Friday, October 6, 2017

An Account of Yelmac Tobias's First Sublimation

     If one imagines a face no longer recognizable as a face; a facial residue, a mottled sheath of gored plaster clinging to the box spring of a skull; one whose eyes are empty compartments gauzed with loose trampoline weaves of knotted fuchsia string vibrating to the frequency of a dreamed medical documentary portraying the effects of nuclear warfare on a cranium, homo-sapiens, at a medium-lethal distance from the epicenter of a mushroom cloud - then one might conceivably conjure up an image approximating the face of the man who had been sitting at the end of an EL car traveling the Chicago loop on a January morning in the year 1991, from the perspective of Yelmac Tobias.

     It is this image that the boy continued to see in his dreams. This is the face he made repeated attempts to recreate with the materials afforded him in his grade-school art courses.

     At the age of twelve, the young Yelmac had cultivated something of an artistic reputation with the faculty of Chicago Public School Nº 105. Although several teachers found his visual renderings not a little unnerving, the child was lauded for his astonishing virtuosity. His art teacher Gregg Juiko encouraged Yelmac's works zealously. The society of admiring faculty grew to such an extent that the child was even allowed to display a small selection of sculptures, held in a clear acrylic box situated atop a wooden pedestal, between the twin doors feeding into the school cafeteria.

     The pieces of the display were arranged in a line so that, if an individual of average sixth-grade stature were to observe the installation from a point directly in front of it, he would see an amorphous face. But the person looking would actually be seeing the image of three faces combined, each one devoid of some essential sector, which was supplied by another sculpture showing through it from behind. 

The first face (in order from front to back) was coated in a cobalt glaze that gave its surface an appearance of permanent dampness; every inch of it was pitted from the stabbings of a toothpick. This face was suspended from the top of the display box by two clear pieces of fishing line, being devoid of a nose or jaws. Its left eye was a hole tunneling clean through to the back of its skull (fig. 1). The second face had a veined color pattern reminiscent of aventurine with mealy yellow-orange chinks set into a seabed of greenish streaks. This figure was a thick obelisk of neck, chin, lips, nose, and cheeks, each particular feature so voluptuous and weighty that it approached the grotesque (fig. 2). The third figure (which could hardly be thought of as a face in its own right) stood on a hexagonal pillar - something akin to an exposed upheaval of basalt. A sort of cupped dish extruded from the base like a parasitic fungus, and from its center sprouted a stalk, which terminated in a black bulb resembling a rudimentary eye; the eye had a dusty gleam, a lobster's eye (fig. 3). This last served as the left eye that had been omitted from the first face.

fig. 1 (left); fig. 2 (center); fig. 3 (right)

     The school's event coordinator, Shannon O'Dooly, voiced resistance against the display of Tobias's sculptures, especially in such proximity to the cafeteria. Andy Mittlich, the vice-principal at the time, has been gracious enough to provide me with a transcript of a faculty meeting in January 1998, during which she is recorded as having said the following:

     "It is my firm belief, having received an associate's degree in geriatric psychology, that these sculptures are evidence of a radically malicious and sociopathic personality. It is true that Yelmac Tobias presents himself as a charming young man: he never ceases to beam with that smile of his; he pays every imaginable courtesy, holding doors open for others and offering to hang his schoolmates' coats at the start of class. He even draws homemade Valentine's Day cards for every boy and girl in his homeroom (this indicates to me deeply inappropriate intentions). I am especially concerned by the fact that so many of you are considering putting these neurotic products on display for other students to see on their way to the lunch line. What effect do you think this will have on their behavior, their imagination - much less, their digestion? Even at my graceful age [64: author's note], I find these figures to be a traumatizing sight. They have imprinted my thoughts prior to sleep with obscene, indelible visualizations. By endorsing this exhibit, you are nourishing frightening tendencies in this student. Tendencies that become obvious, provided that one has been looking closely, and for a long enough time."

     The administrators and other faculty furnished a succinct rebuttal, suggesting that to suppress the sculptures after having promised to display them would alienate the boy from his "community of mentors." 

     "Besides," one of the top school board officials added, palming sweat from his round, bald, hardboiled head, "I've already shown pictures of Yelmac's work to my daughter Miranda, who simply couldn't put them down. She pored over them all last night at the dinner table. And if you're worried about the students' appetites, my daughter ate half of an entire spinach quiche without so much as poking at it with her fork. And, mind you, just the night before, Laura and I had to plead with her to take a few bites from a cheeseburger!"

     Without further deliberation, the overwhelming majority of attendees passed their decision to go ahead with the display. I should mention, as an aside, that Shannon O'Dooly was discovered in a disintegrating state in her blackened bathtub two months later, having lit herself ablaze with a can of kerosene and a lavender-scented mood candle. Due to the extensive burns sustained, Miss O'Dooly's official identification called for a referral to dental records.

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