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Olabarria stops at one of the pieces of cardboard, which reads:
Only the left-hand side of the cardboard piece is written on.
"I think he could not think of any more modern soft drinks," says Olabarria.
She pushes the cardboard across the table.
"Johnny! Can you think of some more?"
McKenzie's head pops up for an instant, long enough for him to say, in a chirpy, intense voice, "The Uncola?" He takes back the little cardboard.
"No, no, Johnny. What is a new soft drink?"
McKenzie halts his Sharpie, midair, and jerks his head up again.
Olabarria doesn't seem to get the reference from an early Sprite advertising campaign. She shifts her attention to Sharon Tate.
"Why came to your brain Sharon Tate, Johnny? What made you think of her?"
"She was beautiful?" chirps McKenzie.
"Ah yes, she was very beautiful," says Olabarria. "But you were only 7 years old when she died. Who told you she was beautiful?"
"He's so alert to what goes on," says Olabarria. "But you didn't know she liked Mexican food, did you? You just imagined that, right?"
"So next time, you could say, 'I imagine Sharon Tate liked Mexican food.'"
"We really see this as very avant-garde," Olabarria says. "I think it's wonderful to have someone like John McKenzie. So reversed, and so far away ... it makes you question the world. You start thinking, 'What is it about his state that created this spark?'"
While Olabarria is speaking, McKenzie sits hunched over, head down, eyes down, hands hanging straight at his sides, but seemingly listening to the conversation.
"Anyway, what other drinks are in the market, Johnny?" Olabarria says, tapping at the card.
McKenzie springs to life, eyelids straining open like a child pantomiming surprise.
"Tab!" he exclaims with certain exhilaration.
If left to his own devices,McKenzie would reach again and again for the same old white paper and black Sharpie. Encouraged by the Creativity Explored instructors, he has branched out and written on Plexiglas, painted board, and even a plastic mannequin. His most popular pieces are those done on the panes of salvaged windows. Sometimes he writes on both sides, so the words are nearly indecipherable. Sometimes he turns the glass sideways after filling it, and writes perpendicular to the first lists, creating a grid.
When he writes with a fat Sharpie, his lettering looks bold and syncopated. When he switches to a fine-point Sharpie, it is spidery and wistful. He has been known to write in chalk and crayon, but does not prefer them. He always fills in the letters.
"I've seen a lot of artists who do automatic writing, and include writing in their work," says Bonnie Grossman, of Boston's Grossman Gallery. "But McKenzie's, with the inventiveness of the font -- it looks like a musical score as it dances across the page. You look closer and realize it's writing. It's dynamic."
Grossman discovered McKenzie -- and another Creativity Explored artist, Jimmy Miles -- last year, on a scouting expedition to California. She now shows both in her gallery, which specializes in outsider art. Though dealers and collectors hotly debate the category, outsider art is generally defined as the work of an artist who is "outside" the traditional art world because of mental illness, physical isolation, or lack of formal artistic training. An outsider artist does not see him- or herself as an outsider artist, and in fact usually doesn't see him- or herself as an artist at all -- which makes for pretension-free art that feels fresh, spontaneous, and often disturbing.
One of the most collectible outsider artists is Henry Darger. A reclusive Chicago man, he made fantastical, panoramic paintings depicting the activities of hermaphroditic little girls and their horned imp protectors. In accompanying texts, he called these creatures the "Vivian Girls" and the "Blengin." His landlord discovered Darger's art after his tenant died. A more famous example of outsider art is The Watts Tower -- a 100-foot edifice of broken pottery, concrete, and scrap metal built in the southern Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia during the years 1921 to 1954.
Outsider art has of late moved from the fringes of the art world to the mainstream. With work by star outsiders like Darger priced in the five figures, there is considerable interest among dealers in discovering the next outcast genius. The Outsider Art Fair, held in New York City's Puck Building in SoHo and now going on its 11th year, has become one of the art world's most anticipated events. And last fall, the American Museum of Folk Art in New York, which focuses on outsider artists, opened the doors of its brand-new, world-class museum space, with a major endowment to match.
McKenzie's fans revere his art both for what it says and for the way it looks. Each piece is made up of a set of abrupt sentences or a list of words, organized around a central theme. They include references to brand names, celebrities, race, food, and current events. The effect is often funny, always mysterious, and sometimes dark. Creativity Explored calls his work "visual poetry." The description is apt, because sometimes, the pieces are more atmospheric than literal. Take this one, for instance, from painted board: