Longform

A is for Artist (A is also for Arsonist)

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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.

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Susy Buchanan