San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tormented Artist Gets ‘Discovered’ in Granada

He finally found them, hidden beneath the stairs.

Self-taught painter Jean-Marc Calvet was certain he had found the dwarves’ hideout, the ones that had been taunting him for the past nine months during his drug-induced retreat from society.

Jacked up on an assortment of drugs, a maniacal Calvet punched through the wall beneath his staircase, where he found several gallons of paint.

“I tapped on a gallon and thought this is the base camp of the little dwarves,” recalled Calvet, 43.

He drove his fist into the canister, and paint exploded on his face and hands.

He splashed the paint on the walls, and it felt good. In an act he later came to associate with vomiting, he splattered the paint about the house, releasing onto the walls his anger from having been out on the streets at age 13 in southern France, his regret from having killed people, the existential angst he couldn’t escape with his addictions to heroin and other hard drugs.

Calvet had never painted before, but he finger-painted the house’s interior until there was no paint left. Then he burned fans and furniture to wipe their ashes across the walls in streaks of emotion. He used cornflakes, mayonnaise, blood, whatever he could until there was nothing left.

“In that house, he went to war with himself and his demons,” said Dominic Allan, a British film director who is in Granada shooting a documentary feature about Calvet’s colorful and disturbing life.

For nine months, Calvet had pinned himself inside his home in Santa Ana, Costa Rica, where he had covered the windows with black plastic. He only went out into the gated yard at night to pick up drops of drugs, rum and pizza left by a taxi driver. He’d slip the driver cash under the door and feed pizza scraps to his dog Sam – who has since become the inspiration for one of his most famous paintings.

“In my country, they would have taken me away in a straight jacket,” said the former French Special Forces agent, who recently broke into the New York City art scene by turning his angst into critically acclaimed paintings.

It wasn’t until after a suicide attempt and when he ran out of paint that he began letting people into his house again – to bring more paint.

Once he had painted all he could, he sold his house at a bargain price. “The first customers who walked in cried,” he said. It took five coats of paint to cover up his cathartic masterpiece. He weighed 47 kilos when he left the house, 81 kilos less than when he entered nine months before.

After spending a month in rehab in Guatemala, he moved to Nicaragua, where he opened up the Tercer Ojo restaurant with his Costa Rican wife, whom he has since divorced. All the while he kept painting.

“I didn’t want to die anymore, rather to take out all the stuff I had inside of me,” he said. “The paint is the therapy. The paint helped me stop drugs and alcohol.”

One day, the owner of a New York art gallery was dining at Tercer Ojo and asked Calvet where he had bought one of the paintings hanging on the wall. Calvet said the painting was his. The man asked if he would be interested in displaying his work in his New York City gallery. Calvet quickly agreed.

“Like asking a blind man if he wants to see,” Calvet laughed. He shook the hand of the owner of Monkdogz Urban Art Gallery and, just like that, the artist had been discovered.

That was six years ago. Today, Calvet’s paintings are selling in New York City for as much as $50,000.

Ed McCormack, editor of Gallery & Studio Magazine, recently described Calvet’s painting as “a slyly sophisticated faux-primitive style in vibrant comic-strip primaries.”

Calvet’s personality has evolved along with his paintings over the past six years, said Allan, adding that his more recent works aren’t as dark as his earlier paintings – a reflection of Calvet’s change in temperament. The artist’s more recent paintings at first appear to be meticulously detailed scenes of mayhem, lust and vice. But when the observer steps back, the chaos comes together in a whole that is only perceived from afar.

“It’s a story of redemption,” said Allan, the documentarian who plans to release his film “Calvet” in 2009. Allan, who has shot films for BBC and has been assistant director for an array of films including Batman, said the film on Calvet will appear on British television before it is entered in film festivals and possibly turned into a full-length film.

“You see someone discovering himself as he moves through painting,” Allan said, “At the beginning, he dripped paint like Jackson Pollock. But he didn’t know who Pollock was. It’s very genuine.”

To get to the bottom of the many rumors surrounding Calvet’s life, Allan has followed the self-styled artist from his hometown in southern France to Miami, where he worked as a bodyguard, to Granada, where Calvet lives with his girlfriend.

Calvet’s paintings can be seen at his gallery on Calle Real Xalteva, two blocks towards the lake from the Xalteva church. Calvet’s paintings can also be seen at his Web site and at More about Allan’s documentary can be found at

Calvet’s paintings will be displayed at the gallery Monkdogz for a month starting this weekend.


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