Anyone who knows me knows that at a really young age I was into drawing and cartooning but later had to give it up because I developed Tourette Syndrome and OCDs in my arms and hands. But it wasn’t long because at age 10 I turned that art into music and playing guitar. Lately, I’ve been transforming that energy, that art, into writing – more specifically, scripts and short stories.
Our next featured guest is someone who knows what art is about. His art is real. He knows how to connect with an audience on a “real” level. I’m lucky enough to re-introduce controversial artist Bryan Lewis Saunders.
Bryan has been making self-portraits of himself every day since 1995. That’s almost 25 years! He has made over 11,000 of these pictures and almost all of them are breathtaking. A documented journal of who he was each day for two decades.
In 2014, Bryan Saunders had a documentary made about his life and his work titled, Art of Darkness, by David B. Parker. The film focuses on his incredible journey of a life – from the tormented genius to the Chinese Superstar – it can be rented and streamed here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/artofdarkness
Order the Blu-ray here: http://bryanlewissaunders.org/weblog/2018/mar/20/aod-blu-ray/
From Jan. 6th – Feb. 4th of 2018 Saunders made himself totally blind for a month, and you guessed it – he painted a portrait of himself every. single. day.
1. Bryan, where are you from, how old were you when you first got into making art, and what was your first self portrait?
D.C. / Northern Virginia. I didn’t really get into art until maybe my second drawing class in college. My first self-portrait ever (not a daily-self-portrait) I did from a polaroid before college while renting a room in this biker house. I don’t know why I drew it. At that time I was really angry and depressed and psychotic and having constant headaches from not eating enough and smelling these chemical fumes from where they were making meth. These two guys Pig and Paul would fight each other and be bleeding everywhere and on everything and I thought they were monsters and that there was an alien machine boring holes in my brain like little tunnels that helped them control my behavior. So during the day I was stealing Van Heusen dress shirts and then returning them the next day for money to buy peanut butter and jelly and bread.
2. What inspired your deaf/mute/blind series of pictures? How did you cut off your hearing for a month? How did you make yourself totally blind? Can you tell us what those experiences were like, and did you learn anything significant from the Blind experiment?
Well I often try to think of ways to manipulate my senses because it is through the senses that we perceive many things. So manipulating them is like taking control of the puppet strings. Denying some senses increases other senses too and that can be neat to experience. I’m just really into changing things and seeing what happens. To try to be deaf I put in military ear plugs. Then I smeared vaseline on and around them. Then I pressed a cotton ball firmly into the vaseline. Then I taped up my ear with duc tape. Then I wore expensive sound isolation headphones over top. To be blind I took a sleep mask and pierced the node with metal from a paperclip so I could twist it tight with pliers and conform it to my cheekbones. Then I wrapped self adhesive sports gauze over top of that around my head. Well trying to be deaf was really painful. I started hearing through my bones, eustachian tubes in my mouth. The world became incredible loud. My hearing went though 4 stages the last of which lasted about 128 days past the experiment. It was insane. Being blind was the opposite of that. It forced me to behave mindfully. It made me slow my body movements and life activities way down. Everything took so much longer to do and a lot of forethought. It was like doing tai chi 24/7 or something. It was really wonderful. I had a lot of good friends come and help too, like read my mail and take me places. It was fun.
3. What have been your biggest gallery showcases? I can imagine Under The Influence was very successful in its day.
That one and “Sensations” are the most popular. Sensations was a drawing project I did with my girlfriend Nicole Bailey. Where we would take turns stimulating each other physically in different ways while drawing what we were feeling and then afterwards we would compare the two to see the similarities and differences between how we experienced those pleasurable feelings. That one has shown almost as much as the drugs one but we have never posted those images online.
4. With over 11,200 self-portraits, it must be ritual; what’s it like painting yourself after all these years? Is it the first thing you do? Or do you only draw when it feels natural or relaxed during each day?
It is always different. It is not too much like ritual because there are frequent changes in motivations and desires. Sometimes I do it to see how I’m feeling like to expose my subconscious. Sometimes I do it to make a record and document an experience, or like a diary journal entry. Sometimes I do it like art therapy to blow off steam or to curb social anxiety. Or I do it to face my fears about something. Sometimes I do it to make visible an idea that crosses my mind like a brain stimulant or morning crossword puzzle. I just do it throughout the day when I need to do it or think of doing it or fell like doing it. The distraction of drawing really helps with panic attacks and physical pain.
10mg Adderall 1/2 gram of Cocaine
Bath Salts DMT (during and after)
4 mg Dilaudid 1 sm glass of Absinthe
Ativan / Haloperidol (dosage unknown) Abilify / Xanax / Ativan (dosage unknown)
5. Let’s whip back to 2001. You said before that you suffered some brain damage, but not irreparable, from the Under The Influence (aka DRUGS) project you created. Were there any long-term effects of taking all these substances after that month? What are bath salts like?
No not really. I had a lot of confusion and what they call psychomotor retardation where you can’t move your limbs very fast at all. Like when you reach for something but it is taking forever for your arm to move there. Bath salts are evil.
