A is for Artist (A is also for Arsonist)
"I should be dead right now," says Jacob Martinez.
It's near midnight on a Saturday in August. Martinez finds himself in familiar surroundings. He's at Good Samaritan Hospital, in the orthopedic ward this time, with a brace on his neck and an IV snaking out of his arm. His large frame slips between the folds of an ill-fitting hospital gown, and a plastic wristband lists him as "Humvee 34," hospital code for the 34th car wreck of the evening. Martinez laughs at the name on the bracelet and smiles up warmly from his hospital bed. "Well, since I'm back here again, let's do it," he says. "I'm ready to talk about the hard stuff."
Martinez has just been in a brutal car accident as he was heading home from an art exposition in Tempe. The show included work from his recent transportation series, large, bright canvases of cartoonish ambulances, police cars and taxis. The result of the accident is a bad case of whiplash. His SUV was totaled when he was rear-ended on the 202 after stopping to help a woman with a stalled van. Cops, an ambulance ride to Good Samaritan and a night in the hospital are the reward for this particular Samaritan.
On a hard night, what's hardest for Martinez is talking about the past, about the day his mind snapped, the day that sent him to a hospital for the criminally insane for five years -- the day his life changed forever. It's a story that, until the car wreck, he'd been hesitant to tell.
Martinez's reluctance to rehash the violence of his acts at the apex of his mental illness masks a greater malaise. What was lost that day was more than the rubble and destruction his psychotic break left in its wake, more than the five years of freedom he forfeited, more even than the mind he lost; Jacob Martinez also lost much of the inspiration that once defined his life and art. He functions today courtesy of medication that has taken over his soul and dulled his creativity. He's traded the promise of a great painter for the tranquility of his pills. And despite what he has lost, he wouldn't have it any other way.
A nurse shuffles into the room, changes the drip on his IV and hands him a Dixie cup brimming like an Easter basket with pills; pale pink Depakote for mania, green Risperdal for psychosis, and white Cogentin to counteract the seizure-inducing side effects of the Depakote. He swallows the whole bunch in one gulp.
"Where do I start?" he asks softly.
Jacob Martinez is more than what he was that terrible day in 1996 -- more than just another artist gone mad. He's supremely gifted yet dramatically unstable and is only now learning to live with both aspects of his persona.
Martinez has lived through his art since he took his first photograph at age 13. As his talent developed, the camera lens of this young man barely into his teens caught the grit of his surroundings and toyed with religion and politics on the streets of Mexico City, Havana, Los Angeles, and in his own neighborhood just south of Sky Harbor Airport in central Phoenix.
His paintings and installations dealt with family turmoil, immigration, identity crises, and the role of religion. He explored these themes with bold lines and resonating imagery.
Shooting and painting his way through Central America, the dust of Phoenix, and the studios of San Francisco, as well as the jail cells and the mental institution he spent five years in, his work has always been a testimony to the light, pain and passion within. "I wanted to tell the truth; it's always been about truth," he says. "Every piece I've done is a self-portrait."
Martinez's work then was an open window to the soul of a young man disgusted by injustice on a societal and personal scale. At times whimsical, often angry, always intense, he pushed past what was commercially viable to portray what was real. "I've always thought an artist's job was to clean up messes. That's what I was trying to do," Martinez says. "I was trying to clean up the mess in my head."
Today, the medicated Martinez is a cautious 29-year-old who likes pop songs and physics, Kool 100s and cars with first-aid kits. He slows for yellow lights and can't stand to watch television. Martinez looks like a lion, with a mane of tousled black curls, broad shoulders and a soft belly that begs to be scratched, but his eyes are those of a lamb rimmed with sooty shadows. Despite his size, he glides when he walks, treading softly, firmly, shoulders held back. He paints that way, too, graceful fluid strokes that know where they are going before they get there.
He's that kooky kid in high school, the slightly delicate man-child that the boys thought might be gay and the girls knew wasn't. Martinez was, and is, sensitive. "I hear things other people can't hear, I see things other people can't see; it's always been like that for me," he says, cracking his neck before tacking on his familiar coda of "does that make sense?" He often asks that question during conversation. It's one he asks internally after almost every thought, checking himself for symptoms, wary of the tricks his mind has played on him in the past and might yet again.
Where he doesn't want to go is back to the racing thoughts and delusions that wrecked his mind when he was 24, destroying his world and his trust in himself. His artistic genius was fueled by increasingly psychotic thoughts as his work became more and more introspective, an attempt to shock the world and rid himself of the demons within. Instead of exorcising them through his art, he let them push him to the brink of madness and beyond.
The beauty Martinez created from his suffering made him the darling of the art scene in Phoenix. "He had so much potential," artist Martin Moreno says of his former protégé. "He was on his way to becoming great, an important artist."
But despite accolades from his peers for his work then, "I never want to go back to that place again," Martinez vows. "I won't."
