By Kathleen Downey
“An ideal day would be seeing Big Foot,” Tristan DeWitt declares. “Yeah, Sasquatch,” he adds, lest there be any uncertainty about the ape-like creature of lore. He’d also love to visit the Redwood Forest “before it’s gone.” DeWitt allows that he could feasibly achieve both his goals by combining the two as a destination travel package to the Northwestern United States.
It can be difficult to gauge whether DeWitt is being wry or serious. A scholar of philosophy and psychology who is piqued by literary theory and who enjoys reading literary criticism and the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, DeWitt holds daily court at Plum Island Coffee Roasters. There, in the boatyard café, he pours bold coffee and serves either nonsense ponderings or brilliant meditations, depending on the perspective of his clientele, who often invite him to pull up a chair.
“Yeah, I convinced Bruce [café owner Bruce Vogel] to hire me,” DeWitt says, smiling.
A Byfield native, the thirty-one-year-old Beatnik-latte-intellectual with the Beatle-mop haircut and penchant for brightly colored eyeglass frames is an alumnus of Phillips Academy, Andover. After graduating from the exclusive prep school, DeWitt traveled to Haiti on a humanitarian mission with the group, Partners in Development. “Tendercrop Farms, where I was working at the time, organized the trip,” he says. He also visited London through a trip organized by the Harvard Extension School, where DeWitt had been taking an English course.
Ultimately, he would head off to further his academic studies at the University of Chicago, where he would graduate with honors.
“I had planned to become a social worker, but I changed my mind while in grad school,” DeWitt says. He remained in Chicago and worked as a researcher for a law professor. DeWitt allows now that time and perspective have led him to consider returning, at some point in the future, to his sidestepped career pursuit.
“I returned to Massachusetts in 2008,” says DeWitt, “and spent a year writing poetry and painting.” He also got into making music videos, something that he was introduced to years before at Phillips Academy. “I really like the medium; the creative decisions, as well as the pragmatic decisions, appeal to me,” DeWitt explains.
One practice that DeWitt does not like is symbolism.
“Ehhh . . . I hate symbolism!” he states strongly, loud enough for a Yankee Homecoming senior visitor seated at the park bench next to us to take notice. The gentleman interjects a benign comment and then pretends not to listen.
But the several women who have taken a seat at the bench on other side of us have clearly settled in to enjoy the show.
DeWitt is now standing, alternately taking a drag on his cigarette and gesturing with the full range of his other arm as he rails against symbolism. “The clarity of symbolism is proportional to a community,” he asserts. “Symbolism becomes reduced through its layers. Ultimately, the use of symbolism ends up alienating the people it’s supposed to reach.”
It’s not clear whether the women seated on the bench are on the verge of applause or flight.
As passionately opposed he is to symbolism, DeWitt passionately embraces the use of imagery to convey mood, a thought, a feeling.
He cites dream logic, poetic verse, and music as conduits of imagery and adds, “It [an image] is just what it is, what it means to you through your own intuition.”
DeWitt’s embrace of imagery complements and stokes his interest in the esoteric nature of alchemy. “I like the emphasis that alchemy places on the early stages of humankind,” he says, which include the philosophical and spiritual development of the soul.
His newest passion is freelance photography, and DeWitt’s associations in the music world have provided him with musicians as subjects.
“My first published photo, and first photo credit, is in Russian Guitar Magazine,” DeWitt shares. “I photographed Doug Blair, guitarist for the band W.A.S.P.”
But he’s just as enthusiastic about a wedding that he will be photographing in two weeks, as he is when his subjects are rock and roll royalty. “I love the challenges provided in every photo shoot . . . getting just the right image quality, making it all work,” DeWitt states.
Throughout our conversation, DeWitt has been alternately droll, deadpan, at times bordering on goofy, and consistently engaging.
I wonder the degree of emphasis he places on humor. “A sense of humor is as important as life and death!” DeWitt answers forcefully and matter-of-factly. Especially, he adds, to “his people.”
His people? DeWitt candidly shares that he a recovering addict. “Two years clean,” he states with distinction. The impetus for his sobriety, he says, was his realization that his life was “dishonest.” His image of himself had become an unsavory caricature.
These days, instead of filling his body with drugs or alcohol, DeWitt nurtures it with healthy foods and organic juices. He’s a frequent visitor to Mandarava organic juice bar and café. (In fact, DeWitt had been sitting in the café’s window seat when he graciously allowed himself to be dragged outside for this interview).
DeWitt’s reclaimed life includes a girlfriend, Stephanie, whom he praises as a “pretty terrific artist.”
I offer to wait until he’s finished his latest cigarette (I’ve lost count!), prior to snapping his photograph. But DeWitt is insistent that his photograph convey an image of himself, just as he is. “Let’s keep it honest,” he says, taking a drag on his cigarette and offering a wry and intelligent smirk.
Kathleen Downey is the Features Editor for Newburyport Today. If you are a townie or a citizen who would like to be profiled (or to suggest someone to profile), or if you have an idea for a feature story, please email: Kathleen@Newburyport-Today.com.