A Brush With Madness : An Artist's 'Creative Behavior' Began Looking More Like a Mental Illness in the Town Where He Took His Life

Times Staff Writer

On a cool, overcast afternoon last summer, Michael Balog hiked up to a windy bluff on the sage-covered hills above Ventura and pointed a .22-caliber rifle to his freshly shaven head.

He was dressed in a black martial-arts suit and Oriental shirt buttoned to the collar--part of one of the many identities he had adopted in his final troubled years. Underneath, a swastika-like Indian symbol was tattooed across his chest. Despite a long struggle with drug abuse and schizophrenia, his 41-year-old body had been kept sinewy by surfing and a vegetarian diet.

On the hillside overlooking the ocean where he spent so much of his youth, Balog fired a shot into his forehead. A jogger found the body later that day. There was no funeral, no mention of his death in the local papers and no obituary. In many ways, he was just another outcast whose tangled life had lapsed in obscurity.

But there was a time when Michael Balog commanded more attention, a time of rising celebrity, of possibility, of life without bounds.

A virtuoso painter and draftsman, Balog in 1972 leaped overnight from this small, seaside town to New York's most important contemporary galleries. In 1974, when he was 28, he was showing at the Museum of Modern Art.

That same year, Balog, pale, with piercing eyes and a dimpled chin, gazed out of an Esquire magazine photograph of two dozen artists, including the late Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. The caption hailed the group as "about as much artistic talent as has ever been packed" into any picture at one time.

Later, his charm and striking looks won him the attention of actress Diane Keaton, and his on-and-off-again affair with the actress landed them in the columns of a national gossip tabloid.

But Balog soon grew disenchanted with the pressures and pretense of the New York art world. In the late 1970s, he returned to Ventura, where he hoped that old friends and the surf would provide a more nurturing environment for his talent. Here, though, he gradually succumbed to his schizophrenic tendencies, an illness made worse by drugs and rejection.

Like his diverse body of work--which is on display through Jan. 28 at the Ventura College gallery--Balog's life exhibited a chilling duality.

At his best, he was a brilliant, witty, inspirational figure whose vision and intensity opened new worlds to those around him.

But his wit could quickly sour. Often, he turned unpredictably hostile, self-destructive and violent, ultimately alienating many of the people who tried to help him.

"He was a frightening genius," said Walter Stowe, one of Balog's closest friends and the last to see him alive. "He could be physically and emotionally threatening on one level and so sincere and perceptive on another level.

"There didn't seem to be a middle ground for him," he said. "It was one or the other."

Balog came from a family of individualists.

His father, Lester Balog, was a Hungarian-born union activist and socialist who made documentary films of farm workers in California during the Depression.

His mother, Frances, was an elementary school teacher and social worker who has spent most of the last seven years at sea as a junior purser in the Merchant Marine.

His sister, Leslie, is a civil rights attorney who works in Cuba for Radio Havana.

His 85-year-old maternal grandmother, distraught over the death of her husband, killed herself several years ago when she walked into the Pacific Ocean early one morning and never turned back.

For all that, Michael Balog had a seemingly typical childhood that was marked by physical fitness and a love for the outdoors.

Born in San Francisco in 1946, he grew up in a rural area near Chatsworth, in the hills above the San Fernando Valley, where he spent much of his youth exploring the canyons near his home.

At Simi Elementary School and, later, at Simi Valley High School, he was known as the class joker, the kind who could make the teacher as well as his classmates laugh.

Still, he was reserved about expressing his own feelings, and, as with his meticulous personal habits, preferred to keep unpleasantries concealed.

"He was very stoic," his mother recalled. "He wouldn't cry. He wouldn't admit he was frightened when he was. When he had his tonsils out, there wasn't a peep from him."

Love for Ocean

His artistic ability had begun to blossom at an early age, although Balog was more interested in the ocean than in drawing. In study hall, he would often sketch pictures of surfers and waves.

A regional wrestling champion in high school, he left after his junior year and finished his schooling at Ventura College, where he could be closer to the beach. He was given a surfboard for being on the local surfing team.

"He was the 'Barrel of Fun' guy," said Bill Delaney, a Ventura photographer and film maker who was one of Balog's closest childhood friends. "I thought this is a guy that's real talented and is going to do whatever he wants to do in life."

By his early 20s, Balog had decided it was time to apply his considerable talents and began taking classes in commercial art, with an eye toward anatomical illustrations.

But he resisted mimicking the designs of others and soon opted for the creative freedom that accompanied the fine arts. He won a scholarship to the former Chouinard Art School--now the California Institute of the Arts--and graduated with honors in 1969.

"I remember him vividly," said Los Angeles gallery owner Irving Blum, who gave Balog his first one-man show the following year. "He was an astonishingly young, gifted artist that had every kind of possibility. . . . But ability is not a guarantee that you're insulated from the terrors of the world."

Like many of his generation, Balog saw the 1960s as a time of experimentation, and it wasn't long before he had abandoned his clean-cut look and closely cropped hair for a more Bohemian image.