Going back would mean returning to a career destroyed and opportunities lost, to a financial fortune squandered during manic highs, to a sense of identity destroyed one evening in December 1996 when Martinez finally became famous, not as an artist, but as an arsonist.
He is determined to stay healthy, even as he continues to wonder why he was afflicted in the first place: "I feel like I'm tainted, like Hester Prynne, only this big 'A' on my chest isn't for Adultery, it's for Arson."
Martinez's story begins in the barrio he was born into, the place he would come back to in his madness armed with a book of matches, an ax, and jugs of paint thinner. It's "Nuestro Barrio," just south of Buckeye Road, where his father was a slumlord. His mother had eight children by another man, her first husband, before having Jacob.
The planes that fly low over his old neighborhood are loud enough to drown out conversation, roaring and casting missile-like shadows over Nuestro Barrio's empty streets. It's been a while since he's been back here.
Martinez drives slowly, pausing at a stop sign to watch a tiny frizzy-headed toddler teeter across her yard on uncertain legs, a sagging diaper white against her brown skin. She smiles as she grips the gate of her house with one hand for balance. Martinez waits until he's sure she won't stagger out into the street. The neighborhood's other children are in a school built underground because of noise pollution.
Martinez stops for a moment at the house he grew up in with his mother and eight half-brothers and half-sisters. It's a run-down, two-bedroom structure, similar to others on this block of sagging fences and junk-filled lawns. "My father used to own all the homes on this street," Martinez says flatly.
His father was Leonard Burgmair, a Jew who fled Germany during World War II, made a small fortune in real estate and later gambling in Las Vegas. Martinez was his only son. Burgmair left him everything.
He dropped dead of a heart attack in front of Martinez when Martinez was 5 years old. "That's one of the first things I remember, my first real memory," he says.
Martinez's mother, Petra, admits that life was a constant struggle for her large family. She met Burgmair, whom she never married, when she did his laundry. Jacob was born when she was 38 years old and Burgmair was 52. "Jacob's father was an alcoholic and used to treat us all very poorly, always yelling and abusing us," she says. "Jacob never knew him, never loved him. His death didn't affect him much." She pauses, then adds, "I thought when he got sick, it was the German coming out in him."
Burgmair left his young son with a trust fund, more than $350,000 and the deed to the family home. He left Martinez's mother with just $40,000, which was soon gone. A heavy burden at the age of 5, Martinez's pending inheritance was something he grew up knowing wasn't a secret in the family. Instead of providing him with security, it was more of a curse. "My family just waited for me to grow up and turn 18 to see what I would do with the money," he says. He ended up giving much of it to them, and squandering the rest, in fits of furious spending during his stay at the mental hospital. "Some of the medication they put me on made me really manic," he says. "I gave a lot of money to my family, and I bought everything I could think of." Including, he says, a Jeep Cherokee. "I just called up the dealer and he delivered it to the State Hospital a few hours later."
Martinez attended public school, where he admits he was a poor student from kindergarten through second grade. That year, when he was 8, his father's death came flooding back to him, and he lay awake crying at night. "I had a hard time concentrating; learning was difficult," Martinez says. "Maybe it was the planes and the noise, I thought that for a long time; maybe I was ADD."
From third through eighth grades, his mother moved him to a private school in the neighborhood run by the Gospel Center Church. "I was supposed to be a preacher, I guess. I hated it there."
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."
"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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
It was with his own art that he sparked the destruction. Martinez went down to his basement and took a razor blade to a large canvas depicting Fidel Castro with a Coke in hand, Jesus, and the Statue of Liberty holding an ice cream cone. He sliced the Statue of Liberty into a series of small wicks for Molotov cocktails.
"I would have used rags, but I didn't have any," he explains. "I was an artist. I had canvas, so that's what I used."
Around 9 p.m. he borrowed his brother-in-law's truck and drove to the church. "My plan was to first burn down the church and then run to the interstate into traffic and kill myself."
He parked the pickup on the street, and grabbed an ax and paint thinner from the back. Then he scaled the fence and entered the church through the window he had opened earlier that day. He moved quickly through the church to the bell tower, pausing to grab a box of matches left on the windowsill he had just crawled through.
Martinez took his ax to the bell tower door, splintering the thin wood paneling. He doused the interior of the small room inside with paint thinner. Then he struck a match and ran out of the church to the school next door where he did the same.
Martinez got back in the truck and crashed it into a pay phone. "I thought someone would call God," he says. Next he tried to drive the truck through the chain-link fence surrounding the church. It stalled. People were watching him now, and began approaching him. "I took off running, ran to the freeway and waited for a car to come so I could run in front of it. The cops got there first. They pointed their guns at me, they told me to get down on the ground and put a foot on my head."
Martinez was arrested at 9:35 p.m. and taken to the Madison Street Jail. He was held until 4 a.m. when court records show he waived his rights to an attorney and confessed.
