Julian St. John, an artist who has struggled with mental illness, sits among his most notable work that will be showcased at a one-night show at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art. (DON LEACH, Coastline Pilot / March 20, 2013)

Julian St. John's portrait "Crucifix Dreamz" looks lonely and haunted, not unlike the circumstances that created it.

The image, mostly in blue pen, features a bearded man with ringed, blood-shot eyes staring almost vacantly at the viewer. Over his white face, from the forehead down to the left cheek, are words that form a miniature poem: "Pain is my love shun'd by the herd like a bird sent down from above."

Across the nose is etched an affirmation: "I stay lookin up."

St. John, who will display 17 pieces Friday at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art, drew "Crucifix Dreamz" in a park bathroom in Canoga Park, where he lived several months ago. It wasn't a case of homelessness due to poverty; St. John is the son of a champion boxer and an Emmy-winning actor.

Instead, the artist, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic at age 18, left home voluntarily and lived an itinerant life for more than a year. Sometimes, his family tracked him down, housed him temporarily or set him up in hotels; other times, they had no idea where to find him. But with St. John committed to his medication now and his one-man show set to open, he considers himself on an upswing.

Not that he's about to crow just yet.

"I just showed it to my mom and she hooked it up," the 23-year-old said outside the gallery earlier this month, when asked how he went from being a transient to a headliner in Laguna Beach in just a few months.

Even though he's a star of sorts at LGOCA, St. John seems blase about the attention lavished on him. When the doors open Friday, though, he may have some high-profile attention. Among those who plan to attend are his mother, boxer Mia St. John; his father, Kristoff St. John, of "The Young and the Restless" fame; and Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, who has partnered with Mia to push for a bill improving mental health care in schools.

Napolitano, who joined forces with Mia three years ago, said she has only met Julian once but considers him an inspiration for her cause.

"To be a noteworthy and talented artist is kind of a role-model situation for others," she said.


Forging a crooked path

Growing up in Calabasas as the son of an actor and a boxer, Julian seemed destined for art and sports. He got there, but not by taking the paths his parents had chosen.

With his father a daytime soap fixture, the St. Johns' oldest child had a rare connection to the entertainment industry. His father, though, was keen on dissuading him from an acting career.

"I do my best to warn people about Hollywood and the pitfalls of the business," Kristoff said. "My son was no different."

Instead, he and Mia, who have since divorced, found other diversions for their creatively inclined son. Kristoff served as his coach for one sport after another: tee ball, soccer, Pop Warner football. At home between games, Julian let his imagination run wild on paper, inventing his own characters and worlds.

Specifically, he remembers the Froots. Midway through elementary school, Julian created a group of brightly colored characters who "always had a smile on their face" and worked them into comic-book narratives. One story had a Froot stumbling on a black-and-white town and introducing color to it.

That enthusiasm, though, didn't always show up in the classroom. Sometimes, Julian himself didn't seem to be entirely there. According to his father, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder early on, and then a series of other diagnoses followed: Asperger's, autism, bipolar. At 18, the diagnosis changed to schizophrenia.

By that time, school was in Julian's past. He had attended high school for parts of the ninth and 10th grade, then spent time in a psychiatric hospital in Texas. Julian has only vague memories of the years before he turned 21. According to his parents, he was institutionalized more than once, but what most sticks in his memory is that he lived at home in between, worked on hip-hop music and drew.

At least, that's all from real life that stands out. He remembers some of his delusions as well: At times, Julian believed he was traveling back in time, not to any historic period, but to his own teenage years. After one more hospital stay, Julian set out on his own without a job, a high school diploma or any concrete plans.