Halifax-based artist Jon Claytor had been an oil painter his whole adult life before he traded the paint brush for an iPad stylus and became a digital comic-writer. His shift began with a cross-country drive and his struggle to get sober after years of alcohol addiction. Now he has a graphic novel coming out next year about both journeys, has written comics for the CBC about student life during the pandemic and is working on graphic novels about the Sixties Scoop.
As an oil painter, Claytor worked with Ingram Gallery in Toronto and exhibited his work in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. But around 2012, he felt that his career had peaked; the paintings weren’t bringing in the same money they used to. In 2013, he opened a bar called Thunder and Lightning in Sackville, N.B., where he was living at the time.
Of his former careers, he says, “I call them booze jobs. I was a stay-at-home parent, and I was an artist, and then I opened a bar. I always made sure I had a job I could drink at.”
He sold the bar in 2016, realizing it wasn’t healthy for him. It wasn’t until a suicide attempt in 2018, though, that Claytor stopped drinking. “I knew if I wanted to live, I was going to have to get sober.”
He got an addictions counsellor, joined a 12-step program and talked to other alcoholics. “That was the moment my life began to change,” he says. “What had sort of gotten me sober was listening to other people tell their stories.”
In September, 2019, he was a year and a half sober and accepted a residency in Cassiar Cannery, near Prince Rupert, B.C. He used the opportunity to try writing comics because of the role storytelling played in getting him sober.
He decided to drive himself to the residency, all the way from Sackville. “It was kind of like a self-centred navel-gazing exercise for a middle-aged white guy,” he says, laughing. He reflected on his addiction, sobriety and life up to that point as his road-trip soundtrack of Neil Young and the Fugees played in the background.
He documented his musings in the style of a graphic novel, posting several of the stories to his Instagram page. They depict him reflecting on his childhood, alcoholism, relationships (several of which he admits “imploded” because of the addiction) and suicide attempt.
He was born in San Francisco, and his parents came to Canada when he was a baby. He moved a lot as a kid and then again as adult, living in Sackville, Montreal and Toronto. He had three kids with his first wife and two kids with his second long-term partner.
Claytor didn’t just spend the drive reconnecting with himself. He stayed at friends’ places along the way, reaching out to people he had lost contact with because of the drinking. His adult son and daughter, who lived in Montreal and Toronto at the time, respectively, joined him for some legs of the drive. They discussed their experiences growing up and how his addiction affected them.
Throughout the trip, Claytor held art pop-ups across the country, displaying his paintings at various festivals and shows, to pay his way and fill his gas tank. One was in Kingston, where he met Greg Tilson, artistic director for the city’s annual Skeleton Park Arts Festival. Tilson invited him to do a residency in Kingston, drawing comics based on the people who live in the Skeleton Park neighbourhood. This opportunity would lead to what Claytor describes as an even bigger shift in his career than his cross-country drive.
After his time in B.C., Claytor returned to Sackville in March, 2020, just as COVID-19 shut the world down. He completed the Kingston residency virtually last spring, interviewing locals (found with Tilson’s help) for about 40 minutes to an hour over Zoom, then drawing comics based on their stories. The series has been released digitally and is available to view in print at the Elm Café in downtown Kingston. “It just felt like such a gift to be able to hear somebody’s story from beginning to end,” Claytor says. “I felt like I had discovered what I was meant to do.”
Claytor recently moved to Halifax, where his friend Cheyenne Henry lives. The two are in the early stages of creating graphic novels about Indigenous people affected by the Sixties Scoop and the intergenerational trauma it caused. Interview subjects include relatives of Henry, who is Ojibwe. Her mother, as well as her aunts and uncles, were split up and taken from their family in the 1960s.
Henry and Claytor met through a mutual friend and bonded through their experiences of addiction and sobriety. “He’s very intuitive and smart,” Henry says of Claytor. “I think it’s important when you’re working with Indigenous peoples ... to be a good listener, and Jon already is.”
For Claytor, all roads lead back to sobriety and the support system that he found in recovery.
“That’s the main focus of my life … sobriety and that community comes first for me, and these other things have fallen into my lap.”
Claytor just celebrated three years of being sober. It is a constant challenge, he says, but he knows how to get back on track when he’s struggling: human connection. “Storytelling saved my life.”