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?

Photographers both, Lopez and Martinez had a joint show that same year. "Here's this kid who's got it all: adorable, nice, good-looking and ever so talented. The show was like a challenge -- a friendly duel because he was just so good."

She pauses a moment, her voice warms to a whisper. "He was it, man, he was it. Everybody loved his work. We couldn't wait to see what was next; he was on his way to being the next big thing."

Martinez enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute in January of 1996, a prestigious school whose professors were stars of the Chicano and alternative art scene. Annie Leibovitz and Karen Finley are alumni, Diego Rivera was a resident artist and Ansel Adams founded the photography department. At first everything was perfect. MTV displayed one of Martinez's paintings in the lobby of its New York headquarters, and he was socializing with elite Chicano artists like Guillermo Gomez Peña, Jose Antonio Burciaga and Carlos Villa. "I was on top of the world; I was living in a loft in the city, I was making good grades at school, I was meeting my heroes of the art world, I thought nothing could stop me."

Photos of Martinez as a smiling schoolboy and teenager belie the turmoil brewing within.
Photos of Martinez as a smiling schoolboy and teenager belie the turmoil brewing within.
Martinez painted his sister, high on crack, catching bullets on New Year's Eve 1994.
Martinez painted his sister, high on crack, catching bullets on New Year's Eve 1994.

Martinez is trying to find a video of a performance piece he did back in San Francisco. He searches through a video of random footage, including some of him in a discussion group with fellow students filmed just days before he lost control.

"I don't like to watch this," he says as he presses the fast forward button and turns away. "You can see it in my eyes that I'm going crazy." But you can't really. Martinez alone can see it; only he knows what thoughts were running through the head of the wide-eyed boy who watches the conversation, fidgeting and tossing his long dark curls.

He finds the footage he wants. The camera remains still. It shows Martinez lighting a sparkler, then walking up to a sheet of butcher paper tacked to the wall. He sheds his pants and slowly puts on a pair of black combat boots. Naked, he paints the word "FAMILY" on the paper, removes the boots and lights another sparkler.

Six years later he watches the sparks sizzle in front of the camera and remarks, "Maybe that was a premonition of some sort."

Martinez writes about his experience in an autobiographical short story called "The Crash," penned while an inmate at the Arizona State Hospital. Its star is "Tito," who moves to San Francisco to become a painter and finds solace and success. "Tito was becoming engrossed in his work and then totally obsessed. There was no stopping Tito anymore," Martinez writes. "Tito was becoming psychotic for only God knows why."

It's confusing for Martinez to speak about those days. Time bleeds into space, and he can recall actions and thoughts, but the reasoning behind them no longer makes sense.

It all started the day after Halloween. "I guess you could say I'm the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle," he says with a slow smile. "I had to clean out the acid baths in the print lab that day," he recalls. The chemicals revolted him. The heavy sweet-rotten stench similar to burning sugar cane stung his eyes and coated his lungs. Something in him snapped. "I had to leave. I went home and went into this horrible depression. I couldn't sleep for a week. I thought I was dead."

At 24, he was at the age when mental illness most often strikes young men, yet he was unable to recognize what was happening to him. Alone in a new city, his illness flourished.

His moods became manic, swinging like a pendulum between the depths of despair and the summit of euphoria. "I wished I was dead, then I thought I was God."

Kay Jamison, professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University and author of Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, writes of the sharp contrasts between mania and depression in artists. "In a sense, depression is a view of the world through a glass darkly, and mania is a shattered pattern of views seen through a prism or kaleidoscope: often brilliant but generally fractured." These cycles of despair and elation, Jamison concludes, are common foundations for both artistic creation and mental decay. "The weaving together of these contrasting experiences from a core and rhythmic brokenness is one that is crucial to both the artistic and manic depressive tendencies," she writes.

Indeed, in the months before his breakdown, Martinez was painting more than ever. His work was frenzied, tortured and decidedly more brilliant. His style had evolved from the simpler, more juvenile efforts of his first few years to a stark, shocking sophistication. He was in the grips of a manic high, he says, that was "better than heroin, better than any drug you could think of. A lot of people like to stay manic because the high is so good. But if you go too manic, you go completely crazy. That's what was happening to me."

Back home in Phoenix, his actions were beginning to worry his friends. He sent a fax to MARS, a bizarre message with repeated phrases. "Oh my, I thought, this was a little odd, this wasn't like him," Lopez recalls. "It was like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I thought he's got too much time on his hands, you know what they say about idle hands."

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