I was first introduced to Henry Darger about 15 years ago at the LA County Museum of Art, where his work was included in a collection of “outsider art.” It stood out to me for its combination of perverse subject matter and innocent presentation — there was something about the total lack of irony in his depiction of soldiers wearing mortarboards or nude little hermaphrodites toting rifles. Such bizarre and powerful imagery, but without a wink and a nod. It really stayed with me, and I had no doubt that there was a lot more to that particular story. About ten years later, I was giving a lecture on “The Living Museum” in Chicago, and a man in the audience asked me if I had heard of Darger. He was a journalist named Ted Shen, and he happened to be a friend of Darger’s last landlord, Kiyoko Lerner. The next day Ted took me to the house, where Kiyoko graciously showed me a collection of Darger’s paintings and then took me up into the third floor room where he had lived for over 40 years.
Entering the room was a powerful experience, as Darger’s presence was palpable in every square inch of the place. Everything in the room was something that he had chosen — paper dolls, statues of the Virgin Mary, paint pots, boxes of rubber bands. And it had all aged to the same rich sepia tone. There was incredible stillness in the room; you could see the dust hanging in the air. It was one of the most beautiful rooms I had ever been in, and in that moment I became obsessed with the thought of making a film about the artist who had lived there.
After seeing the hand-bound volumes of Darger’s 15,000-page novel, several hundreds of the paintings that accompanied it, the thousands of pages of notes and journals, drawers filled with color tests, source material and piles of clippings, it was clear that the paintings I had seen at LACMA could not be dismissed as the spontaneous output of a crazy man. They were definitely pieces of a much larger and more intricate puzzle, an epic work that consumed much of Darger’s life. I wanted to learn the inner architecture of this grand structure. A daunting task, but I felt that Darger’s work could only be done justice if treated as a whole — the expression of a life.
I was drawn to this subject not only for the strange beauty of the work and the mystery of Darger’s parallel lives, the “real” and the fantastical; I was moved by the fact that he created this work only for himself. Early on, I kept thinking of the John Donne quote, “No man is an island.” It seemed that Darger was testing this idea. He had such a traumatic early life — the loss of his mother and baby sister, his tumultuous confinement in a boys’ home and an asylum, the death of this father, not to mention the effects of poverty — that it seems he willfully chose to create another world for himself. That became the central question of the film. Can one’s imagination be enough to live on? Can one replace real human relationships and community with those invented in one’s mind?
I explored this question in depth, as the film took about five years to make. The first year or so was almost purely research, as there was so much of Darger’s writing (the novel, the hundreds of paintings, the journals and other collections) to go through. I’ll admit to becoming semi-Darger-like during this period, spending many night hours hunched over the microfilmed copies of his work, not wanting to leave the house. I was lucky enough to be able to film in Darger’s room twice, which had been preserved since his death in 1973, before it was permanently dismantled in 2000. Because there are only three known pictures of Darger himself — no home movies, very few people who even knew him — the greatest challenge in the film was to evoke a sense of the man in the film. I decided early on not to include any art experts or psychologists; when it comes to Darger we’re all guessing anyway. By including impressions only from the people who actually knew him, I felt the film could present an amount of “evidence” to let the audience make up their own minds about what this man was like, and what his art meant. The idea behind the structure of the film was to parallel his real life with his fantasy life; as one reflects on the other, the oddness of his fantasy world becomes more accessible, enabling the audience to become more immersed.
The last two years of the film were devoted to editing and animation; we worked with a team of seven animators. They did an amazing job, considering that their directive was to animate using only elements found in Darger’s paintings, not to invent new elements. It was a very labor-intensive process, but I believe it more faithfully reflects the spirit of Darger’s original work than slicker animation.
— Jessica Yu