'I don’t look at pain as something that needs to be 'fixed': St. Petersburg artist Frank Strunk III on depression, anxiety and obsession

He just closed his virtual ‘Pandemia’ show.

click to enlarge 'I don’t look at pain as something that needs to be 'fixed': St. Petersburg artist Frank Strunk III on depression, anxiety and obsession
Dave Decker

It was the Second Saturday Market, about a year ago, that I saw Frank Strunk III in person for the first time. Daddy Kool was having shows in the back, and I was there to take pics of Flexxhawk, a band of Tampa-St. Petersburg music icons who were also old homies of mine, which set the tone for a righteous night. This was back when live shows were a daily occurrence and FB event invites would guide my shutter as I searched for subjects to frame and capture.

I didn't actually approach Frank that night to introduce myself, but he had his art on full display. Carefully fabricated and textured pieces were on the walls. and I felt as if his work introduced itself into my consciousness. What really stood out from that night was a moment when I looked over at Josh Poll from Zen Glass as he adorned a Maximilian-styled metal helmet Frank fabbed and polished; it completely covered Poll’s face.

It seemed so remarkable to me that someone could have this specific and rare talent. I developed a desire to get to know Strunk and possibly capture his vision one day in the medium of photography. So we became social media friends, but that's as far as it went.

So in the midst of this pandemic, I saw that Frank was doing an online art show called “Pandemia.” I thought his theme choice of bird-like, beak masks from the 17th century Plague Doctors was genius. I reached out to coordinate some time to catch him at work to showcase his featured pieces to preview the show for CL but our busy schedules prevented this from happening. So last Saturday, Strunk and I made some time to hang out, talk shop and document his work, his tooling and the environment in which he creates. As the rain fell outside and Strunk got talking, I realized how much we had in common.

We both are artists, we both struggle with depression and anxiety, we both obsess about our work, we both care about people, we both despise hypocrisy,  and have had our brushes with the law. Most notably though is the reality that we both have come through the other side and survived deadly addictions to chemical substances most commonly referred to as drugs.

Read our full Q&A below.

click to enlarge 'I don’t look at pain as something that needs to be 'fixed': St. Petersburg artist Frank Strunk III on depression, anxiety and obsession
Photo by Dave Decker. Design by Dan Rodriguez

Who is Frank Strunk III?

I’m the full grown version of the kid that took things apart and couldn't get them back together. Always looking for a solution, always looking deeper for answers or meaning or “the lesson”.

Who was the first and the second?

My grandad, who I never met, was born in Kentucky in 1898 in “backwoods coal country,” as my Dad says. He died when my dad was 12. My dad grew up in coal country, too. I'm the first gen out of Appalachia. So, I have parents who were born and raised in strong working class, musical Baptist communities in rural Kentucky, and then you have my sisters and I growing up in Washington D.C. and Rockville, Maryland. My parents did the best they could.

How did you relate to other kids in your peer groups?

I was a shy kid with a rich internal dialog,  Dreaming, fantasizing, scheming...haha. I have two older sisters with fairly strong personalities. I am the youngest. I was so quiet and small that my mom would tell me stories of how my parents would accidentally leave me at home or at a restaurant because wrangling my sisters was quite a job. They would be driving away, and mom would say: “What about the baby?” They would head back, and I would be sitting quietly, entertaining myself, which is kinda funny, but also kinda sad. I was just used to being by myself and making my own way. 

When did you first take drugs and how did it make you feel?

Probably like everyone, I was in early high school. My oldest sister sometimes got high with me, but then she ended up in rehab and narced me out to my parents, even though I was just doing normal kid shit like going out to “The Log” in the woods and getting high and drinking shitty beer. The friendship and camaraderie of it was big because of my shyness. Also, the “outlaw” nature of it all, oh man. 

Do you have triggers now that create cravings?

