One cold morning this spring, artist Percy Martin took a walk through well-timbered Cleveland Park to hunt cherry blossoms with a digital camera. He got lucky on the campus of Sidwell Friends School, where he’s taught for the past 24 years: Tipping his lens to the sky, Martin captured a tree whose stark, leafless branches reached up into the blue.
Reviewing his shots at home, Martin found that the tree, a contemplative vision of hibernating vegetation just a short time earlier, had become something much livelier. The denuded branches were gone: In their place was a group of running men. And an elephant. One of the men was reaching out to touch the elephant’s backside. “It didn’t work at all as a cherry-blossom picture,” says Martin. “I just saw this other thing and went with it.”
The transformation pleased but didn’t surprise Martin. These men have dogged him for over half of his life, as have their female companions, a huge cat, and various priests and priestesses, shape-changing elephants, and sacred birds. Though these beings live in his head, in a place he calls the Bushworld, they are hardly imaginary to him. “I can see them hunting,” Martin says. “I can see them talking. I can see them making mistakes.”
Since starting his work as a printmaker nearly four decades ago, Martin has doggedly pursued his Bushworld series, which now includes several hundred prints. “It’s being discovered all the time,” he says. “I’m just an observer.” Martin’s earliest Bushworld pieces were pen-and-ink sketches and monoprints; he has since used metal, stone, gelatin, and plastic plates to produce prints on paper, aluminum foil, and Ugandan bark cloth.
Today, though, Martin designs on his computer. He scans a drawing or a photograph, manipulates its forms and colors, prints it out and rescans it, all the while adding psychedelic Photoshop-filter effects. The images that creep from his Epson are rife with swirling colorswith the occasional moon, limb, or eyeball sharply defined against the fray. “[People] won’t buy this, but that’s OK,” he says, holding up a computerized Bushworld landscape depicting a blobbish mass that could be an elephant. He then turns it around 180 degrees: “Good thing I signed these.”
At 59, Martin is a bear of a man. He wears jeans, suspenders, and a red-and-white checkered shirt with a plastic fork sticking out of its breast pocket. To see Martin on the street might be to mistake him for a backyard-barbecue chef, or, if this were the South, a roadside boiled-peanut vendor.
The first inkling Martin got of the Bushworld’s existence was in the early ’70s. He was working in his studio at the New Thing Art and Architecture Center, a now-defunct community center in Adams Morgan where he served as art director, when he suddenly, vividly, found himself standing inside a cavern. Moving around in the half-light, he saw the early history of a people painted onto the cave walls. There were Bushpeople hunting and gathering, Bushpeople coming together as a society, Bushpeople building schools.
Martin related his anthropological breakthrough to his friends, who pressed him for more information. “I had the basic scenario, but they were asking for details,” he says. “So I started filling in things.” The answers to his friends’ querieswhere the elephants came from, for example (they’re Bushman elders who’ve misbehaved)came in visual epiphanies so strong it was “like someone smacked you.”
In 1976, when Martin got a job teaching at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, his growing fantasy illuminated a world in advanced stages of inhabitation. He saw temples erected in the name of one Saint Mar, a former Bushman turned deity. He wandered into high, phallic constructions, which he
subsequently identified as schools for teaching boys rites of passage, and stone pyramids, which turned out to be prisons. He also saw chimney-shaped temples, with angry, anthropomorphic façades. They pumped thick smoke from their tops. “I never knew what they did in there,” he says. “I’ve never been in there myself.”
Papers about the Bushworld sit hidden among the clutter of statues, prints, and African hunter’s coats and weapons in the Mount Pleasant house he shares with his wife of 33 years, Alice Marshall Martin. Martin didn’t write them, though. “I just sit down and talk with people, and they write it down, because I’m more inclined to do the visual thing,” he says. His myth has hooked other people, too: Martin has exhibited in Russia, Africa, and South America, as well as widely around D.C.
“I think it’s good for him that he actually lives in this world,” says Norman Parish, who put on a solo show of Martin’s work last October at his Parish Gallery in Georgetown. “There’s endless work that he’s got from this as a result of just identifying the visuals of how these people live and what they do….It’s very legitimate, a logical evolution of a person who has time to fantasize.”
Scenes from the Bushworld play out in Martin’s mind as sharply as a movie. The most mundane objects can send him into a cross-dimensional corkscrew. While vacationing in the Ukraine in 1995, for instance, he picked up a smooth, oval stone on a river bank and immediately fell into a quasi-hallucination wherein angry Bushwomen were trying to crack a sacred bird’s stone egg with a crystal egg to become High Priestess. “If I could’ve gotten a jet helicopter, I would’ve left that second,” says Martin.
