Self-Love in the Time of Corona: Daniel Crook

Conversations with creatives on finding themselves through self-love while in the midst of a global pandemic.
Words and photography by Emily Berkey.

Los Angeles is a city for the dream chasers and the creatives who hustle to make ends meet. When the pandemic hit the city nearly a year ago and caused everything to shut down, life for most people came to an abrupt halt. Without the comfort of robust social lives and busy work schedules, artists were faced with sudden stillness. However, within that stillness came inevitable reflection, and it became the perfect time for major shifts in lifestyle. 

We met with three Los Angeles-based creatives, Daniel Crook, Enkrypt Los Angeles and Modi Oyewole to talk about their personal tragedies and journeys in taking care of themselves in the midst of a global health emergency. Our conversations on self-love and learnings of identity explore the details of human beings finding their way, and themselves, in uncertain times.

May these conversations serve as reminders that you are not alone on your journey.

As a musician, producer, visual artist and barista, Daniel Crook led an incredibly social life pre-pandemic. As the lead vocalist and keyist of his band Crook, he stayed busy by performing, playing residencies, recording new music and producing music videos and films. As a visual artist, he was regularly collaborating with people in person by having them sit for him in his studio as he painted depictions of their bodies, all while having in-depth interview-like conversations with his subjects. When he wasn’t creating art, Crook could be found working as a barista at Echo Park’s Stories Books and Cafe–a Los Angeles staple and notable bookstore and cafe that serves as an ever-bustling hub for Echo Park’s misfits and creative community. 

When COVID-19 hit L.A., Crook’s lifestyle, like those of many others, changed drastically. And, as if a major halt in his regular social routine wasn’t enough of a shift, Crook’s home town of Napa, California was absolutely decimated in the Napa Fires during the summer of 2020. We met with Crook at his home in Echo Park where he lives with his cats, Chiron and Farroe, and spoke about overcoming creative blocks, finding the silver lining in shifting creative processes and tapping back into his childhood self.

Tell me about what you do to fill your cup.

I meticulously work on art and music. For the first five months of the quarantine, I couldn’t do anything. I was completely frozen in time. Then, I was gifted a vocal looper and processor, and I started doing these meditative soundscapes–they weren’t songs, they were just things I could throw out and not be married to or have to think about…I could feel and use my voice as the only instrument, and that was really wonderful. It broke this stalemate that I was in. Then, I started writing songs again. And then the art–I started being able to do it. I started my next big endeavor: a coffee table book of sketches and graphite works called The Plague of Man

How has COVID-induced isolation changed your creative process?

Normally when I’m drawing, I have models and I like to work very directly with a person. My process involves an interview and a discussion. Now, I’m sourcing images that people send me on social media. 

The Plague of Man, which is all work that I’ve made during this time, is a compilation of drawings of people from all over the globe. I’ve worked with people in Vienna, Paris, Germany, Arizona. Lately, people of all backgrounds have been down to participate. There’s a closeted bisexual married man who saw my work and doesn’t have that kind of interaction with his own body, let alone with other queer people. I did three pieces of him because this was an avenue for him to explore that expression.

You’re creating in collaboration with people around the world during a global pandemic; it’s helping others experience new levels of self-appreciation, while also filling your cup.

Yeah, holding space for observation of their bodies that isn’t sexual. Maybe there is objectification in the fact that I’m observing their body as an art object, but it’s non-threatening, it’s non-dangerous. It is a different form of intimacy, which is one of the only forms of intimacy that we technicality should be having at this time–distant, but nonetheless intimate observation of one another. That’s what I’ve been focusing most of my time and attention on, how to expand that and provide that for as many people who will allow me to.

How has this time influenced your experiences of intimacy and closeness with yourself?

When I went into the pandemic, I was engaged to a friend. We were getting married for paperwork, but there was a very deep love and friendship that was non-sexual. And I can’t say non-romantic, but there was no possession or assumptions or titles–it was something that was very sweet and tender. We had been friends for almost a year before the engagement.

[Farroe jumps up onto me]

Literally all that he wants is to be on a person’s shoulder, like a parrot. If I don’t pick him up when I get home and put him on my shoulder, he will follow me around until I do.