Hey look, temptation is everywhere. Addicts have a built-in radar to find it. It's what we do with the input after we encounter it that matters. I’m 56 now. My triggers are different than they were when I was 18, for example. We addicts don’t like to live in the gray areas. We are for or against. We are in or out.We love our extremes. Part of my dance with addiction and cravings now looks more like learning to live in gray areas, where I can hold more than one thing at the same time. Like, I can have a beer with a pal, and when I get buzzed, I can decide to stop. It’s not just “nothing or let’s get wasted and get in a fight, wake up in the back of someone’s truck and lose the next three days.” But, it’s an effort for me, where for others, it’s like, they can drink one beer, no problem.

And this learning-to-live-in-gray-areas leaks into other aspects of my life. Like, I can still like you if you think Sammy Hagar Van Halen is better than David Lee Roth Van Halen; you’re wrong, but I can still like you. In the past I would write you off as an idiot. On the other hand, there are things that are not gray areas. You will not move me, for example, on the fact that Nazis are horrible. Or that our President is a fascist.

If so, do you experience cravings, or has the obsession been lifted? 

Lifted? No. Understood?  Certainly. After all, It's about progress, not perfection. Part of my addiction journey has been a cycle of destroying my life, figuring out where the fuck that came from, getting help and moving on. A guy I knew in the rooms said something to me that I will never forget. He said: “Just when I think I have this thing under control, just when I think I can start taking a few risks again, just when I think my addict is small and weak and powerless,  I shut the door to my apartment, he’s there in the corner. He’s huge and strong. He’s been doing push ups this whole time.” And that’s scary and true. So, no I don’t fuck with my addict. He’ll always be there, but I can have a relationship with him and use skills that I’ve learned through counseling so that we have respect for each other. Because he’ll take everything if I let him. I’ve been in a place for a while now—again through support—where I won’t let him. I don’t ever again want to be in a place where I don’t care if he takes it all.

I read earlier today and I quote “Individuals who are risk-taking, compulsive, impulsive, and novelty-seeking are more likely to experiment with drugs. Interestingly, these are the very attributes that spur creativity.” How would you characterize this statement and do you think it applies directly to artists?

Well… creativity is a thing, right? And not many people can explain really what this thing is. But when I’m in it, I know I’m in it. And I’m not even sure that it’s me anymore that is doing the thing, or if I become a vessel for the creativity to move through. But I’m willing. And I’m getting my skills down, and I’m following my curiosity, and let’s be clear: I’m living a life that is totally outside the capitalist box. It’s not romantic. It’s not glamorous. It’s not looked upon fondly to not be able to pay your bills as an adult, right? But, again, I’m not doing this alone. I have support. Emotional support.I don’t have kids. I’m not paying down a huge mortgage. I also don’t have healthcare. And because I’m willing to stick with it and be really uncomfortable, every once in a while I’ll hit something out of the park.

As I tell people all the time: Look, I’m good at one thing. I can make stuff that comes into my head—but I make great shit, and I make horrible shit. My risk-taking right now is that I don’t have a 401k or own my own home. But that has more to do with the oppressive structures of our country than it has to do with being inherently self-destructive. People have laid really harsh judgements on me like: Why are you so self-sabotaging? Look, I’m not the one waking up every day to a job I hate, coming home and getting wasted so that I can sleep. But in that scenario, that person probably looks like they’re living a version of the American Dream.  My job is hard, but I love it. I chose it. And in choosing it, I didn’t choose other stuff. Stuff that makes us comfortable. What does that have to do with drugs and addiction? Art is my addiction. And I think the world is better for it. I know I am.

Do you ever feel like nothing can fix the pain? That the pain is like the weather and it floats around dropping storms on us?  

I don’t look at pain as something that needs to be “fixed”. If it's there because of some trauma you have experienced, and you look honestly at your behavior, and that it might be trying to medicate that pain, that is a good starting point to understanding yourself better in regards to addictive behavior. We’re humans. Pain is part of the deal. The creative process is very painful, but ultimately very satisfying. Every time I make something, there is a point where I think I suck horribly and, “Why am I wasting my time?”, but I know I can rely on my resilience. Every time I think I suck, it hurts very badly, but I make it through. I stick with it. I solve my own problems, and that feels good. I have ‘Persist” tattooed on my forearm. It reminds me. 

