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In reality, a whole tangle of thorny issues has prevented Creativity Explored from marketing McKenzie to date. The center pays its artist clients the first $50 that it makes a month from the sale of a client's artwork, and then a 50 percent cut of everything after that, the other 50 percent going to the center. The prices of artwork at Creativity Explored are kept low for a reason: Most of CE's clients receive Social Security disability payments -- payments that might be threatened if they suddenly started receiving massive royalties.
There is also a philosophical conflict. Though Creativity Explored doesn't describe itself as "therapeutic" -- the clients' individual diagnoses are never discussed, for instance -- there is a therapeutic aspect to what the organization does. At the very least, mentally disabled adults who can't hold down jobs or go to college have a free, safe, and supportive environment in which to express themselves during the workweek. The idea of Creativity Explored as some kind of star factory leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the center's staff. Olabarria describes being "sickened" by the crowd that forms around McKenzie's art bin at the center's yearly Christmas sale.
Nonetheless, McKenzie's art has been too popular to keep him under the radar. Bonnie Grossman shows him in her gallery in Boston, nonexclusively, and for the first time last year, McKenzie's work was sold at the Outsider Art Fair in New York, by a prominent outsider-art dealer named Margaret Bodell.
And now, Creativity Explored seems finally ready to enter the art market on its own terms. It recently put the finishing touches on a gallery space, so client work can be shown in a formal setting. Amy Taub, director of Creativity Explored, is looking into the idea of setting up special-needs trust funds for the clients, where profits from sales can be deposited for a rainy day, without endangering the artists' standing with the Social Security Administration. And this year, Taub will visit NYC's Outsider Art Fair.
"I want to see what it would be like to have representatives and what it would be like to have someone represent John," says Taub.
If successful, Creativity Explored will follow in the footsteps of Creative Growth, a center in Oakland with a mission similar to Creativity Explored's. Thanks to the art world savvy of its executive director, Tom di Maria, Creative Growth has successfully launched two of its clients -- Judith Scott and Dwight Mackintosh -- into the upper stratosphere of the outsider-art world. Both have shown in the United States and Europe, and now are represented by the well-respected Ricco-Maresca Gallery in New York. Mackintosh's paintings (he is now deceased) are priced anywhere from $1,200 to $6,500, and Scott's sculpture from $4,000 to $10,000.
McKenzie, unlike many of the other artists at the center, doesn't get excited when he sells a piece of art. Olabarria says she believes that is because he is well taken care of, and has -- compared to other clients -- a "good life" that includes plenty of food to eat, good clothes, and living parents.
But Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie are of another mind. They see success in the art world as a possible ticket to independence for their son. His mother's biggest wish for McKenzie is that he will be able to take care of himself after they are gone. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. McKenzie, however, is well versed in what it takes to make it in the art world.
"I tell him that moodiness doesn't count," says Myrna. "He can't sit down. He has to work hard. I always remind him, 'You don't have success without hard work.'"
"I think the buyers are the ones who will put him up there," says Ed. "He will spread by word-of-mouth."
Though it's not always clear what McKenzie thinks, it's clear that being included in the next "Whitney Biennial" is not high on the list of his concerns. When asked whether he knows about the dealer in New York who wanted to represent him, he answers, "Yes?" somewhat unconvincingly.
Does he know why his work is not being shown in that gallery?
"They decided they didn't like me?"
What McKenzie really thinks, and what he dreams for his future, is debatable even among those closest to him, and will probably stay that way. His devout mother, in hopes that one day he'll be able to attend confession, has been teaching him the meaning of sin. When asked to name a few sins, he answers, "Lying? Stealing? Drinking alcohol? Taking drugs? Suicide?"
At this last, he pantomimes pointing a gun to his head and pulling the trigger, with obvious relish.
Yet in his art, he has written all of the following comments:
John Patrick McKenzie steals money
John Patrick McKenzie drinks beer
I will commit suicide in heaven
"He's an invisible-turner and a fugitive," says Aaron Noble, McKenzie's friend and former instructor. "All the things he lists and says he hates -- it's just camouflage. He's a big liar, is my theory. And there is nothing better that he would like than to hear me say that."