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John developed a keen interest in race:
John Patrick McKenzie dislikes doughnut rings
Most non negroes like doughnut rings
Most black Americans like doughnut twists
Though McKenzie was slow to learn to speak -- he didn't use full sentences until his late teens -- he read voraciously from his family's subscription to TV Guide, soaking up American pop culture references like a sponge. He wrote sometimes on scraps of paper around the house, but nobody in his family thought much about it. Kareen was considered the visual artist in the family, and Christine, the musician, played the violin.
After McKenzie graduated from high school, his parents enrolled him in a crafts day program where he made magnets and flower vases that his family found charming, but that failed to attract the attention of the larger art world. When his crafts class dissolved in 1988, his parents enrolled him at Creativity Explored, under advice from his social worker. No more magnets for McKenzie. Creativity Explored let him pursue his own designs and projects, and he began writing. Some of his earliest pieces dealt with his all-time favorite musical artist, Linda Ronstadt.
Linda Ronstadt kicks Spiderman between the legs
McKenzie is a kind soul who once asked his mother to buy food for a homeless man they encountered rooting in garbage on their walk home together from Creativity Explored. But the writing McKenzie began doing at the art center showed he had a nasty side, too.
Fade forget it
Mold wound yeah right
"He likes to provoke people," says longtime Creativity Explored instructor Horace Washington, who has been described by McKenzie in his artwork, to the point of annoyance, as being "a black American."
"He likes to talk about things that would have negative connotations for the rest of us," says Aaron Noble, an artist who became friendly with McKenzie while working with him on a mural project at Creativity Explored. "We'll be talking about him getting strung up or imprisoned and this and that, and these people hating each other, and it'll be the most pleasant conversation."
Before Noble moved to Southern California, McKenzie made a piece that Noble reprinted on his going-away party invitation. The piece read:
Aaron Noble's house will be destroyed by a wrecking ball or crane
Aaron Noble will move to Los Angeles
Aaron Noble will go to Disneyland
"At first I kind of ignored [his writing]," admits Ed McKenzie. "I thought, "This is the darndest thing, blocking out the letters.'"
"At first I thought it was funny," agrees Myrna McKenzie.
McKenzie's parents -- and later his sisters -- were shocked when they attended the Creativity Explored Christmas sales and found themselves besieged by John McKenzie fans.
"But my son! He's an artist!" says Mrs. McKenzie. "I could not believe it at first!"
Neither could CreativityExplored. In a room full of big personalities, McKenzie was a cipherlike presence. And unlike other talented artists at Creativity Explored, like Vincent Jackson, who makes colorful, lush oil pastels of human faces, McKenzie didn't draw pictures. It took a while for anyone to notice him.
Two of the first McKenzie fans were Harrell Fletcher and Elizabeth Meyer, artists who began volunteering as instructors at Creativity Explored in 1992. Using McKenzie's term for the generation born in the '50s, the pair started a zine called Whipper Snapper Nerd, which featured artwork and interviews with the clients at CE.
HF: Have you always had an interest in Linda Ronstadt?
"I was totally amazed by [McKenzie's] work," says Fletcher. "I was going to school at CCAC at the time, and it was vastly more interesting than the stuff I was seeing in grad school."
In 1997, Fletcher and Meyer put together a group show featuring McKenzie and a few other artists. The "Whipper Snapper Nerd" show traveled from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to the Mark Moore Gallery in L.A. and, from there, to the Bronwyn Keenan Gallery in New York.
"I just flipped on John McKenzie," says Christopher Ford, the former curator at the Mark Moore Gallery. He bought a piece for his bedroom that reads:
Disliking Hong Kong
Hong Kong sucks
Disliking Queen Elizabeth second
Queen Elizabeth sucks second
"It's literal art history," he says. "This can obviously be dated to the fact that this was when Hong Kong was converting from a British protectorate to being part of China."
Art Issues magazine reviewed the Los Angeles show, noting that "John McKenzie's elegant and hilarious word drawings ... display a far more impassioned engagement with language than most text-based art."
At Creativity Explored, McKenzie's pieces sell for around $20 (or $150 for a window). At Mark Moore, Ford priced the McKenzies between $500 and $1,000. He completely sold out and had to replenish his supply.
In San Francisco, news of McKenzie's work spread by word-of-mouth. Last year, a dealer from New York called to ask if Creativity Explored would let him represent McKenzie, exclusively. The nonprofit turned him down (and refuses to divulge the name of the dealer). "I don't like the idea of monopoly," says Ed McKenzie. "I didn't like the idea of his work being tied up like that."