David Zeldis, Outsider Artist/Writer

Make text smaller Make text larger

I had a good night's sleep and awoke early in the morning refreshed. It was my third day in the year two million A.D. I was in a much more sanguine mood. The pain from the fly bites was all but gone and they were healing nicely. I felt energetic but I was hungry again. So I fetched a section of the snake carcass I had put near the cool air vent. It was still edible and I ate the meat...

Some people are called "outsider artists," and some could be called "outsider writers." David Zeldis is both. His drawings are meticulously rendered, and his writing is painstakingly crafted. In fact, you'd be justified in calling them "obsessively" so: Zeldis suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with many phobias. He lives reclusively on the Upper West Side, not venturing outside much except to see his therapist, and tells me he has been "unemployed for years now, decades. I couldn't hold a job in this mental state." (We spoke by telephone; Zeldis' phobias restrict his comfort around strangers. His voice sounds like a cross between Woody Allen's and Ben Katchor's.)

I'd seen some of Zeldis' art in Raw Vision and in Dilettante Press' gorgeous 1998 anthology of apocalyptic outsider art, The End Is Near! His drawings are lovely and delicate, but also sad and strange and haunting: an empty room with a fantastical landscape out the window, or a deserted futuristic cityscape inhabited by a lone insectoid alien. Because he works with such obsessive care, agonizing over every detail, he says a single drawing can take "hundreds of hours, two months, three months" to complete, and he's finished "not more than 100" in the couple of decades he's been doing them.

Since I'd written a bit about Zeldis' work in the past, his mother, Malcah Zeldis, also a self-taught artist?she's illustrated a number of books for children and young people, including some by David's sister Yona, for which her deceptively "childlike," gaily colorful style is a perfect match?called and asked me to look at a new book he'd written.

In its own way, The Time Sphere (Fine Art Books, 178 pages) also displays Zeldis' obsessive nature. It's unabashedly based on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, to the point where you could call it a retelling. Though set in Rochester, NY, in 1999, the characters speak and act like it's London, 1899 (Wells' novel was published in 1895), which lends the book an odd charm. The outline of the story is familiar: A visionary scientist (Dr. Morpheus) creates a time machine, to much derision from his colleagues. To prove that it works, he tests it on himself, traveling two million years into the future, where he becomes enslaved by the primitive tribesmen humans have evolved/devolved into. Called Orgs, they're much like Wells' Morlocks, though Zeldis does not people his future with anything like the ethereal Eloi. Poor Morpheus is plagued by giant, intelligent flies and cockroaches, and forced to participate in many disgusting and grueling Org rituals (the Feast of the Warrior, the Test of Strength, the Cockroach Contests) that Zeldis describes in close, queasy detail. Eventually, with the help of a sympathetic girl Org, he escapes and returns to the present to tell his tale.

Zeldis was born in Israel in 1952, then the family moved to the U.S. when he was five, first to Oak Park, IL, where he went to kindergarten. "I had a lot of difficulty there. I was frightened. I didn't know English. And I wasn't used to the cold. When I first came there I ran outside without any coat and quickly ran back in." Later they moved to Brooklyn. Zeldis would go on to spend a year and a half at SVA, but "due to emotional problems I had to drop out... It was the time around the Vietnam War. I was worried about getting drafted. I had a note from a psychiatrist. It was a tough time." That's it for formal art training.

After the SVA sojourn "I was living with my parents, not doing much with myself. Just going to the library, getting books and records... I had trouble reading. Then I got a job at the Frick Collection, which only lasted about nine months. [It was] as a guard, because I liked the art, I wanted to be surrounded by the art. But I don't know, the hordes of people got me demoralized. I couldn't stand it. So I asked for night duty... Ironically, I got my wish. I was clamoring for it for a long time, making a pest of myself. But when I finally got it I got terrified. I got paranoid. The thought of roaming about an empty museum frightened me."

He links his most serious emotional problems to around that time, when his parents got divorced "and I started getting phobias. I had this night doorman job in Brooklyn, close by my mother's place, and I started getting phobias then. I thought I was going to blow up the boiler, I thought I was gonna get electrocuted. I was just alone there on the job. It was horrible."

His mother moved to Tribeca, where she still lives, and "I tried to have a place of my own, an attic apartment near that doorman job, but I couldn't live alone after a certain point... I was cracking up." He moved in with his mother, but "my phobias got worse and worse, as is usually the case with mental illness if untreated. I had to go to Hillside Hospital out in Queens for about three months," after which he continued in outpatient therapy.