In the scenario where I am the vessel for the creative force, you’ve gotta realize that I’m just a human and the creative force is, as Leonard Cohen says “the greater masterpiece”. So when that thing moves through me, it can hurt. It can leave me feeling like a shell. I hate that I understand the why behind creatives who die of suicide. I get it. Sometimes I have a great show or a great body of work—the time when I could be dangling the world by a string—and I’m just shuffling around in my undies at my two-room apartment wondering who the hell I am. 

I want to say that I have friends. I have support. I don’t believe that “bootstraps” BS. I’m not who I am today from “rugged individualism.” People have cared for me and loved me. Forgiving people. Flawed people. We are connected. I have friends who rescue dogs, and I can go over there and get dog time. I have a great girlfriend. I have buddies. We need each other.   

click to enlarge 'I don’t look at pain as something that needs to be 'fixed': St. Petersburg artist Frank Strunk III on depression, anxiety and obsession
Dave Decker

Congratulations on “Pandemia,” was that your first virtual show?

Thanks. “Pandemia” was my second virtual show. I did them both from my studio. For a few years, I tried to make a living by selling my work on-the-road, at national art shows. It is what it is. This is what it is. Having connection is important. This is just a different way of having connection.

It seems like we are all adapting to a “new normal” these days. That being said, how can you square that up with your sense of obligation vs. a lack of motivation for the show? 

I mean, was it tough to bring the pieces to life with virtual constraints of distancing and realizing that this was gonna be done digitally?  It was tough to imagine how I was going to pull it off, yeah. It was the only thing open to me though. Art openings can be taxing and strange when done in a gallery with all of the people and conversations and attention, but we all (artists) get through it. But setting up an iPad on a tripod and standing in front of it and talking for an hour or so while showing my art was a real challenge. Nobody to play off of, no conversations; you just kinda wing it. Then there is a little delay with talking and the chat window, and it really hammers home the fact that we’re not together right now, and this isn’t going to be easy. Again, persistence.  

Have you ever boxed with gloves on, or always off? And if so which do you like better?

I boxed when I was younger and dumber. I was not very good, but enjoyed the workouts and sparring, but getting beat around was a different animal. A guy I was training with once said, “Man, Strunk you sure can take a beatin’.” That's a compliment, right? It felt like it at the time anyway. Even though it probably exposed something that I had been trying to hide. Let’s be honest, you’re not born knowing how to take a beating. You can take a beating cuz you’ve been beaten.

In all seriousness though, are savagery and brutality elements that influence your current work? Are they a relevant part of your personal history?

I guess as far as it being something I went through, sure it’s relevant. It’s not a very big part of who I am now. Certainly not as an artist. I’m old now, mellowed with age and much more tuned in to the more sensitive things. I was a small, introverted red haired child, and to say I wasn’t bullied or shamed for that would be a lie. It’s painful to be hated for who you are. I don’t tolerate bullies, and I know one when I see one.

What rules do you set for yourself as an artist in regards to your creative process?

Not many rules. Maybe rules of decency, self-righteousness, ego, privilege. I try to be true to myself. I try to be authentic. I’ll try anything, even if I don’t know why, because I will inevitably use the skills I learned for something else. I don’t put limits on what my brain is asking me to create. Again, I don’t always know where my ideas are coming from, but I’m willing to be the vehicle that sees them through. And that might mean that I teach myself welding or CAD or metal shaping with an English wheel—all things that I’ve done—because I want to span the gap between what I want to execute and my skills.

Do you assign technical boundaries relating to characteristics, such as scale to the themes and concepts of your work? How has the process changed over the years?

