Eric Holmes

As we enter Eric Holmes's room in an adult congregate living facility on a quiet residential street in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, I notice his bookshelf and comment. Eric replies: "I read Ulysses two and a half times, but I haven't read Portrait of a Lady. I got it because I read Henry James in high school."

Two beds, two night tables, two dressers. The overpowering smell of chlorine bleach in the hall. A baby-fat man showering with the door open at the foot of the stairs. Blank middle-aged faces in the parlor room waiting for the afternoon meal or activity or medicine call. And in a clean, well-lighted bedroom on the second floor, two people are talking about James Joyce, Russian Modernism, and the Prince of Wales.

"They say Charles will be king and Will after him. I love Charles. I've been following him since the beginning," says the 50-year-old Holmes. "He has unbelievable grandeur and poise."

"I think Di was a mistake," he adds.

Eric shows us around his room, first picking up a notebook with Dali's dripping clocks on the cover. "I wrote a little schizoid book, beginning in Treasure Island, Florida. I was having feverish thoughts and I wrote all my feverish thoughts down." He reads an excerpt:

Paint paranoia by Dali

Born two hundred years too late,

Referring to 1776.

400 people Treasure Island went to heaven. God!

Michael Jackson kisses the Egyptian queen.

Fidel says the tragedy is the truth.

Beautiful girls say No.

His literary self-criticism: "This is all reasoned, but when you put it together it sounds crazy."

Eric Holmes, whose "Joy America" was adopted as the namesake for Baltimore's Visionary ArtMuseum's cafe, started painting in 1970 in a mental hospital in Philadelphia. As we drive him to a facility called the Fellowship House, Eric recounts his early years as an artist: "I put some paintings in a sidewalk exhibition by a supermarket. I got a little red ribbon in 1972. I did my first painting in the institution in Philadelphia. It was a fancy hospital and they had a big art-therapy room--looms, you know, and big kilns, you know, and big canvasses, and lots of oil paints and everything. Basically I been going pretty much on fire since 1972--26, 24 years.

We drop of Eric at the Fellowship House, which has received the copy of Dostoevsky's Poor Folk he ordered from the South Miami Library. As we say goodbye, we ask about the woman he brought to the opening of the Art of the Mentally Ill show at the University of Miami. "Ellen and I broke up. She started going with another guy," he said. "I'm a little sad about that because now I don't have female companionship, but something will turn up in a couple of years."

Copyright 1997 Jeffrey Knapp and Tamara Hendershot.