When Art Imitates Dealth Jack Kevorkian, the suicide doctor, enlivens a party at an art gallery that is showing his bizarre paintings.

March 19, 1997|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

ROYAL OAK, MICH. — In yesterday's Today section, criminal charges against Dr. Jack Kevorkian were reported incorrectly. He was acquitted of assisting people to kill themselves.

The Sun regrets the errors.

ROYAL OAK, Mich. -- Getting to see Jack Kevorkian in person isn't the perverse thrill you might expect it to be. Up close, Kevorkian -- aka Dr. Death -- isn't spooky. He is a little old man, slight enough to blow away in the wintry Michigan wind, with tufty white hair and oversized brown glasses. His 68-year-old face is angular, but not skeletal; his skin glows a healthy pink, and he smiles a lot. Imagine a cross between a sprightly grandfather -- the sort who buys his clothes at the Salvation Army -- and a theatrical college professor -- the sort who hangs out on the quad debating his students.

Actually, Dr. Death is kind of sweet.

Which is a little surprising, considering that the reason for tonight's Kevorkian appearance is the opening of an exhibit of his oil paintings: 13 brightly colored, surrealistic works depicting bloody severed heads, decaying bodies, swastikas, hollow-eyed skulls and -- as if that were not strange enough -- Johann Sebastian Bach.


More about that later. Right now, Kevorkian -- who has helped more than 40 people kill themselves with lethal gas and chemicals, who has been acquitted of murder and is scheduled to stand trial for it again this summer -- is standing in the middle of a chic art gallery in suburban Detroit on a Saturday night, wearing a medium-blue three-piece suit, a pink dress shirt and unfashionable black shoes. One by one, holding plastic cups of white wine and nibbling on strawberries, the gallery patrons are lining up to meet him. Tonight's crowd -- hundreds of Kevorkian admirers, associates and sympathizers -- is overwhelmingly friendly; if people consider Kevorkian a madman or a murderer, they don't say so.

Tonight the doctor is working the crowd. He shakes people's hands. He memorizes their names. He poses, arms draped around strangers' shoulders, for pictures. ("If they want to waste film," he quips, "why should I argue?") He gives people a piece of his mind on all manner of topics, from corrupt doctors to fascist politicians to religious hypocrites to unjust laws. He explicates his art and its pessimistic view of humanity. "You are morally bankrupt and have a total lack of character as a society," he shouts at one woman, spittle flying from his mouth. "Look at human history: It's just riddled with wars and all kinds of social disasters!" Then, smiling: "If anybody disagrees, say so. This is just my opinion. Of course, I think it's accurate."

For hour after hour, without a break, clearly relishing the attention, Kevorkian holds court. He baits, rants, raves, jokes, proselytizes. He works the crowd so long that the bodyguards hired by his attorney roll their eyes in exhaustion. But Kevorkian isn't paying attention. He's too busy talking about Dali and Magritte and Bach, the artists he loves; Michigan Governor John Engler, the politician he hates; and bell peppers, which he's hoping will be available at the local farmer's market soon.

"Get her into oil painting," he advises the father of an 11-year-old aspiring artist. "Acrylic is hard to work with." He peers curiously .. into the face of an attractive blond woman. "You know who you look like?" he exclaims. "Deborah Norville!" He comforts a struggling pianist. "Bach's Invention No. 8? Oh, you can handle it."

A man shyly approaches the doctor with an offer. If Kevorkian, a composer of organ music, is looking for someplace to play the organ, the man's church would love to have him. "Really?" asks Kevorkian, beaming. "Oh, good."

The man leans close and whispers a secret to the doctor: He is HIV positive. "Keep your spirits up," Kevorkian tells him. "The mind is a powerful healer."

Jack Kevorkian may be obsessed with death. But he's also the life of the party.

Not an artist

He doesn't call himself an artist. "I consider myself a cartoonist in oils. I call them pictorial philosophy, not art. Technically, it's not great art. But within limits, I'm proud of it."

Except for one class more than 30 years ago, he's had no formal training. Truth be told, he doesn't even like to paint. The 13 oils in the show were painted at the behest of his attorney/manager/sidekick, Geoffrey Feiger. A previous set of Kevorkian oils disappeared while being shipped some years ago; Feiger urged Kevorkian to re-create the works for posterity. "These paintings are his social commentary," Feiger says. "It's for the ages."

Kevorkian says his paintings, full of heavy-handed symbolism, are meant to make people think, to confront parts of the world that they usually ignore.

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