“I was staying at Hampton Court Palace in England. A friend of mine’s aunt was a curator there and I distinctly remember waking up in the middle of the night– I was young, I was 21 years old– I was sleeping on the floor of her apartment and I distinctly remember feeling a presence over my face, hovering. I couldn’t see anybody but I sensed a woman in red and she was just like practically breathing on me. I couldn’t move, I was frozen, I wanted to yell. I could see everything in the room, I could hear a bell tolling out in the distance near the Thames, but I could not move. And I kept trying to call out and I was frozen and I swear I saw something. My name is Michael J. Deas. I make pictures.”
Hi! I’m Didi Beck. I’m an artist and I tell ghost stories.
I’ve always been intuitive. It helps with my creative process, but it also allows me to see and feel things that other people can’t– like ghosts. I’m wondering if any of my fellow artists feel the same way. I want to know if they’ve had their own ghost experiences.
The artist you just heard was Michael Deas. You know the Columbia Pictures logo? The one of the lady in a toga standing on a pedestal, holding a torch? He painted that! He lives in the ghost capital of America: New Orleans.
I meet Michael because I saw an interview he did with PBS. He painted a series of portraits for the U.S. Postal Service in the ‘90s. One of those portraits was on Tennessee Williams.
“When I painted it, I was living a couple of doors away from where Tennessee Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie. So I felt he was watching over my shoulder a little bit, perhaps.”
But when I meet him in person, he seems to have changed his mind about it.
“I just wanted to do a beautiful painting of him because he was probably one of the most brilliant playwrights of the Twentieth Century,” Michael says. “The fact that he lived down the street… I felt a special– I can’t say literally he was a ghost watching over me– I felt a special allegiance to do a great job with it. As far as actually seeing ghosts, I meant that metaphorically. I am a skeptic about ghosts, but I have seen ghosts.”
Michael’s brush with the woman in red at Hampton Court Palace sounds like a ghost story to me. But he thinks that it was just a case of sleep paralysis.
“You’re in this sort of strange state where you’re seeing something, you’re experiencing it, but your eyes are awake and you’re aware of the room, and yet you’re seeing something that is perceived to be there,” Michael explains.
Essentially, he thinks he was dreaming with his eyes open.
And then the doorbell rings.
Someone is at the front door. Michael calls this person “a ghost from [his] past,” someone he hasn’t seen or spoken to in a while. It’s a surprise, and he’s really shaken up about it. His whole tone towards ghosts changes.
“So, why don’t you believe in ghosts?” I ask.
“I don’t believe in ghosts, but I will tell you one story,” he begins. “I had a friend. He was a tree surgeon, huge guy, 6’2’’, used to jump out of helicopters to put out forest fires in the Northwest. His name was Big John and he was a larger than life person. I was doing a painting for a Norman Mailer novel and I asked him to pose for me. When I went to photograph him he went almost into a trance. It was like he was hypnotized. I was taking his picture and he just seemed like he was in another world. He just seemed like he was dreaming. It was so out of character for him.
“Three days later, he stepped out of his car to get some papers that were blowing across the Long Island Expressway and he was hit by a truck. He was killed. There was a party at his house, after his death. I remember I sat on his front door stoop, which was in Queens, New York, where, you know, it’s very hard to see the night sky. I went and I sat on his door stoop and I looked up and I saw a shooting star. I’d never seen a shooting star in my life. I went to his sister and I was like ‘I think I just saw a shooting star,’ and she said ‘That was John, saying goodbye.’”
Michael sounds like a man who wants to believe in ghosts. There are touches of it in his art and in his stories. He thinks that other people like to believe in them because “…we can’t comprehend the fact that maybe some day we won’t exist, and that all our memories will be lost. That somehow the idea of a ghost reinforces that we ourselves will survive. What we’ve experienced in life, what we’ve known and what is important to us will endure somehow.”
“Does that tie into ghosts?” he muses. “Maybe.”
All photos by Didi Beck.