Elvis when painting this, ending on the gospels, and truly like pearly gates, thinking of Dan who would be in heaven if this place existed. For now, Graceland is like a heaven on earth, at least to me and Elvis followers, who despite the ridiculous, still believe in the power of music to help to change the world and make it a better place.