Scott Sorensen is an artist, activist, and master of alternative accommodations currently living in Jackson, Mississippi. He lives in a tent in a friend’s backyard (he was there first) and has been there for two years and counting. He paints, smokes, paints, sleeps, works with Occupy Jackson, bemoans the oppressive heat (in all senses of that word), sells paintings, works on his tent, works on other assorted projects, climbs trees, and goes to town. He doesn’t have a mortgage, he doesn’t pay rent, doesn’t have 9 to 5. Doesn’t have a car payment. No utilities. It should be noted, however, that he also doesn’t have a house or a car–but he has recently started building a kayak. To put it mildly, he is a very intriguing cat.
It has only been a little over two years since I moved to California from Mississippi–where Sorensen and I have a lot of mutual friends–but we have never met face to face. However, we are friends on Facebook and I quickly became intrigued by Sorensen’s status updates for a number of reasons: 1) he shares my scorn for the debt slavery system, 2) he is a talented painter, 3) he is brutally candid about his experiences, and 4) he is more than “off the grid”–he has removed himself as much as possible from the wearying, worrying, crazy-making hamster wheel of what passes for polite modern society.
That last point was what made me finally contact him for an interview, because while I gathered from his Facebook posts that his life outside the mainstream lacks the numbing comforts of an existence with all mod cons, it was also clear that—to a large degree–he has escaped the clutches of the debt-peddlers and the modern slave merchants. And contrary to what those same debt-peddlers and slave merchants would have us believe about not having access to their version of how life ought to be, Sorensen’s life has neither ended nor became a horrible nightmare.
In fact, from the outside looking in, Sorensen seems to have achieved a freedom that people living dutifully within the system only think they have. Sorensen’s life has now become an act of resistance, and reading about it by status update on Facebook gave me hope that there is another way–that we don’t, as a people, have to accept the version of society that we are literally being sold. That opting out, while not easy, is not impossible. That maybe we can beat the system, or at least not let it beat us so badly.
I decided I had to know more about how Sorensen got to where he now is, in the hopes that it will inspire others as it has inspired me and given me hope. So I emailed Sorensen some general questions based on general information I had gleaned from his various Facebook posts, not sure how much he would say (since again, I only know him through Facebook even though we have a lot of mutual friends both on and offline), and thinking I would use any responses to those introductory questions as a jumping off point for further questions. To my pleasant surprise, Sorensen returned eloquently thorough responses to my initial queries, rendering further questioning redundant.
The most pressing question in my mind for Sorensen has always been how he came to live in a tent full-time, working as an artist, and whether that was a conscious choice on his part or simply what circumstance had led him to—or a little bit of both. After all, I already knew from Facebook that he was divorced and in the past he had problems with alcohol. I also knew that he had lost his house after the divorce.
To make a long story short, Sorensen confirmed all that in his responses to my questions. “My divorce wasn’t unique,” he said. “Our wiring was very different.” He acknowledged that he’d had problems with alcohol on and off since he was a teenager, and it finally got the best of him when he found the divorce papers: “I started drinking after work and even before work.” He met a woman—whom he refers to as “E.” in his responses—who moved in with him (his wife having been gone for about a year by that time). His ex-wife didn’t approve Sorensen’s new living arrangement: “…this was trouble because the house was technically owned jointly by both of us. She demanded that I throw E. out on the street. I refused. So she began to throw all our stuff into the street each night while I was at work.”
It is apparently at that point that Sorensen made a life-altering decision. He and E. packed their motorcycle and left the house after “an ugly confrontation” with Sorensen’s ex, and “rode away from that house to live in the woods.” He eventually quit his job and “began to sell art beside the road.” “I’m not a trained artist,” said Sorensen, “but I had been reading books and had practiced doing landscapes. These were pretty little things with real blue skies and real green trees—not very good color accuracy but they were drawn well. I would frame and mat them for about ten bucks each, and I would sell them right off the motorcycle for $75. We did all right. We did fine.”
Eventually though, E. had enough and left. “Honestly, the life we were living was brutal,” said Sorensen. He continued that life however, drinking and painting. “My drinking got wild,” he said. “I had become like an animal, but the painting didn’t suffer a bit for it.” It was a suicide attempt that finally, luckily brought him back from the brink. “Finally, one very hot miserable dirty broke day, I decided that life was too much. So I climbed a tree, said a prayer, put a rope around my neck, and jumped.” Fortunately, a kid saw what happened and got some help. Sorensen then spent three days in detox and upon his release stayed with a friend for a couple weeks, where “mostly I just cursed out the world and slept and drank coffee and smoked,” he said.
