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Baltimore Glassman turns shards into art Shattered: Paul Darmafall sees his boards covered with broken glass as signs to direct a wayward world; dealers call them folk art.

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.

Let set.

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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."

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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

understands.

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Inspiration

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.

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"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."

Schizophrenics may hear voices or have delusions. They may believe that the Mafia or the CIA is out to get them, or think there is a poison in the air. Though the word schizophrenia means "split mind," it doesn't refer to multiple personalities. It means that the brain performs certain tasks normally and others dysfunctionally or not at all.

Sometimes conversations with Mr. Darmafall are dead on. Ask for directions to anywhere in Baltimore, and you'll get them. Got a history question? He's likely to know the answer.

But Mr. Darmafall also thinks light bulbs are bugged. He hates air conditioning because the vents could pump poison into the room. Too much electricity is a bad thing. His ground rules include adhering to the "fresh air cure," which is the belief that being outside is the healthiest way to live.

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Mr. Darmafall says his philosophy is based upon the Constitution. His art is filled with historical figures and admonitions to stick to the rules as he sees them. Some of his works are childish: a charming blue glass train chugging beneath red glass stars. Other pieces are complex and evocative and hint of darker emotions. One, which was used on a flier that promoted a Berlin art gallery, depicts a silhouette of a leaping figure in dark brown glass. Around it are the words "Song." "Murder." "Song." "With-a-dolly. With-a-hole-in-stocking."

"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," Mr. Darmafall says with exasperation.

Though Mr. Darmafall hasn't worked for 30 years, he has found in glass and boards an outlet for the stress and pain caused by his illness. Instead of walls and buildings of lasting brick, his tough, gnarled hands create art objects of breakable materials.

Once he discovered art, Mr. Darmafall became a whirlwind of creativity. He dragged home boards, old buckets of paint, bushels of glass until finally, Mrs. Darmafall told him he could no longer work in the house.

It barely slowed him down.

He set up makeshift studios on corners, in trash bins, in the woods and once in a toxic waste dump -- usually in the Erdman Avenue vicinity. Each day, rain, sun or snow, Mrs. Darmafall packed her husband a lunch (usually hard-boiled eggs because he is afraid his food is being poisoned). He loaded up with boards the rickety bicycle that he'd restored and peddled off. Now and then, he'd bicycle to the Gettysburg battlefield on a fact-finding mission. Sometimes he'd leave his signs there. Most days, though, he'd bike to his current work site, pull up a chair from the trash, set out his glass materials and begin.

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To make sure people got the message, Mr. Darmafall lined his signs up along the street, hung them in trees, leaned them against church walls, even placed them inside trains that paused on their way through Baltimore.

Unbeknown to his family, Mr. Darmafall's signs and his unusual world vision began attracting gawkers who became his friends -- and the attention of the art world.

Marilyn Gabor, an art dealer and artist, heard about the man who made art of glass and sought him out in one of his makeshift studios in 1986. "He would tame the rats so they would come in and eat. He entertained. He sat on this old chair and welcomed you in. He sat with his legs crossed and a cigarette in his hand like Truman Capote. He served brandy and Coke, no ice, at high noon."

She began to sell his art at her store, Modern Antique, which was on Maryland Avenue. At first she paid Mr. Darmafall directly, then -- without knowing he had a family -- she opened a bank account on his behalf and deposited his profits there. Two local musicians, Asa Osbourne and Charles Brohawn, introduced a Richmond curator to his work. There was a Baltimore Glassman show in Richmond, and the word began to spread.

A legend sprang up to explain man and art. It was said that he was homeless. It was said that he was paranoid and wouldn't tell anyone his name: One-man shows titled simply "Paul" were given in cities as far away as Berlin.

Dishonest art dealers helped build his reputation, too. Mr. Darmafall's friends suspect that during the 1980s, someone sneaked into his outdoor studios at night and pilfered art. The Baltimore Glassman's work appeared -- at times inexplicably -- in galleries in the Northeast and Southwest.

