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An Abstract Life: Artist Paul Ecke pens a memoir that will hearten you, inspire you & maybe shock you

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Every painting unravels a story,” says local artist and Black Iris co-founder Paul Ecke, whose works, mostly abstract paintings, are displayed in high-end galleries all over the world. Several are slated to be part of an endowment of contemporary paintings and graphic art to the Tate Museum of Contemporary Art in London.

“I start with 20 - 30 layers of paint and media and then carefully strip them away with brush, hand, and sometimes trowel, to create texture and depth,” Ecke explains. “In good abstract art, each element, or fractal, of a piece should convey meaning.” And, smartly, Ecke has used the same approach in fashioning his newly released, evocative memoir, Boy Dreamer: An artist’s memoir of identity, awakening, and beating the odds. 

A mélange of moments shot through with triumph

Just as Ecke’s paintings contain repeating patterns and interconnections, so his memoir picks out the common threads within some of the most formative and traumatic – as well as happy – events of his life, creating an integrated whole, a mélange of dark moments shot through with blazing triumph.

LLP Paul Ecke smile

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Paul Ecke, artist and author

Boy Dreamer took me four years to write,” he says. “I had a script of sorts in mind, about how I had beaten the odds in so many ways, and the importance of imagination and dreams, but I knew I needed to pare down the layers, so I carved out certain vignettes that I felt truly revealed the color and texture of my life.”

Among other things, the book tells of his time in foster care as a young boy, his identity crisis as a gay man during a less tolerant time, and explains his positive approach to his Stage 4 prostate cancer, diagnosed 12 years ago.

Yes, there have been many challenges in Ecke’s life, and some shocking choices made, but much brightness and love, too, as the book explores. 

Oh, and there are wonderful touches of humor, too.

Imagination provides an escape from early adversity

First let’s look at early adversity: 

Imagine this – you are four years old, about to turn five. You’re in a foster home with your two sisters, having been wrenched from your mother’s arms a few months earlier. 

(Later you will find out that she suffered a nervous breakdown after your father abandoned the family after multiple infidelities. But at this young age, you don’t understand why you can’t be with your mom.)

Your foster parents make a point of giving their own daughter delicious food while you are provided the most basic of meals. 

On Christmas Day, when you wake up expecting to see presents under the tree, they laugh and tell you that “Santa doesn’t bring gifts for kids like you.”

So it is a special thrill to find out that your foster mother is actually making a chocolate cake for your birthday.

Until, that is, unable to bear the suspense, you sneak into the kitchen and swipe a tasty fingerful of icing from the cake.

And you are caught.

You are confined to your room for three days and only given slabs of cake to eat, nothing else, until you feel sick. You are not allowed to leave to go to the bathroom for any reason. You are told to use the trash can instead.

The mortification will stay with you for the rest of your life.

LLP Paul Ecke swing

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To this day, Paul Ecke finds joy in swinging high and free

To escape such cruelty, little Paul Ecke uses his imagination to create and live virtually in happier worlds. He loves to swing high, to feel the breeze across his face, to feel free. 

(This is something, swinging in a playground, that he will continue to enjoy throughout his life, even at the age of 65.) 

He makes friends with the frogs in the garden.

Little Paul will return to live with his mother, but future challenges will test his happiness. 

Those myriad challenges are at the heart of this appealing, brutally honest, fascinating memoir. 

Now, humor: The teenage Paul Ecke tries his very best to enjoy sexual contact with a girl, but as he so eloquently puts it: As the inhibitions fell away, we started to kiss …She squirmed with pleasure, but something felt off. Even high, I could sense that I was trying to make a floral jacket go with plaid pants. They just didn’t go together in anyone’s definition…

Beautifully, Ecke’s love for his mother shines throughout the book. “She was incredibly loving,” he says.

Love for his mother leads to a shocking decision

In Ecke’s early twenties, when his mother was dying of terminal breast cancer, the young man made the shocking decision to become a male prostitute while working, of all places, at Disneyland Hotel as a bellboy. (Oh, and he was a kindergarten teacher at the time also. For ten years, he would thrive as an educator and administrator.)

“I wanted to be able to give her the finer things in life that she’d never enjoyed – dining out in restaurants, lovely clothes…” Ecke’s voice trembles. “I adored her.”

I ask Paul if it is okay to include some of his more controversial life choices in this article. 

He shrugs. “Of course. I don’t regret a moment in my life, because they are part of who I am now. I kept these things close to the vest for many years, but now it’s all out there in the book.” 

Boy Dreamer is also a love story about Ecke and his partner of 40 years, Bill Merrill, describing their relationship, and explaining how serendipity and hard work built the success of their Black Iris florist business.

“Each flower had to dance. Every arrangement had to tell a story,” Ecke says, clearly born to play with petals as well as paint.

LLP Paul Ecke book

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Boy Dreamer is an inspiring and brutally honest memoir

His memoir certainly doesn’t shy away from hard truths, even as it inspires.

“Lots of people don’t know about my Stage 4 cancer, but they will now,” he says. “I’m fine with it, I’m ready for the questions.

“One of my goals with the book is to encourage people to stay positive about their cancer, to inspire them to believe it can be overcome. I’m the poster boy at USC for resisting the disease. Each day is a new day, a beautiful day. I hope people can find comfort in that.”

If our lives can be compared to abstract paintings, then Paul Ecke’s is an intriguing, inspiring one to behold. Tested by adversity in so many ways, but always ready to take on new challenges with heart, imagination, and gratitude, his life is one for, well, the books.

Boy Dreamer is available at Laguna Beach Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble online. Some of the proceeds will go to a fund to research prostate cancer.

Ecke has also authored a children’s book about impatient “rootlings” longing to burst through the soil. Appropriately, it is due out in the spring, He’s also working on another children’s book at this time, called Swing High, Little Boy.

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Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

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