Sorensen then found his way to the yard where he now lives in his tent. “I painted in the mornings and slept in the afternoons, mostly.” His fortunes definitely turned around for the better: “People continued to buy art, and about a year ago I managed to land a solo exhibit at the Mississippi Arts Center,” he said. And then he answered that most pressing question of mine: “I continue to live in the tent because I hate the system. I just hate it with the blackest hate imaginable. But it won’t do anything to me ever again.”
Liberty Road Media: Where do you live?
Scott Sorensen: After I lost my house, my first “camp” was on the hill at Ridgewood and Lakeland, overlooking the River Hills Club. The land belongs to the Education and Research Center, and the view is spectacular. You can see for miles to the east, and the trees are pine so they smell good. Me and E. would sometimes build a small campfire late at night. I’m sure you could see it from the road, but we didn’t care. We packed our stuff each morning and didn’t leave a mess. Eventually some guy in a suit came up there and ran us off, so we began camping in the back of Fowler Boyll Park. We stayed there every night for about a year and we got to know a few of the neighbors. We didn’t leave a mess, and nobody seemed to care that we were there. Remember that we had the motorcycle then, so sometimes we camped in other spots. After E. left, the motorcycle just wore out. I think I had close to 80,000 miles on that little air-cooled engine. I sold it for six hundred bucks and drank up most of the money. After my hospitalization, I began camping in the back yard of an abandoned house. One morning I woke up and there was a moving van in the driveway. I heard voices and knew that I was busted. I packed up my gear and began walking up the driveway. To my surprise, a friend of mine was standing on the front porch. I had worked with her at W.C. Don’s bar. I asked her what she was doing there, and she said, “I’m moving in. What are you doing?” I told her I had been camping in the yard back there to avoid the cops. She replied that I could stay there as long as I wanted. Right now I guess it’s been a couple of years. It makes it easier not having to carry eighty pounds of gear around with me. I can go to restaurants and stuff.
SS: I’m still doing art. Each year I get a little better and more people buy paintings. I’m not any faster and my prices have not gone up much. Ten bucks maybe. My strategy has always been to do the best work within my ability and sell low. I feel that the system is rigged, but if people see my name on paintings all over Jackson, they will be forced to pay attention whether they want to or not.
LRM: How long have you been painting?
SS: With a brush, not long. In fact everything that me and E. sold was done in colored pencil. I had seen work done in crayon by an artist named Jeffrey Roberts, and I was surprised at how life-like they were. But the problem with crayons is when you run out of one color, you have to buy a whole ‘nother box. Colored pencils can be purchased individually as needed. They aren’t cheap, but they go a long way. The problem with working on paper though is that you have to baby it, and it requires a frame and mat. Often I’d finish one and wouldn’t have any money for a frame. So around October of 2007 I did my first acrylic painting on a piece of wood I got from the garbage. It was very nice–a painting of Scott Albert Johnson. Acrylic paintings don’t need glass or a mat. If you go to galleries, all the paintings–oil or acrylic–are framed without glass. This is because they are more durable. Bugs don’t eat paint, and acrylic is waterproof. About six months ago I built a geodesic dome out of cardboard and painted it with acrylic house paint. It made it through several rainstorms without leaking. The cardboard eventually got moist though, so I coated it with varnish. It’s still standing outside today, six months later. No leaks.
LRM: What is your typical day like?
SS: Not too many of those. I’m still at the mercy of the weather, and I have numerous projects going on at once. On bathing day I might paint in the morning, then go steal a bucket of water from a public faucet, warm the water over a fire, fill my shower bag, and take a bath in my outdoor shower stall. The whole process eats up a large part of the afternoon, but I’m not at the mercy of the shelters. On laundry day I either wash my clothes in a bucket and hang them, or I load them on a mountain bike and ride five miles to the nearest laundromat. It’s a very third-world existence, but there’s no sense of urgency really. After doing laundry I usually just go chill at Starbucks (sorry) and do internet. Other days I go to Sneaky Beans coffee house and paint until my eyes grow tired. I’ve been known to paint for twelve hours at a stretch, taking breaks only when I need a cigarette. So I don’t really have a typical day. Some days I just screw off and go rope climbing in the woods. I like to climb difficult trees.
LRM: Where do you see yourself in a year? In five years?
