MELVIN WAY: GAGA CITY
Melvin Way invented the Dell computer, founded collegiate and educational institutions all over the Northeastern United States, and wrote songs that were recorded and popularized by the Supremes. He had a ticket on the last Amtrak train that crashed near Philadelphia, but missed it, intentionally, because “something just wasn’t right.” Way’s enormously important intellectual and cultural accomplishments might explain the 6.2 million dollars he made last year. But what would you expect from a man who graduated high school fourteen times (ten times in South Carolina and four times in New York City) and who also happens to be “post-mortal?”
Some of Melvin’s stories don’t quite add up, and private details about a patient’s life can’t be legally disclosed. So, we rely on the artist’s shifting explanations of the past, separating reality from fiction to the best of our ability. Despite some conflicting stories and timeline gaps, it is clear that Way has lived and traveled between South Carolina and New York since he was a child. In the early 1970s, he attended a technical college and played in a music group, composing funk ballads and playing gigs in the city. He also experimented with drugs, and has spent periods of time in and out of various city shelters and programs.
In 1989, Way met Andrew Castrucci, an artist and educator, on Ward’s Island at a workshop run by Hospital Audiences Incorporated (HAI). The program included approximately one hundred men, but Castrucci took special interest in Way’s work. The two formed a friendship and creative relationship that continues today.
Way’s process is private and portable. He carries his drawings with him for days, weeks, or years, working on them when time or inspiration allows. He draws on found pieces of paper with ballpoint pen, often wrapping his work in Scotch tape—probably to preserve them as they are transferred among books, magazines, pockets, bags, and drawers. Way’s drawings look like copied textbook chemical formulas, but do not ultimately describe any particular substance known to man.
Way’s improvisational and scientific meanderings offer the possibility of a parallel universe—call it Gaga City—where the basic rules that govern our world are displaced, erased, re-drawn, re-configured, and covered in tape. Those new truths are stashed deep in the artist’s pockets or hidden away somewhere for safe-keeping. Way’s drawings are frequently referred to as “cryptograms,” but by definition, cryptograms can be solved, whereas Way’s drawings have no beginning, end, or decodable message. Instead, they speak to the infinite possibilities of both imagination and science, visually describing other realities and ways of seeing.
ABOUT THE ARTIST:
Scraps of found paper covered in writing, numbers, mathematical and chemical formulae, geometric shapes, musical scores, and sticky tape... The density of script layered on Melvin Way's graceful works gives them a rare magnetism. They reflect his obsession with space and time, while his equations seem intended to calculate the channels between the two; they act as a path of enfranchisement, abolishing the place assigned to us by time and space, thereby opening new vistas to the artist, who sometimes signs his works Melvin "Milky" Way.
Melvin was born in South Carolina and brought up by relatives in Brooklyn. He was fascinated by science at high school, where he also played bass and sang in a group. He was a student at the Technical Career Institute when he developed symptoms of mental illness that worsened over time. His girlfriend at the time was also struggling with drug addiction. He decided to become a musician before eventually finding himself homeless on Wards Island. The artist Andrew Castrucci came across Melvin's drawings in a homeless drop-in centre in the mid-1980s and set up an exhibition to showcase them. Melvin used a ball-point pen to draw on scraps of paper, scribbling countless signs, forms, and mysterious formulae, some gleaned from books, their secret known to no-one but him. He spends weeks, even months, working on his drawings, keeping them in his pocket or between the leaves of a book, and returning to work on them years later. Melvin Way's art has been admired by eminent critics such as Jerry Saltz, who described him as "a mystic visionary genius".