What kind of guy paints purple-gray veins on light bulbs?

“I’m interested in the colors and maybe the light beneath the skin,” says artist Kevin Orth. “Light bulbs sort of give you that transparency. I’m interested in things beneath the surface. I’m interested in anatomical drawings and the colors that you see, like of a heart; those blues and purples and violets. They’re always there, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be subjects for painting, too.”

Orth’s work is colorful, childlike, like the man himself. His mediums are many: broken glass, stale bread, cardboard, canvas, wood, papier-mache. Some of his imagery is reminiscent of Eskimo art. Some of his pieces are inspired by the funeral creches of Mexico and Southeast Asia.

Orth was born in Cleveland and grew up in Akron, Ohio. “I’ve never had any training whatsoever in art, not even a class,” he says. “That’s important. I went to college in Columbus and lived there for eight years. Then I went to Southeast Asia [he visited Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore], which is where I started doing the type of art that I’m doing now.

“My work is from materials that I’ve scavenged. The only stuff that I regularly buy is the paint and any hardware stuff. I try and find things, or use things like broken glass, junk, bits of wood, and try to bring them back to life.”

One of the several unusual forms his art takes is the Orth box. These vary in size but are usually bigger than a shoe box and smaller than a box for a 19-inch TV. Orth paints these cardboard boxes or covers them with material, then fills them with diverse objects, sometimes the painted light bulbs. The boxes are often so different from one another that they appear to be the creations of different artists.

“I believe that each day of your life is like a different room that you move through, as if you were in some gigantic house,” Orth says. “Each of those boxes just tries to re-create or capture one of those moments in one of those days.”

One box evokes fascism: small, framed religious paintings above; and below, toy soldiers engaged in activities prohibited in some southern states. A tiny black bull is poised to charge the viewer, and the centerpiece is a can of Goya tomatoes. Another of Orth’s boxes would fit into a Republican’s den: it’s lined in dark velvet and contains a briar pipe, a framed photo, and an open book of woodcuts. Most would not.

Orth’s paintings usually revolve around a human head, though many forms within his canvases are abstract. “The human face is about the most interesting thing you see every day,” Orth says. “It has the most meanings, because it’s our own primary source of perception. Our own face, our own eyes.”

Much of his work contains bits of original poetry, or a line or two of chilling dialogue. The poetry is often all in capital letters, the opposite of E.E. Cummings’s typographic style. Orth suggests that his messages resemble commercial signs: “Like “SHRIMP BASKET ONLY $9.99.”‘

Though most of Orth’s work is childlike and playful, occasionally he flashes a darker side. One of his boxes features a blue mask, and on the side of the crate he’s scrawled: “This much of his face appeared above the surface of the earth in my backyard. I removed only that and covered the rest again with the black dirt.”

Mysterious expressions (“They put air in his heart but he died”) share the painted surface with semiabstract and abstract shapes, whose vibrant colors leap out at you. And yet two of his pieces, clearly of houses, are pacific and ordered. Orth, whose work can be seen at the Fenway Gallery in Lakeside, Michigan, also makes jewelry and walking sticks bristling with nails and topped with papier-mache heads.

“I think Chicago is a good place for an artist of a certain kind,” says the Lakeview resident. “Maybe more my kind than a person who wants the big New York scene. To be a solitary or independent artist, this is a good place to be, because there’s a lot to see, and there are some very good artists in this city. It’s been good for me, the best place I’ve ever lived.”

Orth believes that people often miss out on some of the most interesting art being made. “A lot of the things that are supposedly interesting, say the latest book or the latest movie, the thing that is being relentlessly publicized, could be quite the opposite–probably total bullshit.

“The interesting things that are happening are all around, and too many of them are overlooked.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.