( Drawn under 4mg. of Dilaudid )
" ...today we live in a narcissistic and obsessive culture, totally overflowing with drugs. And as an artist I am the filter... "
Bryan Lewis Saunders is an artist without any doubt --- when he creates things, people break down and cry. In short, he is a great leader of catharsis and true emotional expression in a modern world of nervous silence.
Although Saunders is renowned mostly for his spoken word poetry, he has earned himself a fair deal of notoriety with one specific project of his - testing and artistically showing the effects of various illicit substances. Each day, through a series of self portraits, Bryan Lewis Saunders opens a new chemical doorway - and sketches his visions and experiences of the unknown pleasures that lie waiting beyond.
dinosaurcity had the chance to sit down with Bryan Lewis Saunders and discuss his personal tribulations with this project. This is the transcript:
How old are you?
BLS: Almost 42.
Where are you from?
BLS: I was born in Washington D.C. but I've lived in Tennessee off and on for so long that I tell people that I'm from there.
What led to the decision to start these self-portraits under the influence of various drugs?
BLS: Well I've drawn/painted at least one self portrait every day since March 30th of 1995 and on some days I experiment with drugs. However, the drug series itself began in 2000 when I moved into an 11 story building with the idea that I would make a documentary on all of the interesting characters there. The building, is well known in Johnson City for its creeps and loonies.
After moving in, one of my good friends Jennifer Renfro, from art school purchased an old church nearby and was turning it into a house to live in. While finishing the downstairs flooring she died in her sleep when it caught fire.
The day after her funeral my best friend Don Morgan, also from art school, shot himself in the head, in one temple and out the other with a Russian .32 and survived! Unfortunately he ended up with severe brain damage and permanent confusion. While he was still in the hospital my right lung collapsed for the third time (spontaneous pneumothorax), and I had a lobectomy in which they removed the top half of my lung to prevent it from collapsing again.
Meanwhile my other best friend, Brandon Bragg, was on the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking from GA to ME. experiencing great and wonderful things in nature. Once I myself got out of the hospital and Don was sent to a nursing home, Brandon was hiking in nearby Damascus, VA and convinced me to continue the journey with him. I had never been hiking before and with only 1 1/2 lungs I put my life in his hands.
It was incredible. I had 5 pounds of art supplies with me! Every day I saw tons of beautiful things in nature. I'm from the city and so every new kind of bark I saw, or toadstool, or wild animal gave me such a rich wealth of phenomenon to draw and see myself in a totally different world. That experience was truly miraculous and healing. (To this day that book is my favorite of all of the self-portrait books.)
( Huffing Lighter Fluid )
Anyway, back to the drugs.
While Brandon and I were hiking one day he asked me, "Whatever happened with that documentary you were going to make with the veterans and the loonies?"
And I told him how everything had happened so fast with the tragedies and how I thought the people would be really interesting to document, but in fact they were all on drugs, suffering in solitude, some too obese to physically leave their apartment, and for many it was all they could do to get out of their recliners 3 times a day. And I told him how when I first moved in, a paraplegic in a wheelchair showed me an encyclopedia of pills and said he could find at least one of every kind of pill in that book in the building and that book was huge!
When Brandon and I got to NY, I unknowingly became very dehydrated and started hallucinating and had a psychotic break and ditched him at a monastery because I thought he was trying to poison me. I took the greyhound straight back to Tennessee where I had an epiphany. I thought not only am I going to draw myself everyday, I'm going to do a different drug everyday, after all there was one of everything in the building...
And that was when I officially started the project.
What were your favorite substances consumed? What were the worst?
BLS: Xanax (totem poles - 4mg) would probably be one of my favorites. It made me feel real at peace with life and with the trauma, and it also made me a real social dynamo! I'm sort of a recluse but with the Xanax I could just walk up and talk to total strangers! The Butane Honey Oil was a real blast too!
The worst is a toss up between PCP and Seroquel (heavy tranquilizer/anti-psychotic agent) 100 mg. I went to a doctor to hopefully get more different drugs and told him about my project and showed him my pictures on various drugs and he only wrote one prescription for 90 Seroquels thinking I was psychotic for taking such an undertaking and it was awful!
I always saw the lion in Africa on TV with the hurt foot getting shot with a tranquilizer dart and assumed that that lion was woozy and in lala land! Boy was I wrong. In reality, that lion actually wants to tear out those people's throats with awe inspiring savagery but it just can't move. At least that is how the Seroquel did me. It's a long story but as you can see from the drawing I had to fight against its effects, and it took every ounce of strength I had!
