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?

"My mother told me cigar' in Spanish is puro.' Now smoke one and tell me you can't hear it, see it, smell, feel it, and possibly love it. There's magic in puros, witchcraft and poetry. This is only a leaf of a branch. The love I feel for you is eternal."

Their pages show methodical lists of things to do when released, sketches of his home and the improvements he'd like to make to it, plans for video projects, installations, art exhibitions. He wrote in exuberance and in misery, angry laments in all caps, emotional rants in sprawling cursive. Schedules show the structure of his days, a series of groups: relaxation, self-esteem, coping, health maintenance and psychology.

There were days when he questioned his own morality, searching for where he went wrong. "I too am lost with the wretched losing spirits of the criminally insane," he wrote in December of 1997. "Please God help me through these merciless days of insanity, demise, immorality, emptiness."

all paintings by Jacob Martinez

Medicating the seriously mentally ill is a tricky business, and the cocktail of pills Martinez takes now to prevent symptoms is the result of years of tinkering. Gradually, he emerged from the darkness.

In his last years at the hospital, he began writing poems and short stories for the hospital newspaper, then produced his own newsletter, interviewing inmates and printing the children's stories. He would write about characters like "Super Paco," a Chicano superhero, and "McGruff," a crime-fighting detective.

Today, Martinez is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar with psychotic tendencies. He lives in an airy loft near downtown with his two nephews whom he partially supports as they finish school. He does this on a $24,000 salary. His father's money is long gone, spent on whims: $12,000 PA systems, video cameras, cars. He doesn't miss it much. "It was always more a curse than anything else," he says. "I had everything and I still lost it. I'd rather have nothing and be happy."

What to do with his art preoccupies him now. It keeps him up at night, filling his head with plans for publishing children's books, opening up a photo studio, going back to school. He yearns to create something worthwhile, somehow.

"Someday I want to have a really cool studio where I could go to and make paintings and make whatever I want and people would buy my work. Deep down inside I still have that dream," he says. But right now there's too much of his old work still around, and it weighs him down. "I don't have anywhere to put my work. My art is homeless," he says.

Besides, some of it disturbs him. In fact, it was his ability to disturb that made him illustrious.

"Jacob's work has always been real personal," says Moreno, "gallery and museum-quality stuff, not the kind of work most people would want to hang in their living room, not the pretty stuff. Anyone can do the pretty stuff."

His mother is considerably more squeamish about some of her son's work. "Some were nice, some I didn't like at all. There was a lot of blood and ugly, horrible things in his paintings." She recalls confronting him on his troubling subject matter. "I said paint something pretty instead, something nice like trees or dolls or flowers. But he always said he had to paint his life. He had to paint what he saw around him and what he felt."

What remains of Martinez's work is a graveyard of framed paintings shrouded under a blue tarp in a co-worker's cluttered shed. Many of the frames are broken, the glass dusty and cracked, but the work shines through, breathtaking and vast in scope.

The slick charcoal and blood red images from his "Cabrona" series are riveting. It is a collection that screams out from cracked frames; decapitated heads and amputated corpses, perfect curves of naked women with heavy breasts, crimson nipples and hooks suspending them from the air are bedfellows to pieces done in the State Hospital in bright yellows and greens. "You see how my figures are rounder in these, my colors brighter?" he says, noting the evolution of his work and corresponding mental state as doctors adjusted his medications.

Mood stabilizers and antipsychotic drugs have sapped his emotions, and altered his perception of the world. "I had passion when I was sick," he says. "I don't have passion anymore, I have love." He's through with the barbed wire and bullets; the burning messages that screamed through his brush onto the canvas are mere whispers. He's painting the pretty stuff now -- cats, flowers, butterflies. Truth has become subdued happiness and complacency.

Martinez has a new, somewhat blander approach to painting. Benign images that are easy to interpret and easy to forget are what flow from within. This lack of passion has drawn criticism from some of his peers.

Luis Gutierrez was friends with Martinez once when they were both up-and-coming Chicano artists in their prime. They were roommates for a few months in 1995 until a dispute over a girl ended their friendship. "Our differences aside," says Gutierrez, "I always thought we bonded because we both had the fire, the energy and the power to really make it as artists."

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