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?

No one was aware of how deep and how swiftly Martinez was falling. Even Moreno, his closest friend, wrote off his unusual behavior as an artistic tangent. "I don't know what happened there. I'd get phone calls out of nowhere with some crazy ideas. I didn't know if it was some new direction he was going in. I worried, though. I would ask him, How are you doing, man?' San Francisco is a pretty progressive, intimidating town. Maybe that's what knocked him off his bike."

Memories of that fall are difficult for Martinez to sift through. Time lost its structure. "It was like a bad acid trip that went on forever," he says. "The feeling of being psychotic is a disassociation with the real world. Nothing made sense to me anymore, and all I could do was read people's minds."

As November progressed, Martinez had lost control. "I was wandering around [San Francisco] with a backpack of old family photographs in a deep depression. I felt like I was going to die and I wanted to have them with me when I did."

Medication has drained Martinez's paintings (like this one from the State Hospital in 1999) of their intensity.
Medication has drained Martinez's paintings (like this one from the State Hospital in 1999) of their intensity.
Martinez's diaries from the mental hospital chronicle five years of insanity.
Martinez's diaries from the mental hospital chronicle five years of insanity.

His sense of responsibility toward his family was paired with his disdain for them. His grown but not grown-up siblings were squatting in his house, he thought, doing drugs and committing crimes. He wanted to take care of his mother but didn't want to support them any longer. They were after his money, he thought, all of them. It was driving him crazy, but still he would turn to his family one last time for help.

"The street signs were telling me things," he says. In everything he saw signs, or symbols that only he could interpret and respond to, messages from God, codes meant to lead him to his destiny.

He ended up at the train station looking at a Bay Area Rapid Transit map. The last stop at one end, coincidentally, was called Martinez, just like his last name: "I didn't want to go there; that would mean going into myself," he says. At the other end was the Folsom stop. "That meant prison to me, like I was going to be arrested." Martinez opted for the airport, where he bought a plane ticket and flew home to Phoenix. He called his sister from the airport and asked to be taken to the emergency room. "I said I'm not feeling right, there's something wrong with me, I think I'm crazy."

At the emergency room, Martinez was cycling on a manic high. "There was a little boy crying because his father had jerked him and dislocated his shoulder. I remember I went up to him and kissed him on the forehead and he stopped crying. I thought I was God." Martinez told emergency room personnel his brain was a tumor and was killing him. They diagnosed him with euphoria and discharged him, promising Martinez's sister that a mental-health clinic would call. It didn't, and Martinez returned to school in San Francisco.

On December 6, 1996, in the middle of the afternoon, Martinez took a 2-by-4 to some bricks in front of the school cafeteria, smashing them as students walked by and applauded. "They thought it was a performance piece, they loved it, but I was trying to destroy the world." He was expelled from school.

Martinez's landlord called the San Francisco Mobile Crisis Unit after Martinez broke into his office and went through his files. Court documents report they described him as "illusional, grandiose and tangential" with "increasing psychotic disorganization." "They came to my apartment, they gave me their card and asked me if I wanted medication. I said no. I grew up with Nancy Reagan. Drugs were bad."

The Art Institute called his sister, who arrived in San Francisco six days later and drove him back to Phoenix. Martinez remembers passing through the Mojave Desert. This, to Martinez, was the ultimate sign, God's word in the desert directing him to the church on Mohave Street.

"I was going to destroy Phoenix, and I thought everyone was going to join in and celebrate with me. I thought I had to do this and San Francisco would welcome me back." He was, he admits, delusional. "I had all these racing thoughts, kind of the same as hearing voices, I guess. I was supposed to burn down the church and destroy the evil people."

He was convinced Phoenix was ugly and ill-conceived. The city would be better off if everyone burned down their homes and rebuilt from the ashes. He wanted to start what he thought would be a revolution by burning down the school and church he attended as a child. He thought his actions would convince city planners to stop the planes from flying overhead, planes he had always feared were laden with bombs.

"I thought everyone could see it. The fire was in my eyes."

Martinez says he had planned to burn the church at midnight on Christmas Eve. But when he woke on the morning of December 22, he knew he couldn't wait any longer. "I tried to give them signs that day in church, I kept getting up and turning lights on and off. I opened a window. I originally thought God wanted me to play music; I planned on stealing a saxophone but I got caught. I took that to mean I should burn the church down."

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