Artists Discuss How Psychedelics Influence Their Work by Denise Zubizarreta.
What is reality? What lies beneath the surface level of our understanding of existence? Recently, the fight to unlock the healing powers of psychedelics has been brought back into political and medical discussions in multiple states and cities. Oregon became the first state to legalize “magic mushrooms” in 2020 and Colorado is following in their footsteps with the passing of Proposition 122. Psychedelics can impact our interpretation of human existence and can also unlock otherworldly visions and enlightening experiences which have been said to help with depression, creativity, anxiety, and PTSD, and offer solace in the overall questioning of the human condition.
Visual artists have shared their psychedelic inspirations for ages, and today creatives like Alex and Allyson Grey, Victor-Jesus Escobedo, Jake Holschuh, Android Jones, and David Normal have continued the practice of incorporating psychedelics into their creative quintessence. Though each artist explores this differently in their work, they all communicate a foundational understanding that there is more to reality than meets the eye.
Alex and Allyson Grey have shared a unique mind meld since the 1970s. Alex is best known for his depictions of the body that provide a multidimensional “x-ray” of anatomical, psychic, and spiritual forces. “The ‘Universal Mind Lattice’ (1981) depicts a psychedelic experience Allyson and I shared. On June 3, 1976, almost exactly a year after my first LSD experience in Allyson’s apartment, we laid in our darkened bedroom and took a high-dose LSD journey, where together we melted into the vision of the ‘Universal Mind Lattice,’” Grey told Hyperallergic in an interview. “Our bodies became like toroidal fountains and drains of light, luminous spheres, united with every other being in the universe, an infinite net of souls. The light that connected us all was a brilliant iridescent love energy. The space was timeless, beyond birth and death.”
Allyson, a conceptual abstract painter, has long been a mentor and influencer of the contemporary visionary art movement. In 1971, she read Be Here Now by Ram Dass and was inspired to take LSD in a way she had not tried. “Lying alone on my bed in a dark room. I saw ‘Secret Writing’ (1975) wafting through the air and hovering over all surfaces in the room and distinctly thought, this is what people call God.” For Allyson, psychedelics changed her view of reality and the material world. Her art is a personal and shared meditation on the structure of thought, life, and enlightenment. It allowed her, she says, to see reality as “a veil and an illusion draped over collective consciousness, a dream from which we will one day pass.”
“We’ve traveled the world talking about psychedelic visionary culture, offering a historic context back as far as cave art and of ancient peoples influenced by psychedelic spirituality in both the Eastern and Western world,” the Greys say. More recently, their social sculpture work has grown into the founding of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM), a sanctuary for the world-wide visionary psychedelic community in Wappinger, New York, where psychedelically inspired art is featured along with a psychedelic reliquary.
Victor Escobedo’s body of work pays tribute to his experience being born in America to Mexican parents, time spent in the Yucatan jungle listening to his grandmother speak Maya, seeing ancient ruins, exploring Maya sites before tourism, and growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s. “I’ve sat with different community members and cosmonauts and have really approached the use of psychedelics in a respectful way,” he explains. Escobedo believes that psychedelics can allow us to be “conscious of our creative blocks, allowing us to free ourselves from what inhibits our creativity.”
His ceramic mask works and puppets have been a testament to a sacred strand to the divine. Though he knows there is a deep interrelatedness to his work and the spiritual relationship he is achieving with the use of psychedelics, Escobedo makes it clear that “the medicine isn’t always for artmaking and should be respected. Those states of consciousness are great for deep introspection and reflection. At those junctures, I find myself in a state where communication with the higher self happens.”
For photographer Jake Holschuh, whose work has focused on the behind-the-scenes processes of preparing psychedelics as medicine, a trip to Peru with author Scott Carney allowed him to document what leads up to an Ayahuasca ceremony. “We shot everything around it, primarily harvesting and the brewing process, because those ceremonies are sacred, and very important, especially for their people and for healing,” said Holschuh. “We didn’t want to be obtrusive. The people we were with at this ceremony were terminally ill or very sick with Lyme disease, cancer, all sorts of things. They were there to heal.”
Android Jones explores his trips with digital works that center spirituality and altered states of consciousness. Described as a digital alchemist, he is determined to alter the viewer’s perception, pushing the boundaries of the imagination through the use of innovative media forms. “Psychedelics are not going to make you a better artist, but they might make you a better person. And that better person might make better art.”
The digital painter says he does not have a mind’s eye and is unable to envision the visuals which many artists use to primarily create the concepts they explore in their work. “Working from intuition, and listening to music, I get into a zone and I let what wants to come out come out. Psychedelics tend to take my innate sense of pareidolia and put it on steroids. So the shapes and colors I’m looking at can become things and I can start seeing a narrative develop.”
Other artists like David Normal, bring to life the visions they harvest through intentional meditations as they journey with psychedelics. Cathenge, an immersive installation in San Francisco, is an interactive 3D-printed cat temple dedicated to extraterrestrial space cats. These tall, elegant, mythical statues called catholiths are arranged in a circle similar to the standing stones of Stonehenge. They symbolize a universal cat consciousness that came to Normal after a psychedelic exploration on dissociative compound 3-MEO-PCP, a derivative of PCP with effects similar to Ketamine. “I combined my experience with psychedelics with chakra meditations and by using affirmations and sound vibrations to change the journey through each of the chakras. I called these cat chakra meditations, this is where the cats come in. As it evolved, I began to see that the cats had nine chakras and Cathenge was born.”
As more people turn to psychedelics for healing and explorations of self, we’re seeing more companies like Psychedelic Passage, a network of US-based psychedelic guides and trip sitters who facilitate in-person ceremonial psychedelic experiences with an emphasis on harm reduction. Co-Founder Nick Levich says the psychedelic journey “is not just about the psychedelic session, it’s not just about the dosing session, it’s also about the preparation on the front end and the integration on the back end. If you’re looking at this for healing potential, for actually making change in your life, what you do with all of your time before and after that, is as, if not more important than the journey itself.”
Featured Image ‘The Infinitizer’ (2021), installation at Meow Wolf, Las Vegas, Nevada by Alex Grey and Allyson Grey