Mount Wolf artist channels near-death experience into art


Freddie Graves knew he was dying.

He lay there on the hospital table, "behind a watery veil" of pain and medication, and knew it — though the doctors didn't, he says.

"I knew I had to make some kind of sound or I was gonna die," the Mount Wolf resident says.

So he mustered a small noise, and then a louder one. The doctors heard him and came over. They realized his bowel had been punctured, and two liters of fluid had leaked into his torso.

"When people say 10-out-of-10 pain, I know what that's like," he says, now three-and-a-half years removed from the agonizing incident. "I was in so much pain that I could not even open my eyes."

As Graves tells his story, he's anything but grave; he laughs frequently, often punctuating some of the grislier or more serious bits with two or three sharp ha's.

He spins the full tale willingly, up to and including the near-death-by-colonoscopy. He'd ended up there after developing a hernia and then contracting a respiratory infection from a guy he sat next to on a plane back from the Burning Man music festival; the colonoscopy that went wrong was part of the process for treating all that and the ensuing complications.

Sharing what he felt helps, it seems, which makes sense — his artwork inspired by the experience will be on display starting Friday at Marketview Arts, 37 W. Philadelphia St. in York City.

Much of the art that the one-time psych-hospital worker, one-time home-remodeling-company owner will have on display will be photographs. His subjects are often at least mostly naked, and frequently one or more images have this weird, distorted aesthetic that he calls a "photo mosaic," with limbs and heads and torsos twirling together against a black background.

"I do feel cut up and rearranged," he says. "I do feel torn up and put back together."

The process: And that's a feeling he tries to channel in his art. He doesn't use Photoshop to create the effect, he says; he does it by "hacking" the camera — messing with the algorithms that make it work, tricking the device into merging and warping the photos it's taken.

He stumbled upon that technique when he did it by accident with just a normal family photo he'd taken.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, my niece has two heads,'" he says.

So how's it work?

"That's a secret, isn't it?" He laughs again.

He also often uses techniques where the lone subject of his photos, again often naked, is starkly lit or looks as if he or she has light emanating from their body.

That's also influenced by the near-death experience — it represents how he felt as he lay there.

"When you're lying in that state, you're conscious and unconscious, present and not present, being and not being," he says. "I could feel, like, an energy. I can't even tell you if it was within me or without me. Or maybe both."

Kickstarter: Graves plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign very soon to finance a documentary film he's trying to make.

The film, which he estimates will cost about $14,000 to make and would be called "Peeled — the documentary," would tell the stories of show girls, from small-town club strippers to women putting on complex and costly burlesque-style shows.

"They've been looked down on so much, but they have some amazing stories," he says. "I don't know, maybe we can give them their due."

You might notice a common theme in his art: nudity. He acknowledges that does seem to be a running trope, but says the fact that it might be never really occurred to him.

But he likes the role it plays in his work. One of his favorite comments was from a fellow artist who told him it was interesting how so many of the photos are of people who are nude, but the photos aren't sexual.

And they aren't meant to be — he says the photos where two or three or more naked people hold or lie against each other are less sensual and more intimate, in the most platonic sense of the word.

To Graves, the bare body represents humanity at its purest.

"Souls don't wear clothes," he says.

— Reach Sean Philip Cotter at