Of all the biases which humans endure, perhaps the discrimination suffered by the physically challenged is most pervasive. Members of every race, class and cast have discriminated, often brutally, against the so-called ‘disabled’.
Today, in various parts of the world, infanticide still exists. It often targets female infants, but infanticide of the physically challenged continues for both genders.
Mark Gash was born with third-degree osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as “brittle bone syndrome”. Mark was born with thirteen broken bones, spent the first two years of his life in body casts, and throughout his life suffered over 200 more broken bones. His body was dwarfed (he was about four feet tall), and he spent his life confined to a wheelchair. Mark lived with constant pain, which medication could not alleviate.
Legally, Mark was designated as “completely disabled”. Little was expected from him. As a young boy growing up in Denton, Texas, people would talk in front of him, as if he was mentally incapacitated, assuming that Mark would not understand the disparaging things they were saying. In fact, Mark was extremely intelligent. He knew exactly what was being said about him.
To the surprise of all, Mark did very well in school. He became the first person in the world, with his condition, to graduate college, the University of Texas. Extremely gifted in the arts, he then beat his own record and went on to achieve a Master of Fine Arts degree, from the California Institute of the Arts (studying under John Baldesari), often considered the nation’s best accredited art university.
Despite being paraplegic, Mark learned to create intense, sometimes controversial large scale paintings. They would often include a psycho-sexual theme which reflected his own tortured sexual life and relationship to women.
He was able to sometimes sell these artworks to the burgeoning scene of LA’s upscale actors, rock stars and intelligentsia. This, along with help from Medicaid, gave him the means to live independently.
For almost four years, we shared a very large loft in Downtown Los Angeles. I was working at EZTV from early morning to very late at night and so, at first, spent very little time together. During part of that time, he actually moved to Barcelona, Spain, to live ‘the life of a true bohemian artist’, for about a year.
Mark had many amazing adventures before I met him. He lived for over a year, on the remote South Pacific Island of Palau, where he told me, the people there considered him, because of his appearance, to be a demi-god, and that they had initiated him into their native culture, making him a shaman.
When I first met him in LA, through a mutual friend, performance poet M’Lissa Mayo, Mark was really a central player in the Downtown LA underground art/music scene. He had close friends ranging from rock stars, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to up and coming Hollywood hipsters.
I had been his roommate for three months and had avoided ever asking him about his medical condition. I frankly had no idea what was ‘wrong’ with him.
One night, while out “clubbing”, he was driven home by some friends who, like Mark, had been drinking. They got into a minor car accident, which was a serious event for Mark, and when they finally brought Mark home, his friends simply tossed him on his bed and left.
When I got home, I found him, in severe pain, bruised and covered in his own vomit. Reluctantly and deeply embarrassed, he asked me to please help him get washed up and into some clean clothes. I asked him if he wanted to see a doctor and he said no.
I was very uncomfortable undressing him, and carrying his tiny, deformed body into the bathroom. My own deep-rooted biases, concerning physical ‘beauty” and normality, suddenly became more obvious to me.
I got him into the bath tub, washed him off and wondered how to connect better with this person. We seemed so different. While standing over him in the tub, he, naked and in pain, was so vulnerable and alone. He started to cry and told me how he felt cursed, as if he had done some terrible thing in a former lifetime. He said he wanted to kill himself.
I felt I needed to reach out and know him better. I finally asked him about his condition, and he explained that his bones lacked a certain chemical, that made bones flexible and resilient. He told me of his life of pain and ridicule. He said all because he had bad bones. Instinctively, I decided to try a something which was clearly not very ‘politically correct’. I decided to try making a joke of it all.
I took a great risk of possibly insulting him and hurting his feelings. This might ostracize me from him, but something told me to proceed. In my worst parody of a Texas Bluesman accent, I said “Boy, there’s nothin’ wrong with you, you jus’ bad to the bone!” I then began to sing (again in a bogus and overdone Texas blues accent) the words to the then popular George Thorogood blues-rock song “Bad to The Bone” (“Bubba-bubba-bad, bubba-bubba bad, bad to the bone”).
He first gave me the look of someone who had been made fun of his whole life. It was a look of both hate as well as fear. He lied there, looking up at me, wondering what insult I’d say to him next. Then, he broke into a smile, and said, almost silently “bad to the bone, I guess so”. He then laughed and started singing it himself. “Bubba-bubba-bad, bubba-bubba bad, bad to the bone”. We sang it together, over and over, for what seemed like a really long time. “Bubba-bubba-bad, bubba-bubba bad, bad to the bone”. We were laughing so hard by the end, the words were incomprehensible. As I got him out of the tub, and into his fresh bedclothes, we had both made a new friend.
After about a week of rest, I took him out for a drive in my hot-rod 1967 Mustang fastback, a barely street-legal monster of a machine. That probably was the most dangerous thing that I could do for him. But he seemed to love it. We sang “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Picket, and he’d whistle at pretty women we’d pass on the street, or in other cars.
He also once tried his hand at film directing. He asked his friend choreographer/performance artist Carol Cetrone, to star in an abstract narrative, and asked me to produce and film it. We shot, without a script, for one very long day, a number of scenes, but he never continued with the project. After about six months, I took the footage we had shot, and edited together a ‘faux trailer’ of the never-to-be-completed film.
We remained friends for the rest of his life. On a number of occasions, I witnessed the extreme bigotry that persons would hold against him. One instance occurred in New York City. Mark had a desire to achieve representation from a prestigious New York art gallery. He submitted slides of his paintings, along with his resume to a number of such galleries. To his delight, he did receive a reply from one. The gallery director asked if Mark could come to NYC and meet in person.