I’m not sure I understand the question, but if you are familiar with my earliest work, it was lamps. My first show was in Ybor City at 8th End Gallery. That show totally sold-out. It blew me away. I was working construction at the time, and I would get really good ideas about making lamps from construction materials or things that I could get at Home Depot. 

Then I used my skills from growing up in off-set printing to execute that entire body of acid etching work that I still do. That was something that I figured out from being a fucking pressman from the age of 15-16. That’s crazy right?!  Skills from being a teenage pressman and the ideas of rectilinear geometry from building… and then I’ve got this whole other thing to figure out. And I did. And I’m proud of that. I mean that stuff comes directly from my life experience. I’m not out here taking high school or college classes in acid etching. I made that shit myself. 

What is your earliest memory of the best day of your life? Did your connection to your own art have an influence on that day?

Pretty much all of my great days are filled with the wonderment of imagination and curiosity. I grew up in a neighborhood called Twinbrook in Rockville, Maryland. And something about the house there and friendships I made—legit friendships that I still have today—was magical. Ask my sisters, ask my girlfriend, anytime I go to Rockville, I drive by the house in Twinbrook. So, fuck you R.E.M., I go back to Rockville. But, you know, we go through different incarnations in life, so Twinbrook, for sure, then meeting my best friend Chris Malone in the fifth grade and the freedom we had to run wild as two boys on bikes in suburbia. Then drum corps in high school. I was a solid drummer, I still am, and I loved that brotherhood. I love music. I had a deep love for photography. I’ve always been creative in ways that people wouldn’t declaratively state, “Frank is an artist.” So, yeah, my best days have involved art for sure, my dog Mia and my own imagination. I learned early on to create my own worlds. And sometimes they come to life.

click to enlarge 'I don’t look at pain as something that needs to be 'fixed': St. Petersburg artist Frank Strunk III on depression, anxiety and obsession
Dave Decker

Are you more fond of barbed wire or nails?

I love them both. They are like two friends that speak their own language. Barbed wire is way more unruly. Barbed wire is like Quentin Tarantino. Nails are like Tim Burton.

On your website you wrote, “I really loved photography before I started working in metal.” Underneath the piece as a caption. Can you find any parallels between photography and metal work? 

Certainly the basics like scale and composition. Photography taught me how to see and that I could compose a piece. I did a whole bunch of different styles of photography: model portfolios, “artistic” photography—like balancing an egg on a bed of nails—I even took Al Lafrate’s NHL rookie card.  Once I started making three dimensional stuff, I knew I was on to a new drug.

It seems to me that to create art which will leave a substantial imprint on the admirer one must be genuine and authentic. 

Yes indeed. I believe that authenticity and originality vibrates at a much different frequency. People feel that shit, it's undeniable. You have to reach people. Be vulnerable.

Your art has always grabbed me by the throat. It generates a profound internal energy and provides me the same feelings I experience when I view a Dalí. Is there an integral pattern for authenticity that you use for every time for every theme?

There isn't really a pattern or strict way of doing things. I just try to be open to the message of the piece. You wanna be true to it and not allow much ego to slip in. It's not about me. I'm just the artist. The message is the point.

I will say that I don’t like to make kinetic work that just moves. My kinetic pieces are not gimmicks. I want the movement to act like a color which elicits emotion. I want the movement to tell a story. A kinetic piece that just moves for the sake of moving isn’t that compelling to me. It cheapens the potential of kinetic work. 

Circling back to your website, I'm fascinated by the metal clouds that have the steel raindrops connected underneath. I think the piece is called “Into Every Life.” Did the concept just hit you for that piece, or was it commissioned?

That’s actually a perfect segue.  It was a piece that I started when my sweet dog Mia died. It was so terribly sad. I would go into the studio and begin to work on it and would just cry. I had to put it up on a shelf and let it sit for a while. Around a year later I came across it and was able to finish it. The name comes from the song “Into every life some rain must fall.”  It’s about grieving. When you pull the switch, the metal raindrops move up and down. It's a pretty special piece to me and Mia.

click to enlarge 'I don’t look at pain as something that needs to be 'fixed': St. Petersburg artist Frank Strunk III on depression, anxiety and obsession
Dave Decker

How has the pandemic affected your business, your creative process?