Does having your cats here help you feel some sort of connection? 

Yes, I suppose. They’ve gotten me through a lot. I took my ex-fiancé up to meet my family in Napa Valley–it was inspiring for him and for me. Then, right when we returned, the pandemic hit head on. I’ve lived a very social life, which has been a self-defense mechanism, so that I don’t ever have to rely on anyone. It’s been a problem in all my relationships–my lovers can’t tell the difference between them and my friends in the way we interact. It’s all blurred lines.

It’s all intimate to you?

Wow, yes. It doesn’t decrease the value of what I have with my partners, but I think that the standard of intimacy, which I don’t agree with, sets it up to where they want more exclusivity. They want more time. And I’m just on the move. Yeah, when the pandemic hit, I was no longer on the run. I haven’t lived my life like this ever. 

So you could no longer live your life on the run?

Yeah. I’ve lived most of my life in motion, always with a creative output and with the goal of nurturing and fostering communities and introducing people to one another that I think could benefit one another, emotionally or physically. So all of a sudden, the world shuts down. I quarantined exclusively with my then-fiancé to protect him and keep him safe. But then he became the only person in my orbit and I didn’t know how to deal with it, how to cope with it. I became very unwell. You know, I institutionalized myself a couple times. It got to be out hand, and I’d spun to a place that I couldn’t sustain. I couldn’t even feel my skin. 

Photography by Emily Berkey.

Wow. So during this pandemic, you checked yourself into somewhere that could help you?

Twice. Yeah, [a] mental hospital. But then, you know, there were a slew of other really nasty tragedies that hit all at the same time. It was too much for me, and it was too much for my then-fiancé, so he left to go back to Paris. And then, it was just me. I went back into intensive therapy three days a week, three hours each time, and I’m still in it. I’ve drastically cut down and refocused how I socialize. I don’t see very many people still. That first step was very difficult, but right now, I feel like I’ve kind of gone back to my childhood. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and I’ve been running from that, to get as far away from it as possible because it was an unsafe place. But now, I feel like the people who belong here in my life have to prove it, whereas beforehand, I was very much open arms. “You’re welcome here. Come on in. My house is your house. My food is your food. My car is your car.”

It’s interesting hearing you say that you’ve gone back to your childhood. You’ve shared with me that your home town and all of the physical memories of your childhood were decimated in the Napa fires this summer. How did that happening drive you further into practicing self-love, self-care, and self-preservation?

At first, it didn’t. I relapsed really hard, and I just was doing drugs every day, all day. I wasn’t really capable of processing anything and I started lashing out at people. I’ve harmed people along the way, you know? Watching the fires happen, it was almost like this big grand finale, watching in real time. My childhood home, my father’s home, almost my mother’s home, all my friends’ homes and their families…losing everything. It was a really hard reset. 

Was it after that you were like, wait, I need to tap back into my childhood self?

I had been doing that work off and on for two years. But the fires were almost like, the coming-to-ahead. It was like, Okay, that’s that. Your history doesn’t exist in an image anymore. I remember when I was losing it one night, I said to the man that I was engaged to, “I feel like an infant, I don’t even know how to process or handle or manage my emotions right now. I feel fucking crazy.” I’d never been like that; even through the most extreme parts of my childhood, I was able to be a rock with both feet on the ground. But in the stillness of the quarantine, I couldn’t be. My skin was still, but everything inside it was thrashing. I think that the fire was a symbolic conclusion to me, and I was finally like, Okay, you’ve cried and cried, and thrashed and harmed yourself and others. You can’t keep doing this, you have to figure something else out. And it was then that therapy started to sink in and I started actually being able to implement new processes that are currently very beneficial. 

In what ways has your relationship with yourself evolved this year?

I became more at ease with stillness.

Lastly, what do you wish younger Daniel knew about self-love?

Anything. Wow. Anything. He didn’t know anything about it. I started punishing my body with drugs when I was 12 and I didn’t stop until my liver failed when I was 19. I stopped for 14 years. I’ve reimplemented certain things, and sometimes they get out of hand and sometimes they don’t. When they get out of hand, I’ve become exceptionally good at cutting it off and quitting again. 

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