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ART : Inside the Outsider : Artist Mindy Alper reveals the dark paths of her mind through the compulsiveness of her imaginative drawings

October 18, 1992|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

From the time she was very young, Mindy Alper knew she was different from other people.

"I was a strange child," the 33-year-old artist recalls during a meeting at the house in Mt. Washington where she's lived for five years, surrounded by thousands of artworks she's created over the course of her life.

"As a child, one doctor diagnosed me as autistic, but I'm not sure that was at the root of my problem. All I know is I had a hard time learning, I couldn't stand to have people touch me, and I began drawing when I was 1 and have never stopped. Drawing is like smoking cigarettes--it's a compulsive habit, and my anxiety level goes up considerably when I'm not drawing. When I was a kid, I thought art was this place you could go where anything could happen and nobody was ever mad at me. It was, and still is, the only place I felt safe."

A self-taught artist who's spent her life straddling the magical world of art and the dark realm of deep depression, Alper has turned out a stunningly powerful series of drawings, paintings and sculpture that take the viewer on a harrowing journey through the labyrinth of her mind.

Alper has never heard of Outsider art (a loosely defined creative school encompassing the work of visionaries, psychotics and self-taught artists who work in conditions of extreme isolation), which is currently the subject of "Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art," a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Outsider is, however, the appropriate tag for Alper's work because, for her, art has been more than a way to express herself or make a living and decorate the world--it's been a critically important survival tool.

Art became even more important to Alper in 1986 when she had the major breakdown that had been building up since her childhood and she lost the ability to speak or write. Hospitalized for several months, she used drawing as the primary means of communicating with friends and therapists, who looked to her artwork as a valuable diagnostic tool.

Working with a hypnotist, Alper regained the ability to speak. However, during the past six years she's lapsed into silence several times for varying periods of time. These episodes are usually triggered by a traumatic event, and when a close friend died in July, she stopped speaking for the second time this year. This episode lasted considerably longer (three months) than previous periods of silence, so she developed a system of whistling that close friends came to understand, and invented a "word box." A set of 500 printed words cut out from various sources and arranged into 21 color-coded categories, the word box allows her to form sentences and thus communicate.

Interviewing Alper through her word box is at once extraordinary--the crude sentences she assembles are quite poetic--and difficult. Facilitating the interview is Alper's good friend, actress Catherine Coulson (best known for her portrayal of the Log Lady on "Twin Peaks"), who describes herself as "Mindy liaison."

"I got to know Mindy several years ago when I came to have her help me draw a log, and we really connected," says Coulson, whose husband, Marc Sirinsky, met Alper in 1986 when he was director of the Imagination Workshop, a group of theater artists who worked in psychiatric hospitals and prisons.

"Mindy has a big network of supportive friends who really love her because she's a lot of fun," says Sirinsky, who's working on a play in which figures from Alper's drawings come alive on stage.

Among that supportive network is Susan Arnold, a film producer and director who met Alper through the Imagination Workshop. The producer of "Benny and June"--a film scheduled for release in the spring that explores the relationship between an emotionally disturbed artist, played by Mary Stuart Masterson, and her brother, played by Johnny Depp--Arnold arranged for Masterson to spend time with Alper when she was preparing for the film. "Mostly we just looked through my hundreds of drawings and talked about them," Alper says of the time they spent together in June.

Alper's personality is marked by a self-effacing humor and charming guilelessness that combine with the grave sadness on her face in a manner that's quite compelling. A gracious hostess who is eager to be accommodating, she nonetheless shows her work with modesty and embarrassment. "I can count the number of times I've shown my work on Django Reinhardt's hand," she shyly quips.

Alper is also obviously uncomfortable with the process of being interviewed. Frustrated by the limitations of her word box and concerned that she protect the privacy of her family, which she acknowledges played a role in the psychological problems she struggles with, she grows increasingly agitated as the interview drags into the second hour. When it becomes clear that the interview is upsetting her, the reporter lets her off the hook, figuring the gaps in her life story can be filled in by her friends.

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