Melvin Way, 1954 – 2024, Ruffin, South Carolina

I put this essay here with a heavy heart. I had it scheduled to post in mid-March, but things changed. Melvin Way passed away on the morning of February 4th. Several weeks back, when we were installing an exhibition at MARCH Gallery in New York, Andrew Castrucci came in to chat with Phillip March Jones and mentioned that Melvin was not well. Five years earlier Phillip brought in Melvin’s work when we co-curated the 2019 Atlanta Biennial at Atlanta Contemporary. It was the first time I had seen these drawings in person. 

In 2020, Institute 193 organized Melvin Way: Xerography, the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s photocopies of his drawings. There were plans for a zine to document the show, but timing and the pandemic threw those plans for a loop. What follows is a draft of an essay conceived initially for that zine: 

Sir Isaac Newton, recognized as one of the most brilliant scientific minds of all time, laid the foundations of Classical mechanics and made groundbreaking contributions to various fields such as light, optics, calculus, and celestial mechanics. His magnum opus, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, elucidated the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Newton’s pivotal discoveries materialized during an intense period in his early 20s, characterized by relentless work and disregard for basic needs like food and sleep. Remarkably, despite a later diagnosis of chronic late-onset schizophrenia-like psychosis at 51, Newton continued his work, living until the age of 84.

Kurt Gödel, a pioneer in mathematical logic, published his two incompleteness theorems at age 25, revealing inherent limitations in natural numbers and formal axioms capable of mimicking basic arithmetic. Gödel grappled with several schizophrenic breakdowns throughout his life, ultimately succumbing to starvation due to a fear of poisoning.

Known to many as “The Lady with the Lamp,” Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing. She dedicated her life to social reform and improving public health systems. A pioneer in visualizing information and statistical graphics, she developed her own pie chart, the polar area diagram. All of these achievements happened despite a lifelong bipolar disorder, which kept her bedridden with alternating highs and lows. 

At the age of 29, John Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Many of us first learned of Nash when he was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Others know Nash for fundamentally changing game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations. He is the only person awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the Abel Prize. 

Applying deep abstraction, Alexander Grothendieck forever altered modern, pure mathematics. He created an entirely new paradigm using tools from algebraic geometry, commutative algebra, category theory, cryptography, and topology. For the last two decades, he disappeared into enigmatic self-imposed isolation, focusing on his meditations in the Pyrenees. In 1991, he burned many of his papers. 

I always return to these titans of mathematics when thinking about the drawing by Melvin “Milky” Way. Way can be a daunting figure to access. Most geniuses are. Way is an artist who makes drawings as beautiful pieces of mathematical choreography. He knows how to make the numbers, the formulas, the letters, the fragmented song lyrics, the signs and symbols, the notations and calculations boogie. The lid is off. His drawings fizz reminiscent of mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck’s perspectives on bubbling. Bubbles are empty of all but air; they are thin mists that shield us from a mathematical singularity. They are born from chance. They grow everywhere. Think of the frothy head on top of a just-pulled pint of beer. The foam is alive. Its suds build off each other towards infinity. Logically sound or not, Way’s equations are moving targets, measured only by chaos and marked by zero, one, or many solutions. 

Art stems from “divergent thought.” Questions and possibilities, risk-taking, and exploration. I most connect to Way’s calculations and chemical notations precisely because although the formulas appear to be copied from a textbook, they are ultimately incomprehensible when scrutinized. What Way presents us is akin to the Collatz Conjecture, the most treacherously alluring, simple-seeming open problem in math. Open issues force us to depart from the traditional mentality of success. With the proof remaining ever-elusive, these problems allow for wild creativity. Working from or working towards failure builds new roads. Way carves his algorithms in the sand. It slips through your fingers whenever you think you can grasp a solution. 

Way was born in the unincorporated community of Ruffin, South Carolina, in 1954. he was often shuttled to relatives in Brooklyn and R.C.A. Technical School in midtown Manhattan. After school, he worked as a machinist and played the bass in local funk bands at night. After a mental breakdown in the 1980s, he developed schizophrenia. Homeless on Wards Island, he was moved to the Manhattan State Psychiatric Hospital and later to Fort Washington Men’s Shelter. Life became a merry-go-round of mental institutions, shelters, halfway houses, and drug rehabs. While at a Keener Men’s Shelter in 1989, Way met the artist Andrew Castrucci, who was teaching art workshops. Castrucci became his greatest advocate and archivist. He brought Way Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, books of maps, astronomy, medieval diagrams and art, and Physicians’ Desk Reference as reference material. 

Way would go missing, bouncing around New York on various binges. Eventually, he would emerge from rehab or lockup with as many as 500 pocket-sized ballpoint pen drawings. Mathematical tirades. Interpretations of complex compounds. Half genius, half gibberish. Scraps of whatever paper could be found at a place and time were filled to the brim. Due to his peripatetic life, the drawings needed to be compact and easily hidden. He would stash his talismans in books, bags, wallets, and coat pockets, carrying them through rain, sleet, and snow for months. When a moment was called for preservation, he would add a layer of clear sticky tape. As the cover would build, they create a history, a less than elegant proof of his exhaustive work. 

Melvin Way: Xerography at Institute 193 is the first exhibition of Way’s copies of his drawings. Just as the formulas depicted are infinitely reproducible, so are the drawings. Unable to pass up blank space, he frequently enhances the copies with annotations, further notes, and expanding diagrams, accentuating the originals. The production of the Xerograph machine creates a product of dissemination and collection, a black and white something to hold tight or pass to those in need.

Mathematicians are always trying to convince us that they are storytellers. The equation is the setting, and numbers and geometries are their characters. The story’s narratives are the proofs they can create about these characters. Math and art are not so different. One is the realm of emotional expression, passion, and fantasy. The other is a world of steely logic, precision, and certainty. It’s more honest than most of us are comfortable with. They are both ways of unraveling the world. It’s a tantalizing task deciphering Melvin Way’s cryptic drawings; I feel he is letting me in on a messy, mystical secret. They give me a sense of transcendent optimism, feelings of relief, and joy. Melvin Way is a virtuoso not because of the answers he provides but because of his single-minded devotion to pursuing such an impossible dream.

Portrait of the artist by Andrew Catrucci, Fort Washington Men’s Shelter, c. 1996