He also discovered drugs. Although he did not smoke cigarettes and seldom drank, Balog was intrigued by LSD and used it frequently before enrolling at Chouinard. During one particularly intense period, he took the hallucinogen every day for a month.

The effects were devastating. Ultimately, he committed himself to Camarillo State Hospital, where he stayed under supervision for several months.

"I think he had a lot of nightmares because of the acid," said Beth Hall, an old friend who works as a court reporter in Ventura. "He had such a vision, and he took it so literally that maybe it was just too intense."

After that, Balog stuck mostly to marijuana, going from periods of frequent use to abstinence. When he smoked it, though, he always smoked a lot.

"He once said, 'There's no point in doing just a little. The reason to do it is to get beyond any place in reality,' " said Owen Lee, a female friend and elementary school art teacher in South Carolina.

But Balog's brush with madness did not thwart his ambition. After his Los Angeles show was praised by a local reviewer for exhibiting the "abbreviated assurance of a ripe talent," he traveled to New York, where in 1972 he won the confidence of Leo Castelli, owner of one of the art world's premiere contemporary galleries.

"He seemed to be very promising," Castelli said in an interview from New York. "He was quite a good member of our little coterie."

Although only 26, Balog showed at Castelli's gallery four times over the next two years. His best work was done on large, 8-foot-by-8-foot Fiberglas sheets that he covered with several coats of different colored paint. Using a power sander, he blasted into the surface to reveal the various layers of color, sometimes breaking through the Fiberglas itself.

'Robust, Macho' Reviews

Other paintings earned Balog a place in a Museum of Modern Art group show called Change Inc. in 1974, and were exhibited at galleries in Chicago, Houston and Denver.

The magazine ARTnews said his work exerted "a strange fascination." Art in America said the paintings had "a robust, macho countenance." And the New York Times described him as a "master of a personal technique that he uses effectively to create a personal kind of work."

Living in the artistic community of SoHo, Balog was welcomed into a world of parties, gallery openings and avant-garde events. He hobnobbed with celebrities and was befriended by the very artists he admired. Behavior that might have seemed bizarre in quiet Ventura was considered progressive among his circle. "You were encouraged to look at everything in a new way," said Lee, a companion at the time.

Balog seemed to thrive on this liberation, often blurring the line between his art and his life in an effort to discover new forms of expression.

In 1973, to honor the Comet Kohoutek, he gave a gallery performance in which he tied his long hair into a pony tail, dipped it in paint, and then threw his head against a canvas to depict a streaking comet.

Another time, he packed a spray gun into his car and drove up to the slums of the south Bronx, where he found a rubble-strewn lot and coated it with a layer of bright, hot pink paint.

Once, just for fun, he bet Lee $10 that he could scare her to death. Then he took her to the roof of his apartment building and forced her to climb a rickety, 20-foot wooden ladder up to a water tower. At the top, Lee, who is afraid of heights, was led to a little womb-like compartment in the tower, and they both sat there as if it were their own secret tree fort.

"I think he was pleased with himself that I would trust him enough to climb up there," said Lee, who wasn't scared and won the $10 bet. "It was great fun, but it was sort of crazy."

That kind of enthusiasm for the challenging and offbeat also had an impact on Keaton, whom he met on a flight from Los Angeles to New York in 1974. Later, she helped Balog make a film that showed him spray-painting a bedroom--including furniture and windows--first all red, then all black and finally all white.

Inspired Actress

"He was a wonderful inspiration to me," Keaton said in an interview from New York. "Everywhere we'd go, he'd point out things that I had never seen before. He just had a way of seeing life."

It should have been one of the most satisfying periods of Balog's career, but he grew disenchanted with the New York art scene and embittered by his lack of commercial success.

His paintings, while critically acclaimed, did not sell well. The disability pay that he had received ever since his hospital stay did not stretch far.

"His work, in a sense, was very much ahead of its time," said Stephen Shadley, a New York free-lance photographer and interior designer. "He strayed away from the crowd. It was to his credit as an artist, but it may have been to his detriment as a success."

Dejected and weary, Balog returned to Ventura in the late 1970s. Friends said that he was seeking the comfort and forthrightness of a small town, one that had provided him with the simpler pleasures of a good surf and majestic scenery.

Once back, he often hiked the surrounding mountains, sometimes taking a hunting bow for target practice. Always, his outings were exercises in fearlessness. He would climb steep embankments and then run unhesitatingly down ravines. He would plunge undaunted into dark caves and emerge grinning. One time during a vacation in Hawaii, he and a friend came across a pack of horses on an isolated hillside. Balog, who had been sunbathing naked, ran unclothed to one of the horses and leaped upon it. When the animal bolted down a hill, Balog slid himself around the horse's neck and slowed it by hanging upside down and dragging his feet on the ground between the front hoofs.

Always a Maverick

"He didn't want to live by other people's rules," said Steven-Paul Fortier, the longtime friend who was with Balog in Hawaii. "He wanted to live by his own rules."

