An American `differentness'

Paul Darmafall's visionary view of patriotism


October 30, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Unlike those visionary artists whose work is obsessively precise, Paul Darmafall embraced asymmetry. In rotten boards and broken bits of bottles, the Baltimore Glassman, who died this week of a heart attack at age 78, found a pursuit that gave order to his thoughts, themselves broken - the shards of a mentally ill mind.

I marvel at certain masterpieces of discipline, such as late Baltimorean Gerald Hawkes' matchstick skulls and furniture. But somehow, Darmafall's glittery, 3-D cartoon angels, trees, flags, birds and historical figures are more emotionally accessible precisely because of their imperfection. His work appeals to my inner child, someone who could never color within the lines and rendered the sky as a messy blue strip across the top of a sheet of construction paper.

Darmafall's work is also a shining example of how a creative mind can thrive on clutter, chance and speed. He allowed random shapes and textures to guide him and frame his recurring themes of freedom, despairing patriotism and biblical doom. His best pieces - he was prolific and uneven - have the weight of priceless antiquities unearthed from tombs and caves that contained mysterious, yet uncanny, predictions for the future. Imagine what his rough-hewn tablets will tell the world about American civilization over the next millennia if anyone chooses to decode his cryptic writings.

A Navy gunner during World War II, Darmafall worked at Bethlehem Steel as a machinist and bricklayer. After becoming ill, he would often disappear for long stretches only to surface in makeshift studios around the city. There, he created hundreds, perhaps thousands, of "signs" from scraps of tin, glass and wood. Eventually, friends who admired Darmafall's art helped to make his survival possible and provide him with a safe place to work.

While Baltimore is home to the American Visionary Art Museum, where his work is in the permanent collection, Darmafall, himself, often chose not to live in his own Armistead Gardens home. Like many other visionary creators discovered by the art world, Darmafall, whose name over the years has also been spelled Darmofall, led a strange life of rootlessness, delusion and fame.

Preoccupied as he was with American history, Darmafall often re-created the Statue of Liberty in glass. Less inscrutable and majestic than the real thing, Darmafall's ladies flirt with kitschy counterparts in souvenir shops. At the same time, they reveal how Darmafall's illness led him to a profoundly broad sense of American identity. His national narrative, while often gloomy or seemingly naive, is malleable and open to interpretation. That's a quality worth considering at a time when loyalty to God and Country can be rigidly defined, leaving no room for the questions that are the lifeblood of democracy.

In 1995, Darmafall told a reporter, "If you look at American history, it will teach us something. We've had the Constitution ever since the Revolution, and we still can't get by."

Darmafall's pessimism, whether or not it was a function of his illness, was not misplaced. In his singular way, the Baltimore Glassman got to the heart of the American paradox. This is a country founded on freedom of expression; yet there are those who fear that such freedom will ultimately precipitate its destruction.

I have no idea whether Darmafall consciously saw his own art as a reflection of his rights as an American. But as he reinvented others' discards, he exercised his rights with resourcefulness and ingenuity, traits inextricably linked to Americans since the country's founding. His "differentness" opened the gate, not only to his freedom of expression but to a way of voicing his intense national loyalty.

In more ways than he may have realized, the Glassman used his gifts as an outsider to uphold the Constitution. In doing so, he produced an enormous body of work collected around the world.

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