By Lillie Eastham
On most nights, Waz Blankenship, 62, can be found in his basement, surrounded by 10,000 of his favorite records and the painted faces of dead and tortured artists.
His birth name is Warren, but Blankenship insists that Warren simply doesn’t exist anymore.
“LSD taught me to paint,” says Blankenship. He took his first art class in high school, to avoid taking Spanish, and has been painting ever since.
Today, Blankenship only uses old plywood and house paint to create his artwork. Recently, his artwork was featured at local art gallery Art Matters.
“I just think his process is great,” says Teresa Christmas, the owner of the art gallery.
Blankenship works seven days a week at a factory. At night, he descends into his man cave where it is not uncommon to find him drunk on Facebook Live, talking about his records and whatever painting he is working on. Because of this he says he rarely gets sleep, a fact he seems unbothered by.
“He will stare at the woodgrain until the rock star emerges,” Christmas says.
Blankenship was born in Long Island but spent his time after graduating high school hitchhiking across the United States, following the Grateful Dead on tour.
The tour ended in Florida, and that’s when Blankenship settled in the Florida Keys.
There, he met Kathy, aka K.O., his wife of over 20 years. He sometimes has trouble remembering exactly how long they’ve been married, but he says that the fact that they still are is really all that matters.
Shot glasses lined up on their kitchen wall display the date of the wedding, in case he really needs to know.
“There is such a thing as love at first sight,” says Blankenship. When he first saw her he was going into a grocery store as she was leaving with her mother. He marched right up to her, pointed and said, “I’m gonna marry you.”
“Supposedly he said that,” says K.O., as she rolls her eyes and unloads her groceries in the kitchen. She is particularly excited because she found boxes of Peeps at the store, her favorite food.
Each of them has a matching flame tattoo on their ring finger, in lieu of wedding rings because Waz lost his a month after they were married.
Together the two of them built a life in the Florida Keys.
“If you wanted to find me I was either at home or at the bar,” Blankenship says. Their door was always open and they built a strong community around them.
Then they moved to Smiths Grove in 2010, right before Christmas, where Waz says there are more churches than bars, to his chagrin.
Initially, they moved to Smiths Grove to be with a friend. However, the friend later committed suicide, leaving the couple largely alone to navigate their new community.
“People here are so judgmental,” says K.O., who says that they have struggled to find friends. When they moved to town, her routine of walking their dog, R.D., down the street with a bottle of wine in hand seemed to bring the neighbors pause.
Despite their fish-out-of-water feelings about Smiths Grove, their home remains a testament to their determination to stand out.
Waz’s man cave is lined with his vast record collection. An old refrigerator in the corner holds the ones that no longer fit, along with a stack of love letters his dad wrote to his mom.
Any empty wall has been embellished with Waz’s paintbrush, and one unfinished painting lies hidden in a corner. It’s a painting of Waz and K.O., but Waz says he can’t finish it until one of them dies. He only paints dead subjects because he says dead people can’t get mad at you.
Their dining room chandelier has a skull and a peace sign dangling above it all.
Waz walks around his house with his skull mug in hand, filled with his signature drink of Kentucky Gentleman whiskey and ginger. He sometimes adds a maraschino cherry, but only when he’s feeling fancy.“I’m a professional,” says Waz, when it comes to his drinking habit. He says he drinks about a gallon of whiskey a week. He says that being under the influence of something is integral to his creative process, and everything he’s tried to paint sober has been awful.
While he used to depend on drugs such as LSD and acid for his highs, he has switched to alcohol and marijuana as he has gotten older.
“People who don’t drink — I feel sorry for them,” says Waz, who estimates his last hangover was in 1974.
Waz also loves to cook and has a variety of recipes that integrate this with his love of drugs. Two of his signatures are marijuana wine and marijuana pasta.
Tonight, however, he is cooking his beer butt chicken and orange mashed potatoes. The beer butt chicken, a chicken cooked with a partially filled beer inside of it, is a popular recipe, but Waz insists he thought of it first.
The orange mashed potatoes came about one day when he was cooking mashed potatoes but realized he had no milk. Naturally, he went for the next best thing: orange juice. The results were a hit, and he’s been doing it ever since.
Tonight, Waz’s friend Joe Helms and his girlfriend Cerenah Patterson are joining them for dinner.
Waz took Helms under his wing when they met while working at a factory together. Helms reminded him of himself when he was in his 20’s.
The first time Waz invited him over for dinner, Helms said Waz refused to give him an address and instead drew him a map. A common theme; Waz also has a map tattooed on his arm which he uses for illustration when telling his life story.
Waz considers Helms, 26, to be a son, since he and K.O. never had children of their own. He says they never had kids because then he wouldn’t be able to have all of his records.
“They make me comfortable with the idea of getting old,” Helms says of spending his evenings with the Blankenships.
As everyone settles in for dinner a heated argument soon starts up between Waz and Patterson. The issue at hand? Rap music.
“Bullsh*t talking, that’s my definition of rap music,” says Waz. He soon convinces everyone to gather in the basement to listen to, in his opinion, the only tolerable rapper, Lou Reed. While everyone disagrees that Lou Reed can be classified as a rapper, they gamely listen to the record.
As the evening winds down, he picks out more of his favorite records, detailing the history of each. He shows Helms and Patterson his latest work, a painting of the creature from the black lagoon with a sunset on the back.
As the records spin in his beloved man cave, Waz has one final thought.
“I like my music. I like my paintings. I like screwing with people’s heads.”