It’s a topic that’s inspired endless debate—the link between art and creativity and brain-altering chemicals. Usually, the drugs are a lifestyle choice of "creative" types. In the case of artist Bryan Lewis Saunders, they were a key part of the process and end product.
Saunders, a performance and visual artist, undertook a high profile experiment in creativity, starting several years ago whereby, according to the artist, he created a series of self-portraits, each one done under the influence of a different substance—pretty much an A to Z assortment, from prescription meds like Abilify and Xanax to crystal meth. Over the weeks he’d create amazing pieces, suffer mild brain damage and end up hospitalized—all for the sake of art and creation.
In many cases, when looking at the resulting images, one can quickly make the connection between the listed drug and the output—certain pieces look like our perceived reactions to certain drugs. I asked Saunders about this effect, and how people might not be totally convinced that the output was drug-induced.
"Self-portraiture is biased in its very nature," says Saunders. "The more informed the bias the more interesting the image is, usually. Memories, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, behaviors are all but impossible to separate from the making of a self-portrait. If I was to attempt to render the same exact image on each different substance in essence denying what the drug means to me personally, the only thing I would be expressing were the degrees in which my motor skills, or visual processes were effected thus entirely undermining the purpose of doing a self-portrait in the first place."
In other words, as Saunders points out, considering that there are preconceptions of cognitive impact of each drug, if they didn’t factor into the self-portrait then he would be denying his conscious and subconscious impulses. If he attempted to make each portrait the same, then the only thing affected each time would be his motor skills. Instead, he let the drugs drive his creative—including the preconceived behaviors and notions contained within.
While this was all done in the name of art, Saunders is quick to say that the drug use is nothing to be proud of. "To be honest I’m not proud to be on any drugs in any pictures. I think drugs make me look really ugly. And I’m really a six trick pony, but the world only likes one of my tricks. Each year 500,000 kids around the world discover drugs and so the virus never dies."
Saunders, who started creating a self-portrait a day in 1995, has done over 8,600 self-portraits (most of them drug-free). He plans on displaying the drug series at Paris’ La Maison Rouge next spring. In the meantime, see some of the portraits in the slide show above.