As I step inside a cave-like structure on Soquel Avenue, a burly, tattooed man glances up from a laptop computer. He’s heavily peacocked in exotic jewelry and space-age gypsy/tribal rock star clothing, and there’s a sizeable splash of blue-green dye in the punky plumage erupting from his scalp. It’s an impressive look: Picture a Road Warrior character whose battle gear has been given a lysergic acid patina.
“Are you the guy from the magazine?” he inquires.
I answer affirmatively, scanning the profusion of otherworldly images on the walls. This establishment is called Constant Creation, and the name is no hyperbole: The entire building is abuzz with nonstop artistic activity. Upstairs, a nude young woman is having her body airbrushed with what looks like astral graffiti, and in the back of the studio, a striking mural-in-progress gives off the smell of fresh paint. All told, the place has the feel of a subterranean shelter where a small band of utopian artist-anarchists is waiting out the apocalypse.
The galactic warrior introduces himself as Rio Gordon. His appearance has accurately told his story: A former Navy serviceman who fought in the first Gulf War, he went through a major metamorphosis after being accidentally dosed with LSD at a party—an experience that he says opened his eyes to “what a dangerous thing the war machine was; the commodity of war; war culture.”
Gordon is passing through Santa Cruz from his home in Hawaii, where he oversees Alchemeyez Visionary Arts Congress (alchemeyez.com), an annual three-day festival that he says is “fast becoming one of the benchmark enclaves of visionary artists coming together to create art and to celebrate our culture and our vision.” He describes the space we’re standing in as “the heart of visionary art in the Santa Cruz/Half Moon Bay Area. I don’t think there’s anything this pointed, clear, visionary, directed, going on in the South Bay area.”
For those unfamiliar with Gordon’s terminology, visionary art can be understood as art that expresses mystic vision. Its cosmic imagery—DNA helixes, fractals, serpents, mandalas, light beings and other such spirit-stuff—will instantly strike a chord with viewers who have experienced visionary states via meditation, breathwork, shamanic practices, etc. For others, the work of wildly talented artists like Alex Grey, Luke Brown, Amanda Sage, Martina Hoffman, Robert Venosa, Kati Astraeir and Adam Scott Miller can serve as an introductory brochure.
It should surprise no one that Santa Cruz, with its wealth of psychonauts and spiritual explorers, is home to a number of gifted artists keeping pictorial records of their journeys to the glowing interior realms. Recent times have seen visionary art cropping up in such establishments as Felton’s ArtisTree and Water Street’s DiviniTree Yoga & Art Center, as well as in arts collectives like 9: Circles of Creation and on the easels of such past and present Santa Cruz dwellers as Adrian Rasmussen, Matt Jones, Sara Huntley and Laurus Myth. Special mention must also be made of Boulder Creek’s Andrew Jones (a.k.a. Android Jones), who couldn’t be reached for this article, but whose work is, in a word, staggering. I defy you to view the entirety of his “Night Rainbow Series” without swearing.
Across the board, the local visionary artists who took the time to talk with GT proved to be caring, authentic, exceptionally positive human beings. What follows is a mural of colorful insights and stories culled from our discussions of that which is utterly beyond discussion.
Clay Chollar, the founder of Constant Creation (facebook.com/Constant-Creationz), is an affable young airbrush artist, musician and graphic designer whom some readers will have seen creating freestyle paintings at music events and festivals. The urban-alien look of his art reflects his days growing up in Santa Cruz, when he cut his teeth by spray-painting images on plywood walls, under bridges and on couches.
Rocking a cheery grin and a casual street look—fedora, green hoodie, goatee, spectacles—Chollar (mindaltar.com) explains that he feels the act of creating art is a visionary experience in itself. “I think no matter what kind of art you’re doing, it’s channeling something through you into form,” he offers. That said, he believes that visionary art plays a particularly important role in a paradigm shift that humanity is presently undergoing. “These images—sacred geometry and these ancient images, goddesses and all that—are what we’re heading toward. Those are images that are re-linking us to our ancestors who were doing this.”
The notion of re-linking to our ancestry is near and dear to East Coast-bred, Chicago Art Institute-trained metal sculptor Pierre Riche, who moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Francisco approximately six months ago. A handful of Riche’s works can currently be seen in the Downtown Santa Cruz gallery Art du Jour, and his eight-foot-tall metal mask sculpture “Metaface” was recently displayed at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, enhanced by projected visuals courtesy of Clay Chollar. Burning Man goers may be familiar with his fire-shooting, water-dripping sculpture “Healing Eye”, an 11-foot-tall pyramid topped off by 18-foot-high copper wings. Adorning the front of the piece is a representation of rising kundalini (spiritual energy that many yoga practitioners believe can be raised from the base of the spine to the top of the head). Add some LEDs, video projections and various sound components, and the result is a virtual kundalini awakening.