In the early ’60s, Martin did footwork for a “fundamentalist religious group”he won’t say which oneknocking on doors as a missionary, poring over the Bible, and attending inspirational lectures. “We had Mondays off,” he says, “but all the other days we were at church.”
When the Vietnam War started, Martin went to the draft office to procure a minister’s deferment that would let him continue his religious studies. “They weren’t giving them out,” he says. “The only way you could get [special treatment] would be to become like that minister in M*A*S*H.” So Martin, then working toward degrees in graphics and advertising at the Corcoran School of Art, applied for and received a student deferment. After graduating, he got a job teaching a Corcoran printmaking class and began to lose interest in fundamentalism.
“There are no gray areas in fundamental religion,” he says. “I realized you couldn’t really be an artist and be a fundamental religious person.” When he started working at the New Thing, in 1968, Martin stopped going to his group’s meetings.
Around the same time, he founded a printmaking workshop, his attempt to create a different sort of community for himself. In its early days, the shop was the prototypical artists’ collective: Commercial and fine-art printmakers gathered in the two-room, second-story loft on Columbia Road NW to drink cheap wine, talk trash, and share printing techniques. In 1972, he moved the operation to his house and gave it a formal name: W.D. Printmaking Workshop. Today, the handful of artists who pay a $475-per-year fee get a key to Martin’s basement door and, with it, round-the-clock access to three etching presses, one Linopress, and other printmaking materials. “It was just something to keep me company,” says Martin. “I wasn’t a painter, so I never had that vision of being by myself.”
Once he felt comfortable with shucking his minister’s aspirations and becoming an artist, Martin began to create work that reflected his disillusionment with dogmatism. For example, Incubus Attack, one of his few political prints, assails the resurgence of the religious right in the early ’80s. The color etching depicts the front room of a house, shaded dark green, with the leering, white faces of men emerging from the shadows like moray eels. Some of the men hold guns; one wears a KKK armband. Trotting over the floor is a dog carrying a bleeding baby in its jaws.
“These prints are very disturbing to me, even today,” says Martin. “We waste so much time and money on these people.” Yet even in a piece so grounded in real life, Martin could not keep his interest in the Bushworld hidden. Years after printing Incubus, he noticed barely perceptible activity in the print’s background: There were people, no, Bushpeople, running out of the house. “I did not consciously put them in,” says Martin. “I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, my God.’”
Martin says his pursuit of his myth has earned him flak from critics who think his art isn’t “black enough.” “They wanted to see some ‘serious black stuff’ from me,” says Martin. “I’m like, ‘The serious black thing is me. This is what I do. If it feels light to you, then it’s light.’” Not everybody has to be throwing a brick at the window, argues Martin: “Sometimes, you may want to just turn the doorknob and walk into the building.”
And Martin says his art is serious: His myth provides a model of a community that, for the most part, works well. The Bushworld’s orderliness rests on its youngsters’ participation in rites of passage, which Martin says the United States used to have but now lacks. “Rites of passage always said what you’re going to go into and do and prepared you to do that,” he says. “But we don’t do that anymore.” Without rites, says Martin, our society has become disorganizeda phenomenon he says he observed firsthand while teaching art classes in the D.C. public schools and at Lorton Correctional Facility in the late ’70s. “The rites that we have are so pitiful, people don’t even know they’re doing them. Here, you get prepared to do nothing, to go to jail….It’s just not much.”
Martin’s Bushpeople, by contrast, are guaranteed to lead good lives full of games and partyingas long as they obey the dictums of the Lawkeeper, a giant cat or dog, and learn to perform the all-important Rites of Adulthood. To make things easier, they even have societal cheat sheets: Tongue Books, which are something like talking bibles, but more specific.
One Tongue Book deals solely with completing the adulthood rites. “You can put it to your ear and listen to this book and get instruction from the elders,” says Martin. The book tells girls how to walk over water to grab the back feathers of sacred birds; it tells boys how to levitate to touch the backs of sacred elephants. “It’s just general information,” says Martin.
Bushpeople who fail to learn the rites face serious trouble. Bushwomen who can’t touch the sacred birds plummet to the ground and injure themselves. Bushmen who can’t levitate over the elephants are trampled to death. The Lawkeeper carries the men’s lifeless bodies off the Bush plain.
And Bushpeople who violate the laws of the community inevitably wind up wishing they hadn’t. Belort, one of the myth’s central figures, once tried to steal her sister Brenda’s husband-to-be. But Nova, the high priestess overseeing the marriage, had a phalanx of tiny elephants protecting her. These elephants ballooned up to immense size when Belort made her move, and Belort was defeated. As punishment, the Lawkeeper entombed her in a pyramid.
“She could walk around and see what was going on, but she couldn’t go out,” says Martin. “And every day, one of the Bushladies came and read the [Tongue] Book to her about what she did wrong.” Martin savors that last thought: “Every…single…#day.” CP