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.