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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.

Wednesday, Nov 27 2002
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?


Why not?

"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:

Modern Softdrinks

Coke Sprite

Pepsi Slice

Seven up

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.

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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