Art Retrospective Recognizes 'Schizophrenic' Genius

Jon Kalish, NPR, May 12, 2007

A Mexican man who spent nearly half of his life in American mental hospitals is now being hailed as one of the giants of 20th century art.


Martin Ramirez, who was diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic after he immigrated to the United States in 1925, produced more than 300 mesmerizing drawings during his time in hospital wards.


Much of his work is now on display in a major retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan.


At age 30, Ramirez left his pregnant wife and three children in Mexico to find work in northern California. But six years after his arrival, Ramirez, like thousands of others, fell victim to the Great Depression. Ramirez spoke no English, and he was soon institutionalized, even though he might not have needed psychiatric care.


In 1948 Ramirez was transferred to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, Calif., where he was housed in a tuberculosis ward run by James Durfee. Many of the patients on the ward were violent, Durfee says, and the artist spent much of his time cowering beneath a table.


But before he began drawing, he always made his own paint pots.


"Martin collected oatmeal mush in the morning and made little pots. He baked them on a steam radiator to make a pot," Durfee, now 78, said. "... And he would use that pot to mix his paints."


Many of Ramirez's drawings – done in subdued reds, yellows and blues — were created on sheets of examining-table paper, some of them 18 feet long. His creations depict trains running in and out of tunnels, cars morphing into turtles and a Madonna standing on a globe with a snake coiled at her feet.

Many of the images are framed by vertical, horizontal diagonal and curved lines. He also drew animals and men on horses holding pistols.


Ramirez rarely spoke during the 30 years he spent in psychiatric hospitals. When a nephew came to visit in 1952, Ramirez declined to return to Mexico with him.


Ramirez died in 1963 at DeWitt State Hospital. He was 68 years old.