His new paintings, too, were a rejection of the work that had won him recognition in New York. Instead of creating texture-oriented abstract images, he became obsessed with technique, particularly the realism of Rembrandt and the other 17th-Century Dutch masters.

Waking often at 3 or 4 a.m., he would spend endless hours in his Santa Clara Street apartment painting with a single-hair brush, as if each detail opened a new world, and details within those opened another. He developed a trademark that he put in the corner of his canvases that showed a small orb with a reflection of Balog himself painting the very same picture.

"He was always trying to stretch the edges of his ability," said Fredrick Page, a Los Angeles art appraiser who was unsuccessful in his efforts to sell Balog's work in recent years. "I thought of his art in terms of a keyhole. . . . He kept trying to go through it like Alice in Wonderland."

But Balog's intensity had also begun to produce a dark side.

He was using marijuana heavily--Balog and a friend once smoked a joint rolled from an entire ounce--and started to experience dramatic mood swings. What might have been accepted as creative behavior in the New York art world began looking more like mental illness in Ventura.

"You never knew which Mike was going to show up," a friend said.

He adopted personas that changed rapidly. He could show up barefoot in swim trunks or in a three-piece suit with an attache case. Sometimes he would wear designer clothes and fashion eyeglasses; other times he would appear in martial-arts attire, his head freshly shaved.

Usually, he kept his brown hair neat and short, but at times would let it grow to shoulder length. Once, when it was long, he dyed it blond. A week later, he had a crew cut.

Occasionally, he would grow a goatee, throw on biker-style gear and hang out at the Hells Angels' Ventura clubhouse.

Days With Hells Angels

"We accepted him for what he was," said George Christie, president of the Ventura Hells Angels. "I think he was always living on the edge. He respected us, and we more or less let him be himself."

But what the Hells Angels saw as merely quirky, others found alarming.

Without warning, he could become confrontational and would threaten people with violence. In a small studio space that he rented in the back of a graphics shop on Oak Street, he kept a collection of Samurai swords and posted swastikas on the surrounding walls.

Warren Casey, the Ventura designer who rented out the space, said that the constant marijuana smoking and sexual advances toward his wife finally forced him to evict Balog after several months. Every time Balog dropped by the shop after that, Casey's mild-mannered Australian shepherd, Fido, would begin to bark and snarl.

"Some dogs have a sixth sense," Casey said. "She knew there was something weird about that guy."

Balog's hostility finally took a chilling turn in 1982. He invited the landlord of his downtown Ventura apartment over to talk one day, and as the man was descending the stairs, Balog lunged at him with a pocket knife. Friends said Balog had believed that the landlord, who was stabbed several times during the incident, had somehow been out to harm him.

Convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, Balog was sentenced to a six-month prison term, five years probation and monthly counseling at the county's Center for Drug Problems.

"There were times when I really felt like Michael was going to make it," said Shirley Hansen, the clinical social worker who counseled Balog for the last 4 1/2 years at the drug center. "He had enormous drive and zest for life. When he was up, he was the kind of person who could entertain at a cocktail party forever.

"But the big picture was just too depressing for him," she said. "He had bottomed out so many times. He got very tired. Looking at life and comparing what he felt he could have done to the actual reality was just overwhelming for him."

Whatever Michael Balog hoped to find in Ventura eluded him to the end.

He sold his work cheap because he needed money, then complained about being exploited. He entered a painting in a competition at the Ventura County Fair, but felt dejected when it failed to earn even an honorable mention. In moments of despair, he spoke of a loneliness that left him gasping for breath.

Several months before his probation would have ended, he went on a marijuana binge. On June 29, 1987, he failed to report to his probation officer or provide the urine sample for his monthly drug test.

Flight to Mexico

Rather than face the possibility of more jail time, Balog fled to Mexico. A week later he returned, haggard and shaken. He borrowed $100 from Page in Los Angeles and, on Sunday, July 12, returned to Ventura.

He parked his blue '74 Ford van in front of the Walnut Street house belonging to his friend, Stowe, and for the next three days, Balog lived inside the car amid the last of his possessions: a few power tools, some arts supplies, an air brush, his attache case and several boxes of martial-arts robes.

At night, after Stowe, a 28-year-old house painter, came home from work, they would eat dinner together and, for the first time, Balog spoke of killing himself. Stowe said that he tried to comfort his friend, but Balog would always grow tired and return to the van to sleep.

On Wednesday, July 15, Stowe came home and found a handwritten note.

"Walter," it said, "Here's my stuff, small key with diamond is for tool box lock. Sorry--All my love to you. Hope this stuff helps you along your way a little. Love, Mike."

Then, in a different color pen, as if it were an afterthought, he wrote at the bottom of the paper:

"I've gone into the hills up the street with a gun. Goodby."

By the time Stowe phoned the police, Balog's body had already been found. The coroner's report listed him as a transient. Four days later, he was cremated, and his family had the ashes scattered at sea.

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