RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Postal Service has just unveiled five new stamps depicting the paintings and drawings of Martin Ramirez. An immigrant from Mexico, Ramirez was a self-taught artist who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. He spent almost half of his life in California mental hospitals. A ceremony Thursday in New York signaled a kind of official recognition that brought family members from across the country and his native Mexico for the stamp's unveiling. Jon Kalish was there and brings us the story.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: Martin Ramirez left a pregnant wife and three children in Mexico to find work in California in 1925. He was 30 years old and spoke no English. Six years later, he found himself like a lot of people - homeless during the Great Depression. Sociologist Victor Espinosa told me in 2007 that the government had to find a place for them.
VICTOR ESPINOSA: We have to remember, in those days - we have to think about the depression era in California - people were living in the streets, and the mental institutions were really, like, homeless shelters.
KALISH: Ramirez had wound up at DeWitt State Hospital outside Sacramento where James Durfee ran ward 106. Durfee said the ward was filled with all kinds of patients, some of them violent.
JAMES DURFEE: It was my opinion that he was very fearful of some of these other patients. And I believe that's why he chose to draw underneath the table in a crouched position.
KALISH: Durfee remembered that Ramirez made paint by mixing spit with crushed crayons and colored pencils. He used matchsticks to apply his colors -subdued reds, yellows and blues. Many of the drawings are on long sheets of examining table paper. They depict trains running in or out of tunnels, cars morphing into turtles and numerous Madonnas. By the time of his death at the hospital in 1963, many of his works had been destroyed but some were taken by a psychologist studying mental illness and art. Most of those works eventually made their way to private collectors. Nineteen Ramirez works are now on display at the Ricco-Maresca Gallery in Manhattan where the Postal Service unveiled the new stamps last week. Fourteen members of the artist's family were on hand for the ceremony.
ELBA ORTEGA: We're all just so dumbfounded by the hugeness of it all.
KALISH: Elba Ortega is the artist's great-granddaughter.
ORTEGA: It's just such an honor. I know that he would be as happy and as overwhelmed as we are.
KALISH: About eight years ago, the Ramirez family hired lawyers to assert the estates ownership of the artist's works. A source close to the family told NPR that since then, it's been able to sell more than 50 works. Christopher Klaytell, a lawyer for the Ramirez estate, says a Ramirez Madonna was discovered at the Library of Congress last year.
CHRISTOPHER KLAYTELL: The Ramirez estate then did a part gift-part sale of that work to the Library of Congress so that it could remain in the Library of Congress's collection.
KALISH: New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz is pleased that art collectors have recognized the genius of Ramirez but takes major art museums in New York to task for neglecting the artist's works.
JERRY SALTZ: The Whitney owns none of them. MoMA owns one. The Met owns none, and the Guggenheim owns four. So you know what? - big shout out to the U.S. Post Office.
KALISH: The Postal Service's five Ramirez issues are Forever stamps which means the general public can use and see them for years to come. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.