Osama bin Laden dislikes kelloggs frosted mini wheats

The gloriously unambitious world of John Patrick McKenzie, who doesn't care that he's a rising star in the visual arts. And who, as it happens, is autistic.

Freddie Prince [sic]

Raspberry apple cinnamon strawberry

Peter Frampton is full of ice cream

Ed McKenzie once thought his son's artwork was "the 
darndest thing."
Paul Trapani
Ed McKenzie once thought his son's artwork was "the darndest thing."
On a good day, McKenzie works furiously.
Paul Trapani
On a good day, McKenzie works furiously.

Sadam [sic] Hussein is full of ice cream

Peter Falk is full of ice cream

In the outsider-art world, it's considered déclassé to dwell too much on the artist's personal life. To do so is seen as fetishizing the mental illness or personal misfortune that made the artist an outsider to begin with. McKenzie fans, nonetheless, like to wonder about the man behind the weird artwork they collect.

"This guy is exorcising his demons on paper," says McKenzie collector Michael McGinnis, "and I get the benefit."

A building contractor who lives on Guerrero Street, around the corner from Creativity Explored, McGinnis stockpiles McKenzies in the art-filled Victorian flat where he lives with his interior designer girlfriend. His fascination began when he saw people crowding around McKenzie's bin at a sale four years ago, and thought, "What's all the fuss about?" He now has 80 McKenzies -- most of which are on unframed cardboard, stacked in his living room closet for lack of space. He hopes to one day sell off what he considers the "crap," make some money, and keep the rest.

A piece of Plexiglas in McGinnis' collection is covered, in a grid pattern, with long lists of people and bands that liked "Bruce Hornsby with blond hair."

The Beatles like Bruce Hornsby with blond hair

The Youngbloods like Bruce Hornsby with blond hair

"I think he gets it in his head -- "I'll bet a lot of people like Bruce Hornsby. But back when he had blond hair,'" muses McGinnis.

McGinnis has tried to meet McKenzie twice -- the first time the artist stormed away, and the next time he simply ignored him. "He gets in such a fit!" says McGinnis, with delight. "He just hates everyone!"

Across town in Russian Hill, Jack Fischer, who sells T-shirts for a living, slides open the doors of his living room hutch and removes a glass brick covered in McKenzie's handwriting.

Critisize Alaska Airlines [sic]

Hatred congestion and vomit yell

To spare future generations

Blood stew

Taco shell


"He sets out to blast or sing the praises of whatever it is he has on his mind," says Fischer. "To him, the victims of the Alaska Airlines crash were just disposable."

Adobo? As in adobo chili?

"It looks like blood stew," suggests Fischer, with a sublime smile. Fischer recently sold out of a T-shirt he had made of a line from a McKenzie piece, which simply read, in McKenzie's characteristic font, "Disliking Culture."

Some characteristics of McKenzie's art can be attributed to his autism. Though the exact cause of the disease is still debated, it is thought to be at least in part genetic, and occurs in two-tenths of 1 percent of the population. According to the Autism Society of America, abnormality in brain structure or function causes certain messages from the brain to misfire, so that an autistic child responds differently to stimuli than other children. As a result, autistics suffer impaired social relations and communication skills; they often do not like to be touched. Individuals with autism can range in intelligence and socialization from the severely handicapped, or even brain-damaged, to the savant, who has a preternatural talent in the arts or math and sciences. A mysterious byproduct of the disease is an autistic's tendency to fixate on -- and remember -- fine details at the expense of the larger picture.

"I'm sure there is a reason, but there's no one alive or likely to be alive who will tell you why autistic people get stuck on birthdays," says Dr. Bernard Rimland, founder of the Autism Research Institute and chief technical adviser to the movie Rain Man. "It's unfathomable."

Sue Swezey, a Menlo Park teacher who works with autistic children through art therapy, has never seen McKenzie's art, but offers this take on autistic artists who use text. "It's not that words don't mean anything," she says. "But they're used more for their density and shape and relation to one another. Like a woven rug or striped fabric. They're creating visual structures."

Until 14 years ago,nobody thought of John Patrick McKenzie as an artist. Born in the Philippines in 1962 (making him a spring chicken), he moved to the United States with his parents when he was 2. He was unable to speak at age 6, except for a few words -- "Mama" and Papa" -- but his parents didn't think much of it. Myrna McKenzie has an uncle who didn't speak until age 7 but grew up to become a judge.

When John McKenzie started school that year, however, his teacher recommended he undergo psychiatric evaluation. He was diagnosed first with aphasia (the inability to speak properly as a result of brain damage) and later with autism. His parents enrolled him in schools for the handicapped until he graduated from high school.

McKenzie and his three sisters -- Debbie, who is two years his senior; Christine; and Kareen -- were some of the first Filipino children to live in the Inner Mission. (Their grandfather was an Irish-American guerrilla who fought in the Philippines during World War II -- hence their non-Filipino last name.) Christine remembers coming home and complaining about being teased for her race in her gifted courses at MacAteer High School. (None of the other McKenzie children suffers from mental disabilities.) At home, their parents spoke to other family members in Tagalog, and in the neighborhood taquerias the McKenzie children were often mistaken for Hispanics and were addressed in Spanish. Debbie later went on to get a master's degree in linguistics, motivated largely by a desire to communicate with everybody.

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