( Ladies and gentlemen, PCP! )
The PCP was just as bad. Any drugs that detach your mind from your body I don't care for too much. The PCP day I ate a ham sandwich with tomatoes in it and people kept knocking on my door asking if they could look at my Appalachian Trail self-portraits and I'd get to telling about 20 people at a time all of my hiking stories and showing them all of my drawings and then all of sudden someone would whisper, "Bryan, these people aren't real." And I would flip the hell out! Because even the person that whispered that wasn't real. And then there would be another knock at the door and more people would come in wanting to see my pictures and they too weren't real.
What's crazy is, my friend Audra said that she really did knock on my door and could hear me talking in there but I wouldn't answer it. It was all I could do to draw myself vomiting on PCP, and each time I heaved my face shifted off in stages and red clumpy chunky stuff kept coming out of my nose. I thought my brain was hemorrhaging, but it turned out it was just tomato from my sandwich. Thankfully.
Before the self-portraits, how experienced were you with these substances? Were there any you did the first time with these experiments?
BLS: I've always experimented with drugs to some extent, and when I was much younger I had a couple of seizures on cocaine binges, but many of them were new to me. Most of the pills were new and some of the huffing.
People that don't 'really' know me often think I'm a party animal because of this body of work, but in truth I will only do a drug for the drawing/experience and if I've never done it before. Some drugs I have already done, but it was before I began drawing myself every day so I'll do it again under the influence.
( 2mg. of Xanax )
I've snorted Heroin several times, but I've never done a drawing on Heroin because I haven't had the opportunity since I started the project. I only do drugs that people donate to the project. All all that I really care about is how drugs change my perception of the self. As the scientist and the 'lab rat' I often have to wait to be in the perfect place in life and in the perfect frame of mind and in the right environment with the right people or alone which can take months sometimes to get all of that aligned. I do this to drastically limit possible outside factors that may complicate the self-perception.
From an artist's perspective, what drugs have been the most useful for you?
BLS: I would say none of them were very 'useful' outside of just sharing a one time unique experience. Adderall did seem to give me a lot of patience and focus, but I wouldn't say it was more useful than Salvia which I started drawing right before taking and finished by painting right after.
Even I, who has conditioned myself to draw while in a drunken blackout and not remember it, still can't draw when completely obliterated or on a different planet, so I try not to overdo it. The act of drawing is much more useful than any drug.
On your website, you mention that you became "lethargic and suffered mild brain damage" because of this experiment - can you elaborate on the after effects?
BLS: Well, in the beginning I got carried away and became enamored with the uniqueness of how the different drugs made me see myself and how each one had its own special quality. And after a few days or so the excitement was really building up in me, As to were the different drugs. And as soon as the effects of one would wear off I'd just do another one without thinking about any harm I was causing myself.
And then when the word got out about the project people started really showing up at my door with all kinds of stuff, I mean really cleaning out their medicine cabinets for me. So the day after someone showed up with 2 bottles of Robotussin and a can of lighter fluid.
My friend Audra saw my pictures and the breaking down of my mental state and said, "Look! Bryan! You're giving yourself Down Syndrome!" (to put it nicely). And sure enough I had been mixing the wrong drugs with each other for days and gave my self mild-brain damage without even knowing it. Luckily not permanent and thankfully she was there to even spot it. It was quite some time before I tried a new drug again.
Are these experiments still going?
BLS: Yep, the drawing still goes on. Never missing a day. Just finishing up my 89th book of self-portraits and quickly approaching 8,000 in all.
Not all of them on drugs of course, but from time to time when the situation presents itself and an interested party donates a new one I'll do it. But only on my own terms, like I said everything has to be just right I only do it for the drawing.
What's next? Where's the acid?
BLS: As far as acid goes, I've tried acid 3 times in NE Tennessee and all 3 times it was really crappy. Nothing like the U.V.A. acid in the mid eighties. People here say, "I did 8 of 'em. I took 4. I did 6 of 'em.". And I'm like, "If one doesn't do it for you, why take 7 more? That's ignorant!"
As for what's next, it all depends on what people give me. I don't seek them out and there are still plenty of big ones I need to draw under the influence of; Heroin, LSD, DMT, Computer Duster, Ayahuasca, Peyote and I don't want to die until I do a self-portrait on Crack. You see today we live in a narcissistic and obsessive culture, totally overflowing with drugs. And as an artist I am the filter. Picasso and Matisse got it right when one of them said, "Cézanne is the father of us all." It's not a stretch by any means to say, "On some days, my brain chemistry is my vantage point and my face is his Mont Sainte-Victoire."
( The artist, having snorted 15mg of Buspar )
For people interested in this particular body of work, my Facebook has the best and most up to date collection of drawings under the influence. And I'm a weird person, and I'm way more well known for other stuff besides the drawings and drugs...
To look more into the world of Bryan Lewis Saunders, please visit his website.