A is for Artist (A is also for Arsonist)

From brilliance to madness and beyond, Jacob Martinez's artistic and personal journey has taken him further than he'd ever dreamed. The fire inside now quelled by medication, the nightmare of his mental illness is over. But at what price?

Petra says she transferred him to the Christian fundamentalist school across the street from their house more for discipline than for religious reasons. "I'm not that religious; I believe in God, not candles and saints and altars," she says. "It was a good school, the children were very respectful and they had neat, conservative uniforms. I thought it was the best for him."

The school was as much of a prison as the Madison Street Jail would be, Martinez recalls. "We had no teacher, just these workbooks. We were all facing the wall and had dividers between us like these little cubicles. If we had a question, we'd stick a Christian flag in the little hole at the top of the cubicle and the principal or whoever would come by. If we wanted our work checked, we'd stick an American flag up."

He talks of being fined if he didn't attend church on Sunday, and of having his Encyclopedia Brown books taken away from him because Jesus wasn't a central character. "It was a horrible place."

Irvin Serrano

"The school is closed now. I guess in a way I closed it down," he says as he looks through the car window.

He closed the school down by burning it to the ground.

He looks out the car window at the rebuilt church and adjacent school building he once torched.


It was in the darkroom at Central High School that the world opened up for him. "Through the lens of my camera, I saw that college was a possibility. No one in my family ever went to college. I felt trapped growing up, I had nothing, no opportunities, nobody ever told me I could do anything."

The family home was crowded with Martinez's siblings, and as he grew older their actions angered him. They were doing drugs and freeloading off his mother, he says. It was a chaotic environment. One of his brothers was constantly in and out of prison, Martinez says. Another of his sisters, the mother of the nephew he cares for, was a crack addict. Another brother dealt drugs from the window of a neighborhood liquor store. "Jacob doesn't like my family," his mother explains, "but there was never anything I could do except pray. You can't change things, you can't change people."

His mother suffers from mental illness as well. She has been hospitalized for it in the past, and now takes Prozac and visits her psychiatrist regularly. "I suffered a lot with my first husband, and then with Jacob's father as well. I suffered so much I got sick. All of my children suffered, but Jacob and I are the only ones who take pills for our illnesses."

Martinez longed for a better life. He wanted to be an artist, and photography was the discipline he chose. "I wanted to tell the truth, and I thought the camera was a way to capture honesty. I wanted to be a photojournalist and travel the world telling other people's stories." Above all, he says, "I wanted to escape."

Crucial to Martinez's artistic growth was a man he calls his hero and mentor, artist and educator Martin Moreno.

"I met Jake at Wesley Community Center when he was like 14," Moreno says. "I used to teach art classes there, and one day he just strolled in, I think we were doing carving. He was intrigued, he was into photography already, and he just kept coming around."

Moreno was impressed by Martinez's energy and talent. "Jake was a real confident, intelligent young man, not into the gangbanging thing that neighborhood is famous for. He was very, very intelligent."

Their relationship would grow to be one of the most influential of Martinez's life, "It was like a father-son thing initially," Moreno remembers. "Jake hung around a lot, he became like one of our children. He's always been real open, talking about the past, his concerns, his search for identity."

Moreno indoctrinated Martinez with his own philosophy of the artist's role in society. "I come from the school of Mexican muralists where the artist is more than a wall filler," Moreno explains. "We are here to point fingers -- that's the artist's responsibility -- to create thought."

Martinez hung on his every word.

Martinez began working with Moreno on various mural projects, photographing Moreno's work, taking on the role of apprentice. As Moreno garnered recognition for his public art projects, Martinez watched and learned. "I saw Martin getting attention, stepping into the limelight, and I wanted the same for myself someday."

Martinez drives slowly along a freeway frontage road until he comes to an underpass that Moreno painted, a wash of color, outstretched hands and purple mountains. "Martin was like a god to me then, like my dad. He was great," he says.

Martinez joined MARS (Movimiento Artistico del Rio Salado, an alternative art space dedicated to encouraging Chicano art in Phoenix) when he was 19, after graduating from high school.

"He just showed up and I remember being so absolutely blown away by his work," artist and former MARS member Annie Lopez gushes. "I remember being impressed; he was so young, and to already have so much talent at such a young age. He really had an incredible eye for street scenes and human beings; his images were just beautiful."

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