4.16.2005

Charge!
Perhaps the biggest difference between Richard Saholt's art and the mind it chronicles is this: art stands still. Diagnosed with "chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia," Saholt says he can't turn off an ever-churning brain that incessantly pulses with images of war, of abuse by a father who was "the meanest son of a bitch who ever walked the face of the earth," and of living each day with a debilitating and stigmatized mental illness. The collages he creates--nearly a thousand over three decades--are a sometimes crude, always jarring explosion of imagery reminiscent of death-metal album art, cut-and-paste ransom notes, screaming tabloid headlines, and Fangoria horror zine covers. They're fitting allusions considering the terror he's lived through, the garish hues of his memories, and the mental imprisonment of his disease.

Born in 1924, Saholt was a reclusive child, a much-taunted stutterer who says he kept silently repeating, "I'm the dumbest kid in the world." His father--a wife-beater, a drunk, and a rumored pedophile later determined to be schizophrenic--didn't disabuse him of that notion, and instead ratcheted up the boy's troubles by putting him to work at the mortuary he ran. He once took Saholt to the embalming room and made him dress up a dead child his own age and, on another occasion, forced him to gather into a bushel basket the ragged remains of a man obliterated by a train.

But perhaps the most haunting memories came from his time in the US army's famed Tenth Mountain Division, an elite ski unit that fought in the Italian Alps during World War II. After a traumatic childhood, he hoped to prove himself in the army, and he did. His commanding officer assigned him to the dangerous tasks of sniper or point-man, the soldier sent out first to draw fire or detect land mines. In these roles he met face-to-face with war's carnage. In one instance, he hallucinated a voice shouting for him to duck; he did, avoiding the fate of his unit mates, whose faces were blown off by mortar fire. When the voice screamed, "Charge!" he complied, hurtling into a German bunker with only hand grenades and a rifle. Startled by the attack, thirteen German soldiers surrendered, earning Saholt a Bronze star. He returned home in 1945 with a bad back, damaged knees, and the persistent gnawing symptoms of what was then thought to be shell-shock.

Back in civilian life, Saholt sought help, but the US government, secretly labeling him "one of the most bizarre and genuinely crazy" veterans they'd seen, didn't offer an actual diagnosis until 1969, and it wasn't until 30 years after his discharge that he awarded disability payments. Saholt couldn't hold a job (he'd had over 100) and dealt with episodes of paranoia and severe nightmares. But in 1964, he all but stumbled upon art. While many Veterans Administration doctors prescribed radical treatments like a lobotomy or shock therapy, vehemently refused by Saholt and his wife Doris, the head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Minneapolis told him to "put down on paper" what he was having trouble communicating.

Taking the advice quite literally, he began snipping words and pictures from magazines and gluing them down with mementos from his military service. At first the collages were overt and clumsy, more therapy than art, but still compelling in their obsessiveness. Words like "terror" and "hell" telegraphed the chaos in his head. Later, when sampled illustrations, shards of color, and textures began sharing space with clipped text, the works became more expressionistic and evocative of his interior mayhem. Now 80 years old, a remarkable age considering the high suicide rate among schizophrenia sufferers, Saholt no longer makes collages. Stooped from years of nursing his war-wounded body and mind, he's tired. And his chief concern seems to be finding a home, a legacy for the artwork he credits, in part, for keeping him alive. "Art," he says, "gets this madness thing out of me."

My latest, published in Adbusters #59. Photo by Cameron Wittig.

1 comment:

Jill said...

I think this man has incredible strength. He may be having all these negative thoughts but I think that God sent him for a reason and the reason just may be to show us all that we can all succeed in something no matter what may be standing in our way. Anyone that has had a chance to meet Richard and share his experiences is extreemly lucky and can learn an abundance of things.
God Bless All.