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?

However, today there is a different bond that unites them. Gutierrez was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago at the age of 23. The disease has progressed noticeably since then. "Sometimes my wife doesn't know if it's me talking or my disease," he admits. His balance is off, his thought patterns disorganized. He has trouble remembering names, dates and directions. He and his former roommate are fighting similar battles.

Their shared role as artists with disabilities is one of the reasons Gutierrez, who lives in San Francisco, is anxious to see Martinez and his new work. Gutierrez doesn't mince words. He takes a look at one of Martinez's more recent paintings. "This sucks," he says abruptly, laughing.

But Gutierrez continues flipping through the stack, pausing at Martinez's old work, the paintings from the period when his friend was so disturbed. Gutierrez asks for prices. "This other stuff [the old work], it's brilliant, man. You are brilliant. You gotta get back out there. Do what you do best. You have to look back to move forward."

Others in the arts community are more forgiving, although they can't overlook the difference in styles. Former MARS artist Jeff Falk says Martinez is softer now, less distressed but still impressive. Falk attended a show of Martinez's newer work last spring and says he was pleasantly surprised. "I saw home and house images appearing in the work. It was peaceful. This is a person who has had a heck of a thing happen to him and he seems to be doing great; he comes from a place where he's been challenged, and he's back to the same level, the playing field has been leveled for him. I encourage him in every way possible. He's made some fantastic strides."

Falk, who has experienced mental illness in his own family, says, "There was this quote I remember, It's not having gone into the dark house, but having come out of it that counts.' Roosevelt, a manic-depressive, said that. Jake has a lot to give, and he's back as far as I'm concerned."

Yet the new work is not finding an audience. At the gallery opening, it's not his current transportation series -- a humorous play on the term "consumer" to describe mental-health patients and Martinez's penchant for buying cars -- that draws a crowd, but rather a much darker Cuba piece from 1995 depicting a postcard from Havana with "Prostituta" scrawled across it. The truth is still his message, Martinez insists, but his message has changed. "I'm happier in my life now than I've ever been, but I'm not as brilliant," he admits. "Some people think that my early work was a lot better than my recent work. I like my recent work more because I like myself a lot better. Does that sound stupid?"

Before, Martinez says, his work was "more contemplative. It was a lot more personal. It had to do with personal dilemmas." The problems he was exploring on canvas have been resolved. "The intensity of that time in my life is behind me. The medication has taken it away."

Martinez pauses, and looks down at his feet for a moment. "My life is different now. I don't want to swim too far from the shore because I need the shore a whole lot more than I need the sea."

This trade-off, says Dr. John Racy, professor of psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is inevitable. Racy says a common belief among psychologists is that creativity and madness sprout from a common source; "the unconscious mind, the part of us we only become aware of in our dreams or under the influence of drugs, those rare moments when we sometimes catch a glimpse of ourselves." This energy released in an organized fashion leads to creative expression, he says. "[But] in a disorganized manner, [it leads] to psychosis." Medication interferes with the flow of creativity. It is designed for just that purpose. "The function of medications like [Risperdal] is to inhibit the brain. If you give too much medication, you can put a blanket on everything; too little and they lose control," Racy says. "A person may have been more talented [before medication], but there was hell to pay."

Martinez has no complaints. The focus of his life and his work has shifted. "It's more about mental health than being a famous artist."

Mental health is all around him, just as art once was. Martinez spends his days at Art Awakenings, where he has worked for the past year as artistic coordinator, teaching art and counseling mentally ill clients in a bright studio that buzzes with activity. It's his first real job, and coming from the other side of the couch, he has a unique approach to clients that is refreshingly devoid of psychojargon. He lets them express themselves and their feelings in an organized fashion, directing their energy into sketches, collages or sculpture. "I want them to look at the world through artists' eyes," he says. "I want them to create and not be judged. I want them to tell the truth."

Rows of wooden shelves at one end of the studio are strewn with art supplies, clay, paints, pencils, art books. Throughout the space, clients and staff are assembling easels in preparation for Martinez's Tuesday afternoon drawing class.

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