It was around this point, in the late 70s, that he began to draw. "I never had a problem, as I did in the past, in what to draw, because I started drawing from my imagination. When I [had] tried to do still lifes [and life studies], I couldn't think of what to do... I felt stifled. It didn't interest me to replicate things in reality and arrange them and then just draw what I saw. I had to make up things that weren't there." He cites Dali's The Persistence of Memory as a model of what he does: realistic-looking depictions of imaginary things and places.

His work began to be shown, though his memory of where and how is a bit sketchy. "There might've been one tiny gallery, I have no memory of the name, that exhibited my work. There was also a gallery on Broadway that I went into by myself and they sold a few works for a pittance of $20, $25. They were mainly a framing store, but they hung some artwork. My first main gallery was Cavin- Morris [in Soho]. In about '86 this transpired. My mother helped me a lot. She's a real promoter of my work. Through her artwork she met Bert Hemphill," the late expert on folk and outsider art, who got Zeldis a lot more attention.

Besides the drawings, he's had a lot of poetry published. The Time Sphere is actually his second run at a Wells-inspired story. In the late 80s he was prompted by the movie version of The Time Machine to spend three years writing a novella, Cryogenic Time Capsule, which was serialized in a sci-fi zine.

He started working on The Time Sphere in '95, "and continued until around July of '99, under horrendous circumstances. It was very painstaking." He has lived for some time in a residential hotel on the Upper West Side, and "they started doing renovations... You can imagine trying to write and workers pounding on all the walls and the ceiling."

That wasn't the only problem. He wrote the entire book in longhand using "a homemade pencil, because I'm phobic about using pens and pencils... I'm basically phobic about stabbing myself in the eye or throat... The one main fear is of harming myself. It's a fear of losing control at any moment, or that I have to [harm himself] almost against my will. I could never handle a knife, let's say. These phobias all occurred around the time of my parents' divorce. I remember when I was sitting at the table I started shunning the use of forks. First it was knives, then it became forks. Then it was pencils. Over 15 years I've been using these bloody pencils" that he fashions himself, both for the drawings and the writing.

"I take some kneaded rubber eraser and flatten it out a little. I take the lead from a mechanical pencil and break it off, just about two inches, embed it in the eraser, roll it within a small piece of paper and put a rubber band around it so it's pretty tight. And that's my pencil. It's really frustrating because it breaks a lot. The pressure pushes the point in after a while and you gotta keep pulling it out. Sometimes I scream hysterically because it breaks and I have to make a new one right away and it takes time... They're fine tools. You should see how I hone them to needle-type points, and all different type of points. You have to be real careful how you use them. Most people, they would break. They couldn't have that kind of control."

Among other phobias, Zeldis says he fears what he calls "contamination. Like if I go in the supermarket and I pass by poisons I'm afraid that they're getting on me. Or oil spots on the street?I'm afraid the oil's gonna get on me. Or glass particles used to bother me. I used to be afraid they'd get on my hands whenever I saw smashed glass. Not so much anymore. The thing with the anthrax really got me. I said to myself, 'This is real now, this fear.' Get something in the mail and it's diseased? I couldn't believe it. The mail to me was always innocuous and something to look forward to." He has sometimes feared that even his own drawings have become contaminated, so that he had to keep them in a closet. He says it's with some difficulty that his mother "extracts [some of them] from me, after a lot of nagging," to be shown.

Agoraphobia keeps him away from his windows, which he says are "all boarded up"; he eats on his bed, because the kitchen table is by a window. And like most OCD sufferers he has certain behavior rituals he must go through, like a specific way of approaching and walking away from his refrigerator.

Asked if he had work in last weekend's Outsider Art Fair or in any New York gallery, he replies with indifference. "I'm not up on galleries or contemporary artists. I don't go to those places. I don't read about art shows." He tells me he's aware that his mother has gotten a few of his works into a gallery. "I don't know the name of it. It's in Chelsea somewhere near the piers. A place I don't think I would venture to go, even." In fact, he's represented by Edlin Fine Art in Chelsea, where both Malcah and he are in a group show through Feb. 14. Through his mother he also has an exhibit at the Akron Art Museum opening in May. "So many things in my own career I don't even know, because my mind is so scattered. It's bad. I should be able to tell a person more detail if they ask."

As for being an outsider artists, he says, "I don't really know what they mean by that. If there are outsider artists there must be insider artists, so apparently I'm not one of those. I'm just not in academic circles. Maybe that's what that means."

Zeldis says he sent The Time Sphere to 140 publishers before Fine Art picked it up. A reprinting with some needed corrections is already in the works, but this first edition can be bought from Malcah Zeldis?who else??for $12.50 (80 N. Moore St., Apt. #30L, NYC 10013).

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters