By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
Most visual artists would drink their turpentine for the kind of attention that John Patrick McKenzie is receiving. He has a cult following in San Francisco. He has shown in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. His work has commanded four-figure prices and favorable mention in the press. A New York dealer who wished to represent him recently sought McKenzie out. In the now-trendy branch of the art world known as "outsider art," he is a rising star.
To say McKenzie hasn't let success go to his head is a gross understatement. He isn't aware, for instance, that Michael Stipe of R.E.M. bought several of his works. He doesn't know who collects his art, and he doesn't care what they pay, as shown in this recent exchange:
Do you want to be famous?
"No? Yes? No?"
Do you want money?
"Because money is hard to get."
McKenzie is 40 years old, and lives with his parents and two younger adult sisters in a Mission District apartment. A painfully shy and obedient son, he hates crowds and usually doesn't speak unless spoken to. McKenzie doesn't see himself as a cultural critic -- the way his fans do -- or a burgeoning talent in the art world. In fact he sometimes signs his work, in the rare case that he does, "John Patrick McKenzie is nobody." And he seems to want to remain that way. Also, he is autistic.
For the past 14 years, John McKenzie has been making his art at Creativity Explored, a nonprofit arts center in San Francisco for mentally disabled adults. He is the center's biggest seller, and, in cooperation with his parents, the center makes decisions about his career. So far, those decisions have done little to capitalize on McKenzie's grass-roots following. McKenzie has made no objections.
The studios of Creativity Explored are located up the street from the congested hub of restaurants and bars at 16th and Mission, in a former turn-of-the-century dance hall that still has the stamped tin ceiling tiles that were once used as a fire retardant. The colorful artwork made by the "clients," as the students are referred to, is everywhere -- stacked in bins, stuck on the walls, piled in the corners.
If you got hold of the membership roster of the Screen Actors Guild, and shook out all the most eccentric-looking character actors, you might approximate the cast of Creativity Explored. The clients range in age from their early 20s to senior citizens, and are almost every ethnicity you can think of. Only a few show the recognizable signs of Down syndrome; the others display quirks whose roots are harder to identify. Marilyn Chen, a perpetually agitated middle-aged Chinese woman, rants about her snack money, which she forever claims has been filched by another student. Saed Nasser, a Palestinian man who wears a helmet, creeps around the studio, touching people gently with two fingers, like a human tuning fork. Evelyn Reyes, a tiny woman always dressed in a woolly knit cap and huge sunglasses, looks up from her oil pastel drawings of cakes and shouts, "Hello! What's your name?" to every visitor who walks into the studio.
Usually, the clients sit together at long tables covered in butcher paper. On the Friday after Halloween, however, they are dancing. A new instructor who used to be a modern dancer leads the clients in free-form movement to a mix of pop tunes blasting from a boombox.
John McKenzie and another instructor, Pilar Olabarria, sit across from one another at a little card table in the back of the room, where the staff usually eats lunch. Their view of the dancers is blocked by a filing cabinet. A baby-faced Filipino with a mustache, a slight overbite, and large, expressive eyes, McKenzie is dressed immaculately, in contrast to many of the other clients. He wears a sporty blue and green windbreaker and a muted Hawaiian-style flowered shirt tucked into belted chinos.
Hunched over, his face four inches from the table, McKenzie prints on a cardboard rectangle. "Sharon Tate likes ...." He pauses for a moment, then writes, "Mexican food." Slowly and deliberately, he goes back and fills in the bubbles on the o's, the tops of the e's, the bottoms of the d's, and so on.
On the other side of the filing cabinet, his colleagues raucously wave arms and kick legs with no apparent order or noticeable choreography in response to the song "We Are Family." McKenzie has a slightly pained expression on his face. "John doesn't like the dancing," Olabarria explains in heavily accented English.
A Spanish Basque who herself resembles a dancer, Olabarria rifles through a stack of 14 small cardboard pieces that McKenzie covered with writing the day before. On a good day like that, he works furiously and prolifically. On bad days, which are frequent, McKenzie is nearly catatonic -- his brow wrinkled in a scowl, hands hanging limply at his sides, gaze fixed on the splattered floorboards. If someone tries to talk to him, he puts his head down on the table and pulls his windbreaker over his head.
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:
Safeway Store is already shut down for a long time in Ocean Street
Other times, the pieces seem to be cultural critiques, like this excerpt, from a window:
Osama bin Laden dislikes kelloggs frosted mini wheats
Osama bin Laden dislikes making love American style
McKenzie has a savant's knack for remembering birthdays, and has invented classifications for people born in each decade. People born in the '30s are called "beatniks." Born in the '40s are "cold turkeys." "Whipper snapper nerds" were born in the '50s, "spring chickens" in the '60s. "Fresh chickens" in the '70s, and "freshers" were born post-'70s. McKenzie's writings often describe the power dynamics between generations, each of which is in some way doomed to unhappiness. The younger generations are envious of the power of the older generations, and the older, of the beauty of youth. And they all have dietary restrictions.