Martinez told detectives what he had done, that he had planned it all. After he was interviewed, Martinez remembers crawling under the steel table in the holding cell and discovering a small bag of marijuana jammed under a table leg. He spread the pot out on the table and began eating it. "I was hungry," Martinez says.
He was booked just after 8 a.m. the next day on three counts of arson, three counts of burglary, possession of marijuana, tampering with evidence, and criminal damage. The church and adjacent buildings suffered more than $220,000 in damage.
His diary from that long night tells the story in blunt detail. Officers arrived and took him to an isolation cell. He felt their eyes on him, he writes. He removed his clothes and flooded the cell with the toilet water. The cell became a bathtub, then a track and field course. He started exercising, thinking he was being trained for the next opportunity and would soon be sent out to finish the job.
"I don't know what's going on, I'm completely confused. I'm scared. I'm angry," he wrote in his journal.
"I stayed up all night screaming. I took off all my clothes and rubbed poop all over myself like a cleansing mask. My sister came and told me to take a shower."
Later he remembers taunting the guards. "I wanted them to come in and kill me. I yelled at the top of my lungs, cursed at them, threw piss on them." The guards beat him, he wrote, then strapped him to a steel cot and called the nurse.
"They put me in restraints. My wrists and ankles. Janet comes in and gives me an injection. I'm asleep now. THE NEXT DAY I WAKE UP AND I'M A NEW PERSON."
He woke up shocked by his acts. His mind cleared of debris, the gravity of his actions overwhelmed him. "I didn't want to burn down Phoenix anymore. A wave of shame and guilt came over me. I was exhausted. I felt like a burden was lifted off me."
He painted all through his time at Madison and Durango jails, and continued once he was transferred to the State Hospital after pleading "Guilty Except Insane" to one count of arson on July 23, 1997.
His diaries from those days in lockup are revealing glimpses into his ever-shifting mind; coherent one day, rambling the next. Poems to loves lost and imagined, scraps of paper tacked in, an arm bracelet, drawings, painted-over texts. They document years of hell and redemption, years of reacting to the chemistry in his brain and trying to understand the complexities of his own mind. They show humor, too, like in his "UA series"; sketches inspired by the endless piss tests his doctors ordered are crudely whimsical, naked figures pissing into vials, urinals, faces.
Next, cigars occupied his time and his mind. He pasted their bands on a sky blue background, he started sketching his "Congo" series, line drawings of figures smoking with poetic captions he would later commit to canvas.
"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."
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."
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.
Martinez assembles the group; some are here for the first time, and others have been coming for months. He hands out an assignment. It's a scrapbook of sorts, an autobiographical expression of themselves he has divided into topics. They will take a self-portrait, write a letter to the president, draw a landscape of particular meaning. "Think of it as a résumé of yourself," he explains as they brainstorm ideas for other chapters. "This is a way for you to develop stories and drawings about you personally, and these are the titles of each page," he explains as they go through the list. "It's up to you to interpret them however you want." There are no deadlines, no guidelines, no grading system, he explains to them. They can finish it in a week or make it a lifelong project, he tells them.
"What is this teaching us?" one client asks. "Organization," he responds.
Finding an outlet for this creative energy is like discovering an open window in a smoke-filled room. It's a way for them to channel their ideas that is safe and comfortable. It is a concept his students embrace. Canvases around the studio reflect a wide variety of concepts. One woman has painted Fear of Anorexia, which shows a stylized naked fat woman with a wraithlike skin and a bone figure next to her. Another woman is carefully replicating a nature scene from a magazine; next to her a young man sketches Jar Jar Binks. They joke with Martinez, recommend hair products, talk to him about music and movies they've seen, ask him for supplies. They obviously adore him. The class is as much about socialization and relating with other people as it is about art.
A newcomer to the class doesn't appear to be buying into this concept, though. He tells Martinez he wants to be a landscape and portrait artist, and he's here for drawing lessons.
The teacher walks over to the supply shelves and returns with a piece of butcher paper and a box of charcoal and begins to draw as he explains. "Mine is philosophical work and conceptual work, it's not about making a painting look real." The man looks at him with resistance. Martinez keeps trying to reach him as he opens the box of charcoal. "I don't like methods," he says, as he lays out the blank sheet in front of him, smoothing it. "I have an idea in my head, something I'm thinking of, say it's a flower," he says, drawing a sweeping arc of a stem, "or a house," he says, boxing in a crude slanted roof and four walls. "I'm vary naive. You learn as an artist that you have to accept who you are." He smudges the lines of the flower petals, softening them with his large thumb as he speaks. "If you want to be an artist, it's not about making things look real. You have to make art, think art, breathe art, go to galleries, look at art in books.
"It's about how it makes you feel, not how it looks."
The truth Martinez once sought has taken a back seat.
"Go ahead and draw something so I can see what level you're at," Martinez suggests. The man is withdrawn and replies he's at the kindergarten level. "That's great!" exclaims Martinez. "That's where I'm at, too."
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