Check out Under The Influence: http://bryanlewissaunders.org/drugs/
6. How did you wind up getting your own documentary? Did the director reach out directly interested?
The director David Parker sent me an email saying him and some other folks wanted to make a movie about me and then they came and visited me from Canada. Back then a lot of fans were sending me a lot of different drugs in the mail and I was concerned that David was a DEA agent and that they were going to try to entrap me or do a sting operation on me or or something. Hahaha! Richard Jewel the man who spotted the Olympic bomb before it went off and likely saved lives was told by the FBI that he was a hero and very alert and such and then they asked him if he could help the feds make a video on what to look out for like a training video. He was like, “Sure!” and then the next thing you know he’s in a TV studio at the FBI office getting grilled on camera, like a surprise interrogation set up! Number 1 suspect. So I was thinking that the Art of Darkness guys were all feds too and going to try to get me on video using LSD or something for a “Movie” and then start interrogating me without a lawyer and stuff. Hahahaha. It was funny.
7. You record soundtracks of your sleep to attempt to transfer dreams – has this ever worked with your fans? You also act out spoken word performances. Where do these other outlets of creativity come from?
Yeah! 3 times now I’ve transferred one of my dreams to someone else. It’s really exciting! By being be able to audio record my dreams in my sleep people can then play them back on repeat while they are falling asleep and sometimes go on to continue the dream. The only problem is that with most of my dreams other people don’t want to dream them, they are either real trashy or like nightmares or something… and I can’t control what I dream so only a few dedicated people have thus far really given it a shot.
I’ve pretty much retired from performing. I tried different things over the years with performance. I tried stand-up tragedy for a while where I tried to make strangers cry and then later I tried to make sociopaths have feelings. Often I’ll get a great idea to do something impossible and then I try with all of my heart to make it happen… I’ll think of something that can’t be done and then try like hell to do it. I don’t know where that comes from.
8. Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists?
John Duncan, Leif Elggren, Arnulf Rainer, Carsten Holler, Pawel Althamer, Kim Jones, Adel Abdessemed, Morgan O’hara, Teching Hsieh, Carollee Schneeman, Koo Jeong A, John Baldessari, Gunter Brus, and oh I just found out about Mike Parr! Oh man this guy is really something, I’ve gotten 3 big books on him in the last 2 weeks. A real inspiration!
9. Do you still teach workshops? Any upcoming shows or shops?
Occasionally when I’m invited but none in the near future. I want to have a museum show. One of my life dreams is to one day before I die have a totally mind blowing art exhibit at the Drawing Center in New York.
10. I like to envision your biggest showcase yet, or some kind of tribute to you when you die, as taking your 25,000 or 35,000+ self-portraits and making a giant 100-200 foot mosaic of your face. Something spectacular you have to see in person, in a museum or stadium. How would you like your work to be remembered?
That would be cool! I would like for my art to be remembered not as the objects I made though, but as a process that I’ve discovered that hopefully can help somebody else in the future. I really want to find a way to make art become a biological advantage for some of us. That is what I’m currently thinking about and searching for the hardest. I want to discover new tools and uses for art and a new and better way to understand and measure things inside of ourselves. I want generate ideas that can be passed down through generations for others to continue to build and improve upon. To make my material art objects become totally irrelevant or immaterial. See what I mean about impossible challenges! Hahaha.
11. What does the future hold for you? What will Bryan Saunders pull off next? When can we catch you on The Today Show?
The future is looking better than ever for me. First I have a vinyl record of recordings I made during the Deaf Month coming out, I am hand painting each of the album covers so it is taking a while,“The Deaf Month Vinyls”. It’s really cool because now people can hear what I was experiencing! Eventually there will be a “Blind Month Vinyls” too. On July 23rd I have a sleep album coming out with Razen from Belgium. It’s really beautiful! It isn’t for dream transference though but instead is a dream I had where I transformed from being a gymnastics coach to a failed gymnast answering phones for a living “The Night Receptionist”. It is a bit sad but really beautiful. Nicole and I are having a book of our “Sensations” drawings published by Chocolate Monk in the Fall. I also want to make a series of books that cover these different sensory drawing experiments. The list goes on.
“Deaf Month Vinyls” http://www.des-astres-dor.com/category/bryan-lewis-saunders/
12. If all your drawings and print copies but one were to burn in a fire (god forbid), which one would be left?
At this point whichever one that didn’t burn in the fire I’d probably just throw in the fire too. I’ve scanned all of them in and have 4 back up hard drives with them on it and so I can still use the “images” as memory aids and as references and data. If they all burned I could still use them in my emotional control video experiments and in any performances or installations that I may do. It really isn’t about having these “things”. That is why I’ve not made an effort to be a part of the “art world”. It isn’t about having or creating things it’s about what I have done in the past with these things and what I hope to do with them in the future and the ways that they inspire me to come up with other ideas of things to do and so on. That is where the beauty and magic is for me.