Chris Buzelli Gets Weird with ProPublica and Vanity Fair
After serving two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit Fred Steese was finally offered freedom but only if he would take responsibility for the crime. He agreed to the certainty of freedom but will always remain a convicted killer thanks to a quagmire of nightmarish ethics and entrenched professional misconduct. Megan Rose brought this twisted story to ProPublica in coordination with Vanity Fair, and they needed an artist who could bring out the surrealism of the situation while matching the emotional power of the story to create imagery that would match the piece. They asked Chris Buzelli. “I wanted to go for a David Lynch kind of a feel for this one, just because after reading it I felt like it was such an incredibly twisted story, and what’s happening to this guy and what’s still happening to this guy just seems unreal,” says Chris. Steese was previously involved with the victim, Gerard Soules, a famous retired trapeze artist and master poodle wrangler. The Las Vegas performer had been stabbed more than 35 times, and even though Steese was almost 700 miles away at the time of the murder, cops and judges all but colluded to bury him. 20 years later he’s trying to rebuild his life.
Chris had to wrap together all the bizarre elements of the story into a single composition and that meant creating a sort of triage of impact, and then filling the rest out with the strange details. “Of course, the immediate visual that was really intriguing was the murder, the murder mystery, and the fact that the guy who was killed was the poodle king in Vegas,” explains Chris. The seemingly fictional nature of the story, plus the Las Vegas element, is why Chris put everything on stage. The “Poodle King”s crown sits atop the skull that dominates the story, with his dogs doing their tricks (including one juggling knifes, like the knife that entered Soules dozens of times), and Steese watching from the wings: a member of the audience thrust on stage against his will. And then trapeze apparatus hang from the rafters. “Soules was actually one of the most famous trapeze performers and I thought having those empty trapeze things would be perfect to insinuate that he’s no longer there,” Chris explains.
At a time when the art world (and most worlds, really) are becoming increasingly digital, Chris has tried to stay as analog as possible, painting all his work on canvas by hand. It’s thanks to publications like ProPublica and Vanity Fair who invest in work like Chris’ that he’s able to keep his medium immediate and flourishing. “They’re doing this really great thing where they design this really great page for the actual article, and they want that image to really to be one of the main parts of the story,” Chris explains. “I’m sort of living in the flux between print and web and it’s just so great to see someone doing this web format magazine and still giving illustration the same sort of emphasis and place in a good way.” The investment was so immediate that the author of the piece, Megan Rose, even bought the original. It’s a credit to his ability to interpret stories in unique ways that so many are drawn to his work. But Chris refuses to take credit in that way, saying, simply: “I’m lucky.”