Madness and Art

A local gallery spreads the spotlight on artists at the margins.

"I consider myself a Jesus freak. I was hitching a ride in Long Beach and was picked up and taken to a Jesus-freak halfway house and adopted the habit there," says the artist, whose cabinets and workspace are peppered with words such as God, mercy, and please pray.

Holmes fishes out a recent painting of a flower with fat petals against a baby-blue sky. The lone blossom sways under the phrase 1,000 years in Heaven.

"Look here," he says, flipping the image over. He has painted the flower on the back of an ornately framed copy of a Ruebens picture of cherubs.

Lisa Chuan Lee Cheng's Wolf and Violet Angel
Lisa Chuan Lee Cheng's Wolf and Violet Angel

Details

NAEMI 20th Annual Art Exhibition: Through May 29. MCPA Gallery, 1601 SW First St., Miami; 305-649-0324, www.naemi.org

"It looks like I don't have much space to work, but Georges Braque painted on his knees too."

Martin points to Holmes's bed, on which several open paperbacks are scattered, and asks the artist what he's reading now. Holmes picks up Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, and Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization and laughs.

Then he palms Jean Paul Sartre's gloomy existentialist treatise Being and Nothingness and croaks, "He's the reason everyone goes insane!"

Before answering the chow bell, Holmes digs up a postcard of his painting Joy America, which is in the permanent collection of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

It was opened in 1995 and designated by Congress as the nation's official museum for self-taught art. The museum's café is named for Holmes's painting, which depicts a nude girl waving her arms above her head.

Martin has been exhibiting Holmes's work for 15 years and says he is among the most popular artists at NAEMI exhibits.

Another of the outsider artists he works with regularly is West Virginia's Echo McCallister, whose condition, echolalia, compels him to often repeat the last words of conversations he hears.

"Echo is autistic and spent most of his life in Spencer State Hospital in West Virginia, which was shut down by the government in 1989. Ironically Echo is his birth name and has nothing to do with his echolalia," Martin explains.

"I went to visit him at the Prestera Center, where Echo now lives," Martin adds. "NAEMI was publishing a book on his life and art and I was amazed to see how many other accomplished outsider artists have been discovered in that area."

As a child, McCallister drew pictures on everything from matchbook covers to coasters to labels on canned foods.

Before the hospital closed, an art therapist named Tim Urbanic discovered McCallister and took him under his wing, Martin says, noting that Urbanic also found artists Raymond Hall, Lucy Wilkens, and Kathy Hanshaw at Spencer.

"When I was visiting Echo, I heard stories of how patients would plead with Spencer orderlies not to throw them in the hole. It turned out that when some of them became agitated, they were often tossed down the hospital's laundry chute," fumes Martin, shaking his head in disbelief.

McCallister has four works on exhibit, rendered in vivid bursts of color and fantastic figures in a primitive and innocent style.

Miami's Boris Lopez has three pieces on display at the MCPA show, and they hijack the peepers. Yo Soy La Caridad depicts Cuba's patron saint in a sumptuous gown as she floats above three fishermen praying to be saved from a storm. The background convulses in a swirl of dense spots that oscillate with energy. A flock of malevolent black angels tears through the air.

Lisa Chuan Lee Cheng's Wolf and Violet Angel also delivers a haunting image. The mixed-media-on-paper work depicts an otherworldly vision of a sacred ceremony where animals and humans commune mystically.

Martin is excited by his recent discovery of Spaniard Ramon Losa. "Losa is a schizophrenic who disdains doctors and medicine, and self-medicates with marijuana," he says.

"His parents have sent Losa to live in the countryside, where he creates these incredible paintings and has lately started making sculptures using wood he cannibalizes from his parents' furniture."

Losa, who is exhibiting four mixed-media works at MCPA, recently commanded more than 2,000 euros — a little more than $3,000 — for a painting.

Martin, who has devoted two decades to uncovering and presenting the astounding vision of society's marginalized, deserves a tip of the chapeau as well.

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