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Artists’ Utopia

He Helped Build an Artists’ Utopia. Now He Faces Trial for 36 Deaths There.

Max Harris did chores and collected rent at the artists’ warehouse where he lived. Now he faces trial for the deaths at a concert there including some of his close friends.

Dec. 12, 2018

Once a week, Max Harris is allowed to leave his 6-by-12-foot cell to go outside. The first thing he does, before the other inmates arrive in the small cement yard in Santa Rita Jail, is run around and yell, “Safari!” as he picks up all the bugs the furry moths with leopard spots, the grasshoppers in jade armor. He wants to move them out of harm’s way before other men in red-and-white-striped jumpsuits start playing basketball. Sometimes he’ll find a honey bee in distress, lost and spinning in a circle, and he’ll give it a little water, or water mixed with apple jelly, if he can find a half-eaten packet. “It nourishes it,” he says. Or, he’ll see a moth with cobweb stuck on its antenna, and he’ll calmly, lovingly remove it. Each life is precious. Each life is beautiful. Harris, a vegan since age 14, believes this to his core. To Harris, even a fruit fly pirouetting in his cell is a miracle. “It’s like a dog,” he told me. “A little Labrador or something. It’s different, but it’s still this little shard of life. It’s still this spark of divinity in this moving work of art.”

Harris has lived in this jail in Dublin, Calif., for 18 months now. Before his arrest, he lived in Oakland, in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse filled with artists. There, near his bed, in his live-work space, a spider built a nest. He named the spider Norbit, and when Norbit’s eggs hatched he named the babies Hexbit, Drillbit, Babybit and so on, and he let them stay too. In the warehouse, Harris believed that he found, for the first time, a true home for his artistic dreams, a place that sanctified creativity as he felt it should be sanctified. And he did find beauty there. But he also found a darkness blacker than anything he could ever have imagined. When I met him, last spring, his long face looked drawn, the moon tattoo on his left cheek distorted under the gravity of his sadness. His limbs drooped off his 6-foot-3 frame like the branches of a willow tree. Plugs, made from the tops of hot-sauce bottles, filled the sagging, hollowed-out lobes of his ears. He is 29, but his hair, once blue, once mohawked, once dreadlocked, is streaked with gray.

In the heavy months awaiting trial, Harris has been trying to hang on to his gentleness. He has been trying to grow his compassion, so that something, anything, positive might come of all this grief. He studies Zen Buddhism. He keeps the Jewish Sabbath. He prays to his Christian God. He switches the TV from Fox News or football to Animal Planet when the other inmates, who tell him he’s like a butterfly, can tolerate it. Yet life can be cruel, and even a person striving toward right thought can set off cascades of events that go incomprehensibly awry. One day in September, Harris told me that a fellow inmate found a praying mantis in the yard. The inmate cupped it in his hands, this bright green marvel. Harris thought it was one of the most spectacular things he’d ever seen. The inmate who found the insect wanted to take it to his cell to keep as a pet. Harris intervened. “No, man,” he said, “how could you bring someone else into incarceration?”

The inmate returned the praying mantis to the ground. “Two days later we went out to the yard and the thing was completely flat,” Harris said, shocked by the destruction. “It’s like, How do you miss that? It’s beautiful.”

The night before Harris graduated from college, in May 2012, he shaved the left side of his head and gave himself his first face tattoo: the letters M A X, extending from the crown of his head to his left eyebrow. This was a “job stopper,” he told me, a branding of sorts, a vow to remain exiled from the mundane world of workaday jobs and devoted to a life of art.

Harris grew up in Enfield, Conn., an only child in a modest condo complex with few other children. He sneaked out as often as he could to play with the kids on a neighboring street where, he said, there were “actually houses, and they had yards.” Louise Harris, Max’s mother, was employed, on and off, as a goldsmith or a salesperson in jewelry shops. Harris’s father worked as a diesel mechanic, but he had a hard time holding down jobs because he struggled with reading, many basic tasks and his temper. Harris’s relationship with both his parents was always upside down. When Harris was 5, his parents got into a heated fight, and his mother came to Harris to seek advice. She marveled at the brilliance of his counsel. “I wasn’t just born to make you happy,” Harris, the kindergartner, said. “I was born to give you wisdom.” Five years later, Harris’s mother lost a pregnancy at six months, and she leaned on Max for comfort. “With Max,” Louise told me, “it was more a matter of me following him than me leading him.”

At 13, Harris started wearing his hair in a mohawk. At 14, his parents divorced, and his father became addicted to drugs and alcohol. At 16, a junior in high school, Harris took his first studio art class and, like a cure in epoxy, it transformed and gave solidity to his life. His art teacher soon told his mother that her son “had greatness.” At night, in his carpeted basement bedroom, alongside the cats’ litter box and a TV he refused to watch, Harris painted until sunrise. He didn’t view art as an interest or something he was good at. He defined it as “a state of being.”

At Massachusetts College of Art and Design, he studied everything: painting, photography, sculpture, metalsmithing, video art. Outside class, he played and composed music: industrial jazz, future classical and surreal glockenspiel. Along with technique, his professors taught him what would prove to be their most indelible lesson: the value of living in collaborative, creative spaces. In a contemporary-art-history class, he studied Andy Warhol’s Factory, John Cage’s early happenings. He seized on the importance of artists inspiring one another, cross-pollinating and fueling their ideas by living under one roof.

After graduating, Harris moved to the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, into a $450-a-month, shower-with-a-watering-can live-work space in an old schoolhouse. He thought of himself “as a kind of character,” he says, an artistic monk. For a few months, through the end of 2012, Harris paid his rent by working as a tattoo artist and by selling (while dressed as outlandishly as possible) gemstone-on-hemp-string necklaces in Union Square. Then the schoolhouse was sold, and he had to move out. He bought a copy of “Art/Work: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) as You Pursue Your Art Career.” Right there on Page 22 it said: “While artist loft sometimes means ‘expensive condo,’ there are still warehouses full of artists’ studios across the country. If you don’t have a studio building in your area, take matters into your own hands and create one.”

In the summer of 2012, three “hippie-yoga-craftspeople friends” told Harris that they could all get jobs in a cafe in Golden, Colo. Harris threw a couple of duffel bags in their van to join their road trip. But when they arrived in Colorado, the guy who was supposed to employ them was not even at the cafe, which itself didn’t really exist. So they kept meandering west. Harris imagined the road trip would be easier; his co-travelers argued over things he thought should be peaceful, like arcana about the Grateful Dead. Finally, the next summer, they arrived in Humboldt County, Calif., and found work on a pot farm. After a few months, he took a bus to Oakland to visit a friend.

The day Harris arrived happened to be First Friday, Oakland’s monthly art crawl down Telegraph Avenue. Harris’s friend took him to a warehouse in West Oakland that was built out like a maze, a toy. This, he told me, was exactly the “sort of utopian artist collective dream think