Since I’m from New York originally, I told Mark I’d be happy to travel with him, and used it as an excuse to visit my family. On the day of his appointment, I took a cab with him to the gallery, and helped him out of the cab.
I wheeled Mark down the long gallery space towards the upscale gallery director sitting at a desk at the far end of the gallery. I then noticed something, that at first I was sure I was misinterpreting. As I wheeled Mark towards the gallery director, I saw her reach for her purse, take out a few coins and extending her hand out to Mark, said “here you go”.
I could feel Mark’s heart breaking, and in anger I said, with as much bite as I could muster- “This is Mr. Gash, from Los Angeles. You have an appointment with him.” And then cursed her under my breath. I then excused myself and told Mark I’d be back in a half-hour, to get him. Holding back a tear that was forming, he looked up at me, embarrassed and angry, but then simply smiled and nodded. We never spoke about the incident, and nothing, of course, ever came from the meeting with the bigoted art gallery director.
Another instance was when, in the late 1980′s, a guy who presented himself to Mark as being a research scientist from UCLA Medical School. Now this was well before it was easy as a simple Google search to check on the veracity of someone’s credentials. The guy said that UCLA had developed an experimental procedure for cloning someone’s body parts, and then transplanting these new parts into another person’s body. The guy said he could possibly clone my legs and put the clones onto Mark. That is, if we were together a perfect ‘match’.
It took every ounce of will I had to not tell Mark that I thought he was being had. I said that ‘of course’ I’d participate in any way he wanted.
I met the guy once, with Mark, not at UCLA of course, but at a diner. Mark had obviously already discussed with him some financial terms for the procedure, which the guy said was still ‘top secret’ and couldn’t be discussed with anyone. Convenient. The guy must have sensed my distrust of him.
Mark continued to be in contact with the guy for almost two more months. I don’t know if any money ever changed hands. Mark didn’t ever have much money, but he did know some people who did, and it would not have been inconceivable for Mark to have found a way to get one of them to help. I do vaguely remember going somewhere and submitting some sort of blood and/or tissue sample. It may have actually been at UCLA. But eventually, Mark told me that the guy decided that Mark wasn’t a good candidate for the procedure.
But dispute so many sad and difficult times, there were those also, so many wonderful times, when life took him by the throat and gave him a helluva good ride. Such as the night when Anthony of the Chili Peppers saw Mark in the crowd of a show, got him up on stage with them, where Gash rocked and partied hardy in his chair, locked in step to the beat of Flea and Chad, arguably one of the best rhythm sections that rock has ever known.
And the time that film director William Friedkin (best known for The Exorcist) asked Mark to play himself in a short scene in Friedkin’s film “To Live and Die in LA”, shot in our crazy looking loft by master cinematographer Robbie Mueller. These were the moments which Mark would have us remember.
Like almost everyone we knew, Mark was politically speaking, very, very progressive. Except, however, there was one thing one which we did not agree – a woman’s right to choose. Mark said that if his mom had the choice to not have him, that he would have never gotten to experience life. And he would say, over and over, that any life, was preferable to never have had life.
But he did get to experience life, in its pathos, inequity and debauchery. Well over 200 beautiful woman welcomed the chance to pose nude for Mark, either in one of his countless drawing exercises, or his intense, and often insane, brightly colored paintings. He loved life, and he resisted letting go of it, for far longer than the experts said he had a right to expect.
Mark died at age 41, greatly out-living the estimated 20 year lifespan which his doctors had predicted for him. He managed to beat every odd against him, but never quite achieved, his greatest wish, at least not during his lifetime. Gash wanted so badly to become a world-respected and financially successful artist. He was indeed a world-class artist, and taught me better than anyone else could ever teach me, that making excuses for one’s personal situation was meaningless. No other person that I have known had a better excuse for accepting their situation, and accepting defeat, without a fight. He was a role model for us all, not just those who share his life-experience. But Mark was never defeated, right up to the last day I saw him, a few days before his death.
I’ve known, perhaps, far too many people, who had charmed lives, at least in terms of their physical bodies. Many of them, professional dancers, models and actors, took far too much advantage of the misplaced emphasis that our society has placed on the external part of our nature. Their bodies were their works of art, in some sense self-created, but mainly due to the toss of the cosmic dice.
Mark’s dice came out far different, but he had a type of beauty and grace, that a camera, or a fashionista, will never see.
He outlived the doctors’ predictions of his expected lifespan, and out achieved the predictions of his teachers, therapists or social workers. He created numerous paintings, drawings, and writings. He was a performance artist and actor and member of the Screen Actor’s Guild. He curated a number of art shows, many at EZTV ( including a very early solo show for now internationally recognized artist Jim Shaw). And he created EZTV’s first website.
Mark once had told me that he could, starting at a very early age, astral project himself into the air, and even into space. Resisting my typical skeptical belligerence to test such claimants, I never asked him for proof. For his sake, I hoped he was telling me the truth. I imagined him flying way above the rest of us, looking down at us mere mortals, who had not decided, as he had, to exchange his legs for wings.
A few years before he died, he moved into the same apartment building as me, directly below me. He at that point was really beginning to transition to digital media, and was learning web design, and digital animation. As he aged, his hearing, always problematic, began to deteriorate rapidly. He died suddenly, on the operating table, during a routine, and supposedly non-life threatening, ear surgery.
Mark had been getting more bitter, about his art career not ‘succeeding’. But Mark actually did achieve his wish, he was a world-class artist, it’s just that the world didn’t (yet) know it.
"Bad to the Bone - An Essay on Mark Gash"
Written by Michael J, Masucci