Marie Sabatino

The Pen, The Man, The Moon

His name was Melvin Way, or Melvin “Milky” Way, or as he signed on the form to consent for our interview: Melvin, Whay., Way. I had planned to meet with the artist on a Sunday afternoon in late December—the same day that New York City had one of the worst snowstorms in its history. When I called Melvin in the morning to confirm our appointment, he said something about not being able to make it because he was “in the process of flipping calendars.” I envisioned Melvin Way enraptured in a frenzy of epic art-making that might somehow convey the heaviness of time passing, moments lost. When I asked Melvin if he could tell me more about that process, he simply said: “Sundays are hyper—my natural high.”

My initial reaction was to attempt to convince Melvin to change his mind. I was eager to learn about the man behind the art. Then, despite my best intentions, I decided that it was better to follow the direction of Melvin Way. We planned to get together for the interview several days later.

I had met Melvin Way once before, at his recent exhibit at the Hospital Audiences, Inc. (HAI) Gallery in Soho just a few weeks earlier. Melvin’s work was first discovered by HAI art instructor, Andrew Castrucci, at a homeless shelter on Ward’s Island in New York City almost twenty-five years ago. In my investigation of the artist, I learned a bit about the mystique of Melvin “Milky” Way, as well as his reputation of being difficult to work with.

Yet I found Melvin to be gentle and affable—eager to please, to engage, and to pull one into his world through his art; though, he certainly would not refer to the dozens of tightly condensed ballpoint drawings that adorned the walls of HAI as such a thing. As Melvin put it, proudly pointing to a centipede-like figure in one of his drawings, Key to Life, “I was ingesting this to be myself.” Indeed, much of the works of Melvin Way appeared to possess elements of both searching and self-discovery: a rigorous journey through a complex inner landscape—indefinable, yet with a sense of purpose.

According to most accounts of the artist’s history, Melvin Way has been living with schizophrenia for nearly four decades of his life. It was not clear exactly what Mr. Way understood this to mean. Perhaps the most he was able to intimate about this was that he went through a period of “amnesia” during much of his life. Memories, experiences, and realities at times here, at times gone. The way one might imagine waking from a dream in the middle of the night, bits and pieces pulsating and alive, yet mostly seen through a murky window of consciousness, an unspoken question about what exists in the world outside and what exists within.

After our initial failed attempt to meet, Melvin Way and I had planned to get together at a Chelsea diner in Manhattan. We had a lunch date set for twelve noon on December 31st, early enough to beat the masses heading further up north to the chaos of Times Square. When Melvin called on my cell phone to let me know that he had arrived forty-five minutes early, I suggested that he stop somewhere for a coffee until I could get to the diner.

Upon my arrival, Melvin mentioned that he did not stop for a coffee, and instead, pulled out a fifth of Hennesey tucked in a brown paper bag, offering me a sip before he poured some into his ice water. I politely declined. Though, for a moment, there was a part of me that thought: Hmmm, yes—that would be nice. The notion of getting away with something that one really ought not to be doing was dangerously appealing. I mean, why else do bitty children steal candy, or grown adults drive at 85 mph in a 55 mph zone, or church-going husbands and wives have deliciously wretched affairs? Well, I suppose we could argue that all of these things made us feel good, but—certainly, the element of danger could not be overlooked.

The more I got to know Melvin Way, the more I understood the significance that danger would play as it permeated Melvin’s world and as he, in turn, would make certain it permeated ours. In one particularly striking drawing by Way, the word LOKI appeared prominently in heavy black ink at the top of the drawing and at the very bottom was the phrase:

Evil, Wicked, Cunning,
WAY

It could easily be assumed that LOKI was a misspelling of loci, which seemed to make sense considering Way’s penchant for all things scientific. Yet upon further exploration, it was found that in Norse mythology, Loki represented a god who contrives evil and mischief for his fellow gods. It was, perhaps, no coincidence to discover that Loki was also a popular Marvel Comics villain who first appeared on the comic scene just a few years before Melvin Way was born. Loki’s “powers” are described by Marvel Comics:

Loki is immune to most physical injury, and can reattach severed body parts, including his own head. Loki can mystically imbue objects or beings with specific but temporary powers, and enhance the powers of superhumans. Loki can also magically create rifts between dimensions, allowing him or other objects passage from one universe to another.

One might ask what real or imagined dangers interrupted the life of Melvin Way. Were there perceived threats that he sought protection from? During our chat at the diner, Melvin appeared preoccupied with a large plant sitting on the open shelf just beside our table. He would very often glance at the plant in mid-conversation, look at me, and back at the plant again. This pattern repeated itself multiple times. One was left to wonder, were the complex formulas obsessively found in Melvin Way’s artwork some grand scheme for Melvin Way to free himself of such preoccupations? In one of his interpretations of such formulas, Melvin acknowledged that the elaborate schematics were the key to entering the realm of “time travel.” Indeed, a good deal of the works of art conceived by Melvin Way seemed to evoke a yearning for escape.

Many of Way’s drawings—typically the size of a standard postcard—were created with black or blue ink, sometimes red. These bold, heavy marks came in the form of unruly shapes and cryptic symbols, random letters and broken words, repetitive mathematical formulas and wonderfully rebellious diagrams that seemed to take delight in providing no real explanations. The viewer peering in might feel compelled to crane one’s neck, closer, closer, to decipher for oneself the intricate little puzzles that lie within these secret mazes.

For people, like me, with a deep interest in the study of mental illness, it was tempting to view Way’s artistic expressions as analogous to what is known in the psychiatric arena as “word salad,” a form of communication consisting of real and imaginary words often lacking definitive meaning. This phenomenon has been observed among select individuals living with untreated or more advanced forms of schizophrenia. Throughout the course of my ninety minute interview with the artist, Melvin Way’s thoughts would often wander to another place, his stories severed mid-sentence, as if ending with a series of ellipses…. or a question mark…. rather than with the finality of a period. Or the certainty of an exclamation point.

By the end of our meeting, I learned very little about the factual life of Melvin Way. It was as if he was a man of no roots, no real time or place, no rhyme or reason. And that was just the way he liked it. I learned to appreciate the far and away tangential places that Melvin Way would take me to, drop me off, then pick me right back up again, with a bright and eager smile, as if to say: “Hey YOU—where ya been?”

Similarly, Melvin Way’s painstaking artwork seemed to beg the very same question, as if searching for moments lost from the sudden striking of “amnesia,” all the gaping holes of memory that must be filled with something honest and pure…. perhaps, something that could only be created by instinct alone, that could only exist without the burden of order and rules.

Each ballpoint mark that Melvin Way left behind suggested a process of constant searching, sense-making, and self-discovery. Perhaps, quite literally, he was seeking answers to the question: “Hey YOU—where ya been?”
I wanted to tell him: We are all here, we are watching, we are listening, we are excited to be coming along on this ride with you. But just as I had the thought, Melvin says that he is like the Apollo, he is going to the moon.
And I suddenly realized that the rest of us were all left behind in our tiny little worlds, far less remarkable, looking up up up, watching, and waiting.

*

Marie Sabatino spends her days working in the field of mental health and much of her free time writing about people who oscillate between internal conflict and renewal—herself and loved ones included! Marie’s fiction and non-fiction work have appeared in various online and print magazines, including Word Riot, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Bayou Magazine, among others. Her most recent piece, Melvin Way: The Man, the Pen, and the Moon, features a self-taught and visionary artist living with schizophrenia, which can be found here: http://www.riccomaresca.com/fluence/magazine.htm