Out of context 

How artist Wesley Delano changed the trajectory of his life

Wesley Delano has always pushed boundaries. Fifteen years ago that meant being 300 pounds and drinking whiskey after whiskey at Al's and Vic's, making smartass remarks to patrons. It meant partying for days on end, starting in Missoula and then driving to Phoenix for drugs, and back again. People called him "Big Wes." His large personality—a mammoth laugh, sarcastic wit, crass humor—and his stature guaranteed that when he walked into a room everybody knew it. He was an artist. He made drawings he never showed to anyone, though his artistic propensities more often manifested as graffiti rendered during drunken escapades.

Delano's larger-than-life persona also made him the perfect frontman for the late 1990s Missoula bands Non-Drowsy and Everyday Sinners that frequented the stage at Jay's Upstairs. If people remember anything about Delano from that time they remember the night when the Everyday Sinners opened for an all-girl surf band called The Famous Monsters, featuring Sean Yseult from White Zombie. That was the night Delano wore the infamous "meat vest," made from the rib cage of an elk carcass.

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  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"I was super nervous because, certainly talent-wise, I was the weak link in the band," Delano says. "I needed to figure out something to do that people were going to remember. My roommate had come home that morning from an elk hunting trip and brought all these elk parts into our house. And I'm like, 'How much of this are you going to use?' and he said, 'You can take the bones and gristle and do whatever you want with them, you sick fuck.' So I made myself a nice little vest."

Delano put the vest in a bag and didn't tell anyone, including his bandmates. When the band broke out into the song "Sad to See a Hooker Cry" he put the elk carcass over his body and belted out the lyrics as the audience and his bandmates watched him with equal parts horror and amusement. Afterward he stuffed the vest under the Jay's stage where it sat until the stench led bartenders to rediscover it.

Months later the band kicked him out, and he pretended not to care, though he did. "I think smoking [various drugs] and showing up at Jay's asking for a pitcher of whiskey was not a great foundation for a strong stage performance," he says. "But I was a little heartbroken for a bit."

That's the Delano I knew, the one from over a decade ago: a fun guy to be around but a guy with demons. When he showed up on Facebook and friended me a year ago I was surprised to see photos of a lean, healthy dude in a windbreaker, skiing slopes and hiking mountains—though he still had that familiar infectious grin.

Last month, Delano had his first art show opening. His colorful stencils, which hang on the wall of Le Petit Outre, depict a whole other Wesley Delano—one that's hinted at by the exhibit's title, Life in Brightness. The pieces are whimsical, almost retro, painted with bright house paint colors procured from Home Resource and bearing images of things like couples embracing and a child eating lunch. It's only when you read the titles—"Cold Rain and Snow" or "He's With His Father For the Weekend"—that you understand there's some deeper story behind them. There's something to his work that's more complicated and personal.

Delano grew up in Cambridge, Mass., in a family of artists. "When I was a kid my mom was active in this organization called the Women's Caucus for the Arts," Delano says. "Every Saturday our house was filled with crazy gals. I was introduced at a pretty young age to what it meant to be creative. Nobody ever put boundaries on anything I did and so if there was some paint and I got my hands in it and ran it down the neighbor's driveway, well ... "

A lack of boundaries fueled his wild years as a college student in Missoula. But even when some of his peers sobered up and moved on, Delano didn't. "Everybody says you can tell an addict to stop but until they make a determination for themselves nothing changes," he says. "And that's how it happened for me."

Delano says he woke up one morning and wondered what it was like to not be the big guy in the room.

"I'd see people who were engaged in productive healthy relationships," he says. "And I would always wonder if it was my size that keeps me from making these connections."

He stopped going to bars, and eventually stopped drinking. His doctor told him he was borderline diabetic. "So I started walking every day and I liked it," he says. "So I started walking uphill and I liked that. And then I got a gym membership and I liked that. And now I'm addicted to exercise."

Delano's foray into stencils began after he started his transformation. At first he drew mundane objects with no story—matchbooks, key holes, radiators. Eventually, as he got more brave, he started drawing images that were personal to him.

"Certainly a big driving force of my activities back then was drinking," Delano says. "And that numbness separated me. When your identity is wrapped up with how you perform at a party, the aspects of yourself that are more valuable seem to take a backseat.

"I was expressive," he says, grinning. "Productive? No. It wasn't who I was supposed to be."

Life in Brightness is a series that plays with the idea of context. The stencil titled "He's With His Father for the Weekend" shows a couple lounging playfully in the grass together.

"They look like they're in love and having a good time," Delano says, "but the truth is that she's got a kid who she's happy to give away to spend a couple of days with her boyfriend. That's how I felt as a kid. I remember good things about my mom and her boyfriend caring for one another, but I [felt] left out."

In another stencil titled "School Breakfast Superstar," a little boy eats his lunch at a cafeteria. That image also stems from Delano's childhood when his mother, who went to work early, would drop him off before classes at school where he'd wait with all the breakfast school program kids. He remembers seeing a particularly disheveled kid.

"His hair was never even close to being how a mother would let it be," Delano says. "And throughout my life, even as an adult, he stuck in my mind. The comparison was, my mother was successful and loved me but here I am lost. And this boy had nothing and I bet he's a fucking physicist! So it's called 'School Breakfast Superstar.' We can all be superstars, right?"

Delano's transformation sometimes feels dramatic to those who have known him for a long time. People often don't recognize him. When they do find out who he is, it's hard for them to reconcile the new Delano with the old Big Wes.

"It's a weird deal," Delano says. "They say, 'You're that Wes?' It's a big change and people react differently. But I'll tell you, it's incredibly rewarding to talk to people who knew me then. I feel better than I have in my entire life. I smile more than I've ever smiled."

Wesley Delano's Life in Brightness continues at Le Petit Outre through the end of May.

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