I’m lucky. I get to come to my studio every day, get my hands dirty and hope the muse visits. This pandemic thing is just bizarre in a kind of slow-motion-trauma way. My friend Harry Nash died in this pandemic, and his death was totally unnecessary. So many people have died unnecessarily. I’m experiencing many emotions, like everybody, and also it gives me time to tap into those emotions and explore some of my deep rage, especially around injustice and the absolute trainwreck of this administration. I mean, my Dad is 89. I worry about him.  Something will definitely come out of these emotions. Stuff is percolating. My creative process is a coping mechanism for me, luckily. I escape into my art. I mean, the fascists are here, and that’s heavy shit, but I can keep showing up for my people and for myself. 

How are you doing?

Day to day really. Each sunrise is a blessing. I hope they keep coming. I have a community. I have people. It’s hard not to hug people. Time marches on, and some days are better than others. 

You mentioned you take unfinished pieces home to critique them while they are still being designed to study them in the off hours in your day to day.

I like to live with some things for awhile. Some things come out fully formed, like Athena, but other times, I need to create a connection. Wait for it to reveal itself. Again, I have support. I know many artists who I can go to with questions. For example, clay artist Calan Ree is a genius at faces and how to place eyes. I asked her questions about “Pandemia.” Her input was critical, and she’s so generous and supportive. Robot Queen Sarah Thee Campagna encouraged me when I got stuck. She has a great sense of humor. I also got my buddy Josh Poll to make some glass eyes for some of the masks. I can get stuck in my head. My community is here for me when I ask, but other pieces are quieter and shyer. I’ll hang with them alone for a while. 

Have you ever grown so attached to a piece that you refused to sell it?

I have many times. Eventually, it finds a home. Keeping my art for myself isn't something I do anymore. It comes to me and through me for a reason. It's hard to think that the reason is for me to keep it for myself. I do love a good barter. Bartering with other artists delights me. I love my art collection. I love the work of Calan, Sarah, Josh, Coralette Damme… I still can’t believe I have David Williams paintings in my collection Some day I’ll have a Carolina Cleere. Bonita Barlow. Chris Kaufman. There’s so much good shit out there.

As a side note, and this isn't really a question, but we honestly need to document the "Sparks" video project we were discussing and make huge slo-mo sparks scream on to subjects whatever they may be. Now for the question: What is the most incendiary creative experience you have ever engaged in? And do you have scars? 

Quite literally, if you haven’t felt a piece of hot slag sear the tender part between your toes, I question whether you actually are a welder. Last year, I did a wearable art show with the Dunedin Fine Art Center. It ended up being somewhat of a spontaneous tribute to my pal Casey. I collaborated with a bunch of artistic friends and the sum was so much greater than the individual parts. Not to be hyperbolic, but it was magical.

I will forever be grateful for my collaborative show with David Williams in 2002. It was as electric an experience as I’ve ever had. He’s such a pro, he’s brilliant, and he’s a big influence on me. I love that man. It was no trouble at all working with him. He shows up with his best, and he legitimately made me a better artist. I have no scars from working with him, unless you count the time he tried to wrestle me when we had a little too much Knob.

click to enlarge 'I don’t look at pain as something that needs to be 'fixed': St. Petersburg artist Frank Strunk III on depression, anxiety and obsession
Dave Decker

Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you up to the minute news on how Coronavirus is affecting Tampa and surrounding areas. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.

Subscribe to our newsletter and follow @cl_tampabay on Twitter. Follow Creative Loafing Tampa Bay on Google News, too.

About The Author

Dave Decker

Dave Decker is a songwriter and photographer living in Tampa Bay.

Scroll to read more Local Arts articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.