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The question of theft is murky, however, because Mr. Darmafall sees his signs as messages -- and routinely gives them away. "I don't believe in cashing in on him," says his daughter, Ms. Jensen. "It's not for me to tell him what to do. But if someone is going to make money, I would like my mother to get some."

Mrs. Darmafall got wind of her husband's growing renown when art dealers began calling her at home. College students asked to make a documentary. Collectors banged on the door of their tiny East Baltimore house asking for art. Now she keeps a folder of gallery fliers, in German, French or English, all advertisements for the Baltimore Glassman's art. "I think my mouth must have hit the ground when my mother told me," says Ms. Jensen, who is a special-education teacher in Norfolk, Va. "We had no idea. I have a lot of his work and he's my father and I love him, but it's not the kind of art I'd hang on my wall."

Far more valuable to the family, Ms. Jensen says, is the knowledge that something good has come from the illness they've struggled against for so long. "I consider myself a survivor, I really do. All my life I felt ashamed of his mental illness and now, my God, he's done something I can be proud of."

But vandals wrecked Mr. Darmafall's studios. They tossed his art on the ground and emptied his jars of glass. And because he drank a lot and collected so much junk, the residents of whatever block he was camping in would tell him to move on. So he did.

Two years ago, Mr. Darmafall became discouraged. Maybe the destruction of his camps got to him. Maybe it was the disappearing art. Perhaps age made him more susceptible to the cold. Whatever the reasons, he stopped building new work spaces and stopped taking road trips on his bike.

He tried working in his yard, but it made him nervous. The TV antennae spied on him, he says. Loud voices talked about him. The Baltimore Glassman began spending most of his time in his bedroom.

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Ms. Gabor, now a family friend, offered Mr. Darmafall the use of her art studio one day a week, plus a ride to and from home. Now he spends most of the week scrounging for glass, boards and old paint, and occasionally rescuing orphaned bicycles. He gave up cigarettes and cut back on drinking. For fun he plays bingo. Money from sales of his art goes to Mrs. Darmafall, minus a percentage to Ms. Gabor to help with rent.

"He's one of those very unique people, and I would hate to see him stop working," says Ms. Gabor, as she sits in her studio and gestures at the art. "I mean, look at the output, look at it!"

Her studio is buried beneath boards adorned with glass angels and George Washingtons, glass Liberty Bells and owls, glass trains and crucifixes. Art is stacked against art, hanging and leaning on walls, piled on tables, lying flat on the floor. Many pieces depict silhouettes of unidentifiable figures standing alone in crowds. All have unusual messages scrawled in Magic Marker at their feet, over their heads, at odd intervals throughout the work.

"I don't know the faintest thing about art, but sometimes certain things he makes catches my eye and I keep them," says Mrs. Darmafall. "Maybe we should worry about who buys it but we don't, and it doesn't matter. It's something he likes to do, and it's better than climbing the walls."

Breaking up

Wham! The sound of glass breaking in the morning quiet. Mr. Darmafall, on his hands and knees, is hard at work with a hammer. Wham! He bashes the old jars and bottles wrapped in newspapers. Wham! He only uses glass that no one else could possibly want. Wham! Sometimes he gets a finger.

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It doesn't slow him down. After smashing the glass, Mr. Darmafall sorts the shards by size and color. Screens with holes of different sizes sift bigger glass bits from smaller and smaller from minute. Even glass dust is saved and used.

"The dust melds the glass and glue together and makes a stronger binding, like dough, you know?" Mr. Darmafall says.

He is working on a huge crucifix and a blue Jesus with red hair. There are two red stars on each side and a big white moon. His hands move quickly, meticulously nudging glass bits into place with a paint brush. "I've heard of people talking about a green moon, but I never did see one," he says. But he allows that if he runs out of a color he needs, he just uses another.

"Like they do on the football field: Substitute. If you ain't got it, use something else."


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