“I started it in 2001 and I probably did… Well, I could count,” says Bryan. He begins vigorously flipping through a black leather-bound book, counting under his breath, his lazy, twangy Southern accent clinging to every word like thick, sticky syrup. “14, 15, 16… I did 18 of them in, well, let me see how many days. How many did I say? 18?”
“Yeah,” I answer. Bryan searches through his book again and whisper to himself.
“10, 11… 18 of them in 11 days, from the 2nd to the 13th of August.” He looks up into his webcam’s lens, grinning proudly at me. It was sort of a weird moment: there was Bryan, thick-framed glasses resting high on the bridge of his nose, black toque pulled tight over the top of his head and wearing a bunched-up, safety vest orange-coloured hoodie, looking at me, the bewildered but poker-faced interviewer, like a grinning kid hoping his father was impressed after that massive cannonball off the diving board.
I didn’t say anything in response – I just flashed an acknowledging smile and a nod into my webcam. We were about 1,300 miles apart and had only been talking for 23 minutes, but I already knew that Bryan Lewis Saunders, the 42-year old Tennessee-based artist whose work I had stumbled onto recently, was a talker – an interviewer’s simultaneous dream and nightmare. He started up again a moment later. I wasn’t shocked.
“I have a real fragile brain chemistry,” came his unsolicited follow-up. “I’m really sensitive to things. I don’t hardly take an Aspirin for headaches. I’m real paranoid about different types of medication, so I always try to be careful with my brain chemistry.”
He pauses. I could tell he had more to say, so I listened. Finally, he said, with a thoughtful smile:
“It’s interesting how a drug will change you.”
I recently found a link to a page from Bryan’s website. It was titled “DRUGS.” I proceeded to spend 20 minutes gawking as I scrolled down the long page of self-portraits.
See, the Drugs self-portraits – just one collection in Bryan’s multiple series of autobiographical drawings, is a bit of an experiment. His hypothesis: by taking a massive variety of drugs and drawing himself while under their influence, Bryan thinks he can better explore this world of experience. So, ever the diligent socio-emotional scientist, in August of 2001, Bryan tested his hypothesis by consuming a cornucopia of opiates, hallucinogens, uppers and downers, as well as some more “out-of-the-box” substances like cough syrup and lighter fluid.
Eighteen drugs in 11 days.
“I overdid it,” he says with an excited giggle. “I got too excited because the drawings were so unique and interesting.”
Bryan overdid it so badly that after his initial 11-day binge, he suffered from what he calls “temporary brain damage.”
“I did 18 drugs in 11 days,” he says, “and sometimes more than one drug in a day. Some drugs you’re not supposed to mix, so it just kind of ruined my brain for awhile there.”
I’m staring at Bryan, amazed by how casually he describes those surely scary days of lethargy and aftershocks. I ask him if he ever worried, before he began the experiment, of enduring damage with some sort of permanence.
“The pictures online, I think they’re in alphabetical order now,” Bryan says, “but if they were in the order of how they were done, you could see an evolution for sure of the damage being done to my brain.”
The self-portraits in the Drugs series range from the jubilantly coloured and peaceful (Abilify/Xanax/Ativan, marijuana) to the quirky and odd (Adderall, psilocybin mushrooms) to the disturbing (PCP, cocaine). And in that last category is a self-portrait guided by a substance that Bryan admits to have been terrifyingly uncomfortable.
“I tell you, that Seroquel, that anti-psychoactive agent,” he says, trailing off and pausing for a second. “That thing, boy, that was scary.”
Quetiapine, marketed as Seroquel, is an antipsychotic drug used typically in the treatment of schizophrenia, acute episodes of bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses.
The self-portrait Bryan scrawled in pencil while under Seroquel’s influence, dark, scratchy and comprised largely of sharply angled shapes, is starkly contrasted to many of his other portraits. It betrays a frightening experience.
“I’ll sit in front of [a mirror] with all my supplies laid out and then I’ll take a drug,” he explains. “Usually takes awhile to work, so I’ll start drawing my proportions, like just getting the basic framework in and while I’m doing that, I’ll start feeling it. Everything will start changing.”
“But with the Seroquel, I was looking in the mirror and all of the sudden,” he says, beginning to motion with his hands above his head, “this big, dark, black mass of weight just kind of settled down upon me and this inner voice said, ‘don’t look in the mirror.’”
“So I look at the paper and I started scratching on it, trying to avoid the mirror in front of me. And then all of a sudden, that black thing went ‘JJJUUUUGGGHHH!” – sort of like electricity, and it goes, ‘Don’t look at the paper.’ And I barely had time to look over at the bed and think, ‘whoa, I might need to lie down’ and as soon as my head turns, it goes – ‘DON’T LOOK AT YOUR BED!’”
Bryan says it took every ounce of willpower to fight against this commanding voice in his head and continue drawing. “It was like my brain was being separated,” he explains. “It cuts your brain off from your bodily actions. It was a real hard battle.”
That was nearly a decade ago – those intensely dangerous and euphoric 11 days in which Bryan consumed 18 different drugs. Today, he’s still committed to his experiment, though in greatly reduced intensity. He’ll only draw another drug-influenced self-portrait when his the timing is right or, as he says, when his “brain chemistry is perfect.” For Bryan, this experiment, among the many that he has constantly on the go, must to continue; it’s not just a hobby for him, but a way of living passionately and significantly.
“It’s not about trying to get obliterated,” he says. “It’s about trying to get this nice collection of my feelings on paper. The drugs are just one small part of the whole entire body of work… It’s not about getting completely wasted – it’s about trying to feel as many different things as possible while I’m still alive.”
At the top of the web page at bryanlewissaunders.org marked “DRUGS” is a link – “Click me for the full story.” If you follow the instructions, you’re taken to a blog post (link at the end of this article) titled “Bryan Lewis Saunders is Chasing the American Dream (By Taking a Lot of Drugs).” A catchy Hunter S. Thompson-esque line, but I think that’s too simple. It paints Bryan as this intrepid, staunchly Western explorer, but that’s not at all who he is.
I realize something about Bryan as I sit there, listening to him tell a 12-minute story about how he learned Mandarin in 9 months so he could travel to China to be a stand-up comedian. I realize that it isn’t the American dream, whatever the hell that is, that Bryan is chasing; that has something to do with capitalism, money and Willy Loman, if my memory serves me. In his pursuit of new and unique feelings at the cost of anything, even his health and sanity, Bryan Lewis Saunders is chasing a dream all too familiar to those of us still alive enough to feel the blood of life course through our veins – the human experience.
See some of Bryan’s Drugs series at www.bryanlewissaunders.org/drugs/. The complete series can be viewed on his Facebook page.
Check out “Bryan Lewis Saunders is Chasing the American Dream (By Taking a Lot of Drugs)” at http://www.dinosaurcity.org/2011/01/bryan-lewis-saunders-is-chasing.html.