In the short and narrow basement of an old converted Baptist church on Atlanta's Westside, Paper Frank stares religiously at his reflection. It's not a mirror that hangs on the wall before him but an alternate universe of the artist's own invention, where a snotty-nosed 6-year-old named Damien and his snaggle-toothed sister Jessica take turns unpacking the emotional baggage of their creator.
The 23 acrylic paintings are from Frank "Paper Frank" Dunson's latest exhibition of neo-pop/anime-influenced works, Pink Lemonade, which he unveiled to a huge and unexpected crowd of more than 3,000 on July 11. Besides a concerned fire marshal, the other few thousand fans, friends, peers, and curiosity seekers — who stood in double lines snaking around the building and congregated en masse outside the steepled entrance — were a testament to the cult-like following he's nurtured within Atlanta over the past two years.
For the 22-year-old self-trained artist, it felt like the moment his dreams for the future might finally begin to outweigh his nightmares from the past.
Though his paintbrush drips with pastel colors and childlike playfulness, Paper Frank's palette is haunted by life's darker undertones.
"I'm a fucked-up person because I spent my whole life in my room," Dunson declares with such a point-blank stare from beneath the brim of his bucket hat that it's hard to tell if he's saying it for shock or catharsis.
It's that kind of absurd sense of humor that makes him, and his work, so relatable. "Frank is one of the funniest people in the world. He's just a goofy kid, man," says Suliman "Suli" Chillis, founder of Atlanta's Gen Y cultural generator Creative Revolution Union. "You always know when Frank is in the room, kind of like the life of the party."
But behind his disarming smile lies an internal conflict that has transformed a kid convinced he had little to live for into a leader among Atlanta's next wave of young creatives.
Despite his growing stature within the subculture, his state of mind seems right in line with Damien in "Head First," the first piece in Pink Lemonade, which features Dunson's alter-ego flying through the air as a reluctant superhero. His underwear is on his head, Revenge of the Nerds style, and a makeshift cape is tied around his neck while a continuous stream of green mucus oozes from his right nostril. "It's pretty self-explanatory," Dunson says of the painting as we tour the collection one month later. "It's how I jumped into all of this; I'm still young as hell."
Dunson initially created the character Damien and his alias, Paper Frank, for his former T-shirt and hat line. But the name ended up outlasting the clothing line, and Damien got upgraded from T-shirts to canvas. Today, Dunson often refers to the kid with the devilish name in the first- and third-person because "it's an extension of me," Dunson admits. "I didn't have a childhood. I had to be an adult my whole life, so I never really got to be a kid."
When Dunson was 7, his parents separated. His mother, a full-time nurse, fell into a depression as a result. Though she kept her nursing job, she became a functioning alcoholic, according to Dunson, leaving him to be the caretaker for a younger sister who would inspire the character Jessica because of her fierce protection of him.
Together the siblings took refuge in school. Extracurricular programs became a way to avoid what awaited them at home. "It was a monster at home," says Dunson, who still talks about his mother in fearful terms.
"She would fight me like a man," he says, recounting the time she threw a vase at him and it shattered on his head. "I knew what it was like to get hit with a bottle in a bar when that happened."
Worse than the physical abuse was the inattentiveness. Dunson learned to tend to himself by living behind his locked bedroom door, where he'd draw and play video games for hours. For most kids, monsters are figments of their imagination that they learn to tame by anchoring themselves in the real world. But when the monster is real, imagination becomes one's only means of escape. It wasn't just his physical self that Dunson was hiding inside his room, he was also burying his emotions, not knowing that one day he would use paint to translate his pain.
Throughout the paintings in Pink Lemonade, Damien progressively undergoes a transformation from helpless and cuddly to hopelessly crazed. In the aptly titled "Internal Conflict," his cute bunny rabbit suit seems to overtake him, while "emotional ghosts," as Dunson calls them, circle about in fear and fury. By the time Damien reaches the "Maniacal" state, he's become a different character altogether, with a menacing glare and a smile that reveals a mouth full of canines where his toothless gums had been. "When he can't beat his inner demon, he becomes Kurupt, with no emotion [and] sharp-ass teeth," says Dunson. "Just a fucking demon, all trippy and shit."