SS: In a year, hopefully, I’ll still be in my friend’s back yard. I have a large, roomy tent that sits underneath a steel-framed geodesic dome with a fifty-foot tarp over it. I get wifi and I have music and cool gadgets to play with. In fall and spring it’s pretty nice. At some point, though, I know I’ll have to move on. One possible strategy is to get a job but continue living off-grid until I can save up enough for an RV, or a stealth van with a small shower in the back. The problem with this is I don’t know if I can get insurance without a physical address. And insurance is mandatory. Laws often have a stated purpose and an unstated purpose. The unstated purpose of the mandatory insurance law might be to prevent homeless people from owning RV’s. I don’t know. But anyhow, there’s a plan B: Plan B is to search out public land and build a small cabin. This can be done without too much fuss–you get a level and some bricks, build a simple foundation, nail some pallets together, build the walls from pallets, and add a roof. Remember that the only requirement for a roof is that it blocks water. Shingles can be made from unwrapped beer cans, soda bottles split open and ironed flat, or just a tarp. Once it’s built, you can improve it.
LRM: Any memorable experiences as part of the Occupy movement?
SS: The biggest thing I remember about the Occupy movement is the sense of not being alone. I had been writing blogs on MySpace, and people seemed to like them. They sounded just like Occupy stuff. But really I felt alone. Then, when Occupy began, I was stunned. It was like a miracle. Thousands of people telling their stories, shutting down ports, shutting down bridges, and creating amazing artwork. Somehow I stumbled across Anonymous. I watched some videos. And I realized I wasn’t alone at all. We were going to change the world. And really, I think we will. Look, Occupy isn’t just another movement like the 60’s. It is a continuation of the 60’s movement. This is the struggle of humanity against greed and oppression, and thirty or forty years from now there will be yet another uprising, and another, and another. I don’t think we’ll ever reach Utopia, but we may reach something sustainable that most people can live with. If we don’t, there will be hell to pay. We could literally destroy the planet.
LRM: Are you happy with your choice to live outside the “normal” bounds of “the system?”
SS: Yes and no. I’ve solved the basic problems. I don’t eat out of dumpsters any more. On cold February days I bathe with warm water in a booth that gains 30 degrees from sunlight alone. I have super-duper gear and waterproof buckets to store it in. I never get cold, and I’m always busy learning. On the other hand, not too many people here think like I do. Jackson is the legal and medical center of the state. People like me are viewed as weird. Sure, I have admirers, but nobody’s really gonna make the leap unless it becomes easy. And right now, it’s not easy. And it can be lonely. I’m not very marketable on Match.com.
LRM: What are your views on banking and money?
SS: Quite simply, the banksters are scum. They don’t give two shits about anything but making money. They don’t care how many lives they destroy. They don’t care if you die under a bridge or howl in pain all night from an abscess tooth. They put little old ladies out on the street and toss their belongings in the trash. They sell the house to the highest bidder or simply board it up. They’re evil. However, they don’t see themselves as evil. They are sheltered in gated communities. They go to nice churches. They see themselves as entitled. They may know in some vague way that their policies are causing harm, but they justify it as “business.” They have to do it. They pay cops to scare off homeless people so they don’t have to look at them. They pay cops to throw out the little old ladies too. What we as a country need to do is show them the result of their policies. Stick it in their faces with art and writing and video. Leak secrets. Expose lies and corruption. Shame the cops.
LRM: What do you say to people who derisively ask you “Why don’t you get a job?”
SS: I got that a lot early on. I was drinking too much and I looked awful. People yelled things and scowled at me. I was aware of it. But I noticed something–they never looked at the artwork. They only looked at me and made assumptions. So when they yelled these things, I’d give them the finger or just ignore them. And then I would look at the artwork to get centered again. And then I would keep on painting. And really, they don’t have anything to bitch about because I haven’t accepted any taxpayer money. They aren’t really funding my lifestyle in any way. My goal has always been self-sufficiency, and if they set up obstacles to self-sufficiency, then they better get used to the homeless. But look, I gained a lot of perspective one night when me and E. were camping in the woods. It was bitter cold–in the teens. There had been a rain, and the ground was solid ice. It hurt to breathe. A fire was impossible because all the wood was frozen solid. And that night, I realized the system had failed. None of these naysayers were there to help if by chance we froze to death. And at that moment, more than any other moment, I stopped caring what they thought about me. I knew I was on my own. Once I got free of the booze, I kind of revisited this idea. I started making lists of all the immediate things in life that were uncomfortable. I started relaxing more. I bought gear that I needed. Today it’s a lot easier, and I try to remind myself it doesn’t matter what other people think. What are my immediate needs? Am I sleeping OK? Have I eaten? Do I have clean water? The focus has become less about escaping my situation and more about learning to thrive with what I’ve got. I might have said it before, but I’ll say it again–It’s better to ease into a situation like this than to just make the leap without being prepared for it. And when I’m in my warm sleeping bag at night, listening to some techno in my nice big tent, I realize it just doesn’t matter. I’m OK.
For more info on Scott Sorensen, visit his Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/scott.sorensen.714. If you know of someone who’d be a good subject for a Profile in Resistance, email me at leftbehindchildATgmail.com.