Most non cold turkeys and most non whipper snappers like meatless spaghetti
It takes weeks of beggingand pleading to get into the McKenzies' apartment. Though in the past John's parents enjoyed entertaining -- they have invited their son's favorite art instructors to dinner -- of late, they complain that the house is "topsy-turvy" and not fit for visitors. The two younger daughters -- Christine, 33, and Kareen, 25 -- moved back home over a year ago, and are camped out in the living room. The official reason: They are saving money to buy their own homes. A protracted family argument over the state of the living room must first be resolved before any visitors are allowed inside.
The McKenzies' two-bedroom walk-up is decorated in a Kermit-the-Frog-green color scheme and crammed with John's mother's silk flower arrangements, religious statuary draped with rosary beads, and layers of doilies covering the furniture. An electronic cuckoo clock chimes "Edelweiss" on the hour.
"I like to decorate," says John McKenzie's mother, Myrna, a striking woman who was crowned last year's Queen of the Lady of Lourdes Catholic beauty pageant. She is an affectionate woman with a melancholy air. When discussing John, with whom she is close, she often gets misty-eyed.
John McKenzie sleeps in his parents' former storage room, amidst plastic containers of sweaters, racks of his parents' clothing, and extra rolls of toilet paper. His old bedroom is now used to store his sisters' things. When asked, half jokingly, how he feels about his sisters' appropriation of his bedroom, John answers, "Lousy?"
John's father, Ed, a former corpsman third class in the U.S. Navy who saw action in the Korean War, now works part time for Hertz, returning dropped-off rental cars to their offices of origin. Bearded, with lively eyes, he is an opinionated, quick-tempered man with almost overbearing paternal largess. It is impossible to escape an encounter with Ed McKenzie without being fed -- Ghirardelli chocolate bars, mountains of Filipino egg rolls called lumpia, or anything else that might be on hand. Ed McKenzie likes to show off the official certificates his family has earned, framed on the living room wall -- from the girls' college diplomas to his own retirement plaque from the Navy.
None of John's artwork hangs on the walls.
The lack of personal space in the cramped apartment has frayed the nerves of the McKenzie family. Ed has executed a hostile takeover of the sun porch, where Myrna once grew orchids, and now uses it as a personal storage area for piles of odds and ends, including broken wicker baskets and Sammy Davis Jr. CDs. "We used to sleep back here when it was warm," says Myrna wistfully, looking at her now-dead plants. "It was really nice."
Though the attractive McKenzies senior look far younger than their 70 and 63 years, respectively, they have been ordered by their doctors to slow down. Ed had to cut back on fried goodies following a heart attack, and Myrna has difficulty cooking or lifting things because of chronic back pain. She wakes up at 3:30 every morning, tortured by anxiety.
Surprisingly, it is their autistic son who supplies the oil that keeps the household running relatively smoothly. Every afternoon, he returns home from Creativity Explored at 2:30 and helps his mother with chores -- vacuuming, dusting, washing dishes.
"John -- the forks!" his father barks at him, before dinner. He noiselessly springs up to perform the task of setting the table, without a hint of displeasure.
"John -- the plates!"
"Paper plates?" John clarifies, his hand already reaching inside the cupboard.
He obligingly shuts one door and opens another.
"John -- make some coffee!" his father orders, after dinner.
McKenzie pops up again, and carefully measures out grounds with the plastic scoop.
"He always remembers where the can opener is," says Myrna's sister, Zeny, who lives in the neighborhood. "It's very convenient."
Every night, McKenzie says the rosary by his mother's side, and he accompanies her to mass at Mission Dolores on Sundays. His chief activity besides chores and making artwork is eating -- which he does heartily and with great enjoyment.
Freddie Prince [sic]
Raspberry apple cinnamon strawberry
Peter Frampton is full of ice cream
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
"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.
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."
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."
McKenzie used to sit next to a client at Creativity Explored who spent most of his days wandering up and down 16th Street, eating cigarette butts. When the man died of a heart attack, McKenzie mourned his death and created this piece on an asymmetrical block of wood, which stands in Michael McGinnis' study.
They are full of holy farewells
They are full of holy they will live another life
They are fully of holy patients
They are fully of holy you cannot win them
They are fully of holy you cannot catch them
They are fully of holy you cannot see them
They are fully of holy you cannot hear them
They are fully of holy you cannot touch them
Considering who made it, it could be looked at as a self-portrait.