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Atop the Endless Staircase

Al Martinez

December 13, 1996|Al Martinez

In the world depicted by Jose Luis Quilez, reality ends at the top of a staircase. Beyond that, in a sky streaked with vivid reds and yellows and swirling lines of orange, is a fantasy land, a place where time has no meaning, where logic assumes a separate plane. His son lives there.

Quilez calls the work "Fantasy's Staircase." It's one of 10 oil paintings intended to illustrate the anguish of mental illness as seen through the eyes of a father.

In the painting, those who stop at the top of the staircase remain within reality's kingdom. Those who float off into the wild sky have slipped the bonds of sanity and dwell in a separate, often terrifying, emotional biome.

Quilez, an accomplished artist and photographer, has been peering into that world for the past 15 years, since his son Jon was suddenly and inexplicably stricken with schizophrenia.

"It was like an explosion," he said the other day from his hilltop home overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Storm clouds were gathering in the distance, preceding the rain that was to come.

"One day he was normal, the next he was setting fire to his van. He was 25 years old."

Since then, Quilez and his wife have had to deal with Jon's separate reality in order to make contact with him during his bad days. Then sometime last summer, Quilez began attempting to interpret his son's pain on canvas. It was where the stairway to fantasy was born.

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The 10 paintings were displayed last September at a conference of the Latino Behavioral Health Institute in Long Beach. I was there signing a book when I saw them.

They were in a dark corner of a long hallway, but the vivid colors of emotional anguish created a wild light of their own, much as Edvard Munch's "Scream" sounds across the years.

Artists have always sought the writhing core of emotional turmoil that has plagued humanity, partly because they have often been its victim. Van Gogh illustrated his own madness in swirls of darkness broken by flashes of brilliance. Quilez probes his son's calamity in a similar manner.

While "Fantasy's Staircase" seems the most symbolic of his work, "Paranoia" is equally compelling: a man hunched over in despair is pursued by ghosts that reach toward him from out of a tumultuous night.

I had been thinking about the paintings since September and finally got around to tracking down Quilez on his five-acre estate overlooking the Valley, a complex of two brick homes and a stable built by the Warner brothers and alternately occupied by James Cagney and Cary Grant.

Quilez was born in the Basque city of Bilbao on Spain's north coast and has been in this country for 20 years. He's a strong and handsome man of 68 with a neatly trimmed gray beard and a way of staring that pierces to the soul.

The soul of Jon's pain is what he seeks in the paintings that depict his son's illness.

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Jon Quilez has been undergoing treatment for schizophrenia for 15 years and has lived at home most of the time. Recently, he moved into his own place and, while improved, still suffers setbacks.

"Our logic is not always his logic," the father says, sitting among a lifetime of work in his garage-turned-studio. "Some days we think we're reaching him but then the next day he's in a separate reality."

It takes mountains of love and patience to deal with his son, Quilez says, and he is often pushed to the brink of total frustration trying to comprehend Jon's time-starved quadrants of reality. Todays are blank days in the lives of most schizophrenics. The link between past and future simply doesn't exist. There is only a series of moments.

His paintings are an effort by Quilez to explain what the world beyond the staircase is all about. He wants his work to be effective without being frightening, utilizing the drama of strong colors to portray an often mystifying disease.

So doing, he has joined the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in its efforts to shed light on a malady that affects one in every five families in the United States.

"My son lost track of reality," Quilez says. "He's finding it again but he isn't there yet. It's a long trip back."

As he speaks, he thumbs through a series of black and white photographs he has taken over the years. One is of Jon sitting in an otherwise empty bus, a sad and pensive man lost in his own dreams.

The title Quilez gave the picture is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. It's called, "You Must Travel It for Yourself." The complete stanza is, "Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it for yourself."

Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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