A recipe: Find a wooden board, any size. (Check trash cans, dumps, alleys.) Smooth glue on it in any shape. Cover glue with broken glass, any color. Use large pieces for strong statements; finer shards for detail work. Sprinkle with glass dust. Add glitter to taste.
This is art by Paul Darmafall. "You ever do kitchen work?" he
asks. "You can get a lot of ideas from kitchen work. This is the only thing I can think of to do with broken glass."
About 20 years ago, the Baltimorean came up with this unusual vehicle for communicating messages that he thinks are of utmost importance. They are common-sense truths laid out by the Constitution, he says, and are best expressed in commonplace materials. Where others see broken glass and rotting wood, Mr. Darmafall finds a sort of Bible.
He produces a prodigious number of art objects that he calls "signs." One board, decorated with a red-winged, glass angel, says: "Songs -- Red Wings -- National Anthem -- Pittsburgh, Pa.-- The Fresh Air Cure." On a second, an owl made of brown glass is accompanied by the saying, "Wise old bird. Bird of prey an free."
To the 70-year-old, who is known internationally as the Baltimore Glassman, the signs are attempts to spread the word about what he calls the ground rules. But to patrons of folk art, they are extraordinary pieces to be bought, sold and collected. Some have even been stolen. Ranging in price from $35 to $900, they are sold in art galleries in Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Vienna, Austria.
They pop up unexpectedly in places like the cover of the September-October issue of Metropolitan Home magazine. Celebrities, including actress-director Penny Marshall, are collecting them. Now one of Mr. Darmafall's works is part of the first exhibit at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum.
Sometimes called l'art brut or raw art, the work found in the newly opened museum is made by people who don't easily fit societal norms. Its creators may be mentally ill, uneducated or simply eccentric; their art often possesses an untutored purity of emotion that makes it compelling and sometimes disturbing.
L'art brut went unnoticed until the end of the last century, when European doctors began studying works created by the mentally ill. They saw it, however, simply as a clinical tool used to better understand their patients. Gradually, artists and intellectuals, such as painter Paul Klee and author Andre Breton, began to tout it as unique and legitimate art.
Mr. Darmafall seems driven to produce his signs at an astounding rate. His wife, Bonnie Darmafall, says he was diagnosed 42 years ago with a severe mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia. And the messages he works so hard to spread come from a complex and colorful inner world that only he
Mr. Darmafall was making a flag for his bicycle when the idea for his signs came to him. It may have been 1976 -- the year of the nation's bicentennial -- or maybe it was later -- he's not sure.
"Like Christopher Columbus, I discovered it," he says. "I was making the first flag of the United States like Betsy Ross -- you never hear anybody talk about her anymore -- and something broke and some pieces of glass fell on the flag and I discovered how beautiful it was."
He hasn't stopped making signs since.
Broad-shouldered and well over 6 feet tall, Mr. Darmafall has strong, big hands that are worn and reddened from outdoor labor. During World War II, he served as a Navy gunner. And when it ended, he didn't return to Moundsville, W.Va., where his father was a coal miner. Instead, he came to Baltimore to work at Bethlehem Steel as a machinist and a bricklayer.
The couple had been married for six years when Mrs. Darmafall noticed that his behavior was changing. For months, she never dreamed that her bright, hard-working husband might be mentally ill. Then one day, she knew. "He would walk away like he was going to the store and I wouldn't see him again for two or three weeks," she says.
"One time the police came and said they found his car somewhere in Ohio. Well, he came home and he didn't know how he got home and where the car was and so naturally I knew something was desperately wrong. But you couldn't get him to do anything or go to the doctor."
Mr. Darmafall's illness strained the household. Unable to work, he was often hospitalized for months at a time. Mrs. Darmafall supported the family by working at the Owings Mills Paper Co. and raised the three children by herself. When Mr. Darmafall was home, his illness was all-consuming. Sometimes he drank too much. Sometimes he was fine. Sometimes he didn't make sense or thought he was someone else, like Benjamin Franklin.
Daughter Melinda Jensen says, "It caused a lot of tension. My mother used to say he was highly intelligent, but I couldn't see it for the longest time. Later on I realized what his mental illness was, and I could see it: He knows a lot of things."