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La Jolla's version of Henry Darger

The corkscrew-childlike inner life of Santiago

Detail from Santiago's work inspired by Renoir's Dance at Bougival
Detail from Santiago's work inspired by Renoir's Dance at Bougival

A recent exhibition of works by the artist known as Santiago — aka Charlie Chimpo, aka “the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Retard Grandson” (a self-applied sobriquet) — during a festival at La Jolla’s Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church failed to produce any sales. This is perhaps not entirely surprising; it’s easy to imagine the (now famous) folk art of Henry Darger being passed over by the parishioners of St. Vincent De Paul church in Chicago. Like Darger, Santiago attends Mass daily; also like Darger, Santiago’s work reflects its maker’s corkscrew-childlike inner life.

The list of similarities between the two is striking. Both given up by their birth parents; both designated as feebleminded, abused, and institutionalized in their youth; both later employed as janitors and given to a life of strict routine; and both drawing inspiration and material from the detritus of modern urban life. “I look at mostly magazines and books,” says Santiago, whose workspace is papered with clippings. Asked about an ominous clown face — done, like all his work, in painstaking pointillism — he recounts, “During the 18 years I worked as a janitor, I saw a clown at the boobie bar, the nightclub. It looked evil. It was a little plastic balloon with this clown face. It was in the cake. They threw the cake out, so I took it. I said, ‘I could use that,’ and I doctored it up.”

A forest scene is taken from “an oil painting my grandfather did at his studio in Black’s Beach. There were two little people walking through it, but my sister never liked them, so I added the gnome from a garden book.”

The grandfather — adoptive — was Martin Johnson, the 50-year member of the institute whose home now serves as the stage for high-end wedding receptions. (His 1987 UC In Memoriam notes “his illustrations of exceptional quality” as well as his talent for doodled caricature.) And it was through Johnson that Santiago met Jim Lance, opisthobranch aficionado. (The term refers to sea slugs, two species of which are named for Lance and ten of which he named.) Lance noticed Santiago’s interest in art and began teaching him the rudiments of scientific illustration. In a 1985 letter to his student’s adoptive mother, he wrote, “In just a few short months…his ink work approaches the best that Scripps’ illustrators have to offer…if no originality is considered.”

Lance then hired Santiago to do the drawings for a book on the Opisthobranchs of the Panamic Faunal Province — the east Pacific between Peru and Panama, but died before the work was published. “He drank all the time and he yelled all the time,” recalls Santiago, “but I stuck with him eight years, and we produced 400 pen-and-ink illustrations.”

Santiago has been homeless for four years now, but he still has a few of those illustrations, as well as his original works in color. If the La Jolla art market proves unreceptive, he hopes to sell them to the Smithsonian, which he visited in his youth, and donate the money to his friend Tresha Souza’s charity outreach to the hungry.

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Detail from Santiago's work inspired by Renoir's Dance at Bougival
Detail from Santiago's work inspired by Renoir's Dance at Bougival

A recent exhibition of works by the artist known as Santiago — aka Charlie Chimpo, aka “the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Retard Grandson” (a self-applied sobriquet) — during a festival at La Jolla’s Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church failed to produce any sales. This is perhaps not entirely surprising; it’s easy to imagine the (now famous) folk art of Henry Darger being passed over by the parishioners of St. Vincent De Paul church in Chicago. Like Darger, Santiago attends Mass daily; also like Darger, Santiago’s work reflects its maker’s corkscrew-childlike inner life.

The list of similarities between the two is striking. Both given up by their birth parents; both designated as feebleminded, abused, and institutionalized in their youth; both later employed as janitors and given to a life of strict routine; and both drawing inspiration and material from the detritus of modern urban life. “I look at mostly magazines and books,” says Santiago, whose workspace is papered with clippings. Asked about an ominous clown face — done, like all his work, in painstaking pointillism — he recounts, “During the 18 years I worked as a janitor, I saw a clown at the boobie bar, the nightclub. It looked evil. It was a little plastic balloon with this clown face. It was in the cake. They threw the cake out, so I took it. I said, ‘I could use that,’ and I doctored it up.”

A forest scene is taken from “an oil painting my grandfather did at his studio in Black’s Beach. There were two little people walking through it, but my sister never liked them, so I added the gnome from a garden book.”

The grandfather — adoptive — was Martin Johnson, the 50-year member of the institute whose home now serves as the stage for high-end wedding receptions. (His 1987 UC In Memoriam notes “his illustrations of exceptional quality” as well as his talent for doodled caricature.) And it was through Johnson that Santiago met Jim Lance, opisthobranch aficionado. (The term refers to sea slugs, two species of which are named for Lance and ten of which he named.) Lance noticed Santiago’s interest in art and began teaching him the rudiments of scientific illustration. In a 1985 letter to his student’s adoptive mother, he wrote, “In just a few short months…his ink work approaches the best that Scripps’ illustrators have to offer…if no originality is considered.”

Lance then hired Santiago to do the drawings for a book on the Opisthobranchs of the Panamic Faunal Province — the east Pacific between Peru and Panama, but died before the work was published. “He drank all the time and he yelled all the time,” recalls Santiago, “but I stuck with him eight years, and we produced 400 pen-and-ink illustrations.”

Santiago has been homeless for four years now, but he still has a few of those illustrations, as well as his original works in color. If the La Jolla art market proves unreceptive, he hopes to sell them to the Smithsonian, which he visited in his youth, and donate the money to his friend Tresha Souza’s charity outreach to the hungry.

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