As Riche (richeart.com) explains, “Healing Eye” was inspired by an experience he had in the mid-2000s in which he himself became a burning man: Under the heady influence of ayahuasca, an Amazonian herbal brew with certain life-changing properties, he directed his awareness into his body in order to “burn off old, stagnant DNA and transform it into more evolved DNA.” According to the sculptor, “Our awareness is light. When we bring awareness into the cells, we’re bringing light into the cells—with the assistance of medicine plants, of course, because it’s very difficult to do that otherwise.” He likens this experience to that of turning on a light in a dark room. “It seemed like when that change occurred, there was a fire that took place: a transmutation; a turning over of what was there, and a replacing with something else.” Riche feels that this process was ancestrally linked. “And I think a lot of visionary art does that: It reaches not only within our own psyche, but into our ancestral heritage. We’re not only healing and transforming ourselves, but we’re healing and transforming our ancestors. We are made up of all our ancestors’ DNA, so when we change that, we’re really reaching back into our past and changing them, in a sense.”
While various mind-altering jungle juices and power plants have played a considerable role in the creation of much visionary art, they’re far from the only means of accessing mystical states of consciousness. For instance, Ishka Lha, a local painter who holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University, says that immediately after her fourth year of college, she was traveling through Portugal when “something happened.” At the time, she was “partying a lot, drinking every night—just kind of normal college whatever.” While staying at a hostel with 18 or 20 people from all over the world, she underwent a spontaneous spiritual awakening. “I felt like I was tripping for a few days!” she recalls. “I couldn’t even sleep. For the next month after that, actually, I watched every single sunrise except for two, I think. I wasn’t eating that much. It was almost like I was catapulted into a kundalini awakening.”
Her life and art were forever transformed. At that point, Lha, who had been drawing portraits and painting images from the outside world for many years, began depicting her inner visions. She’s since become an active contributor to the visionary art movement: On the day of our interview, she has just finished painting this year’s official Burning Man entrance sign (vimeo.com/47765828) with an artist named Mad Dog, and in June of this year, after placing in a contest presented by the organization Artists Wanted, her piece “Avatara” appeared on a 15-foot video screen in New York’s Times Square. “It was cool to have some of my intergalactic, alien creatures staring at thousands of people,” she says with a gentle laugh.
Though external chemicals didn’t play a part in her cosmic coming-of-age, and though she notes that visionary states can also be accessed through meditation and ecstatic dancing, Lha (ishkanexus.com) says that key experiences with plant medicines like ayahuasca have had a huge influence on her work. “They should always be taken as medicine,” she stresses. “It’s not just a party drug. And not everyone is psychologically capable of handling them, because they are very powerful.” She emphasizes the importance of ingesting these medicines within the framework of a ceremony led by capable, experienced guides who can help the journeyer navigate through potentially rough terrain. According to the painter, when used in this way, ayahuasca “breaks so many barriers down that cause us to believe that we’re separate from each other, that we have to protect ourselves in everyday life. You’re able to really see the connection between all things: all people, plants, minerals, animals, interdimensional spirits, star beings and beyond.”
Chollar, too, emphasizes the importance of using psychedelics as sacraments rather than as party favors. “Art is sacred,” he notes. “When you’re doing sacred art, you need to use [these materials] in a sacred way.” He adds that tripping is not a prerequisite to becoming a visionary artist. “For me, the art is meditation, and that will take me to transcendental places on its own.”
While Rio Gordon acknowledges that psychedelics are of great value to him, he’s quick to add, “Let me be very clear—they are not the linchpin. They’re like a graphic equalizer for the music; they’re the fine-tunings behind the best theatrical presentations. But I don’t need them to make art at all.” A student of Tibetan Buddhism, he also gets mental images for his work by way of meditation, yoga, dietary disciplines, holotropic breathing, sound healing and other such practices.
Local painter/graphic designer Jen Jenuine (jenuineart.com) says that much of her work is inspired by emotional experiences, deep breathing, meditation and connection with other humans. She recalls coming out of a particularly influential talk by astrophysicist Nassim Haramein “knowing that all points in space are infinite.” From that point on, everyone she looked in the eyes appeared to her as a limitless hole into space, God and all potential. “It’s hard, in the world we live in today, to maintain that level of inspiration and connection,” she says. “But if you have the mindfulness, through meditation, daily practice, connection with nature, connection with your kids, your cat, another person—all of those things can bring you closer to God.”
Don’t let the mention of God fool you, though—this isn’t your Father’s spirituality. In Lha’s words, “It’s not looking at some creator beyond us that’s not connected to us and is greater than us. It’s being able to see into the creator within as the Creator; as a miraculous being that’s also human.” Her mission, she says, is to translate this experience into art that allows viewers to feel the same thing in themselves.
Gordon puts it a different way: “The mystical experience is our inheritance. It belongs to all of us. No one can consign it, and no one can define it. I’m not monotheistic; I think that there are 6.9 billion gods. I’m not into churches; I’m into temples. I want to create environments where everybody’s authentic spiritual experience is welcomed and has a place.”
Though visionary art is inextricably tied to the sacred, you don’t have to be mystically inclined to appreciate its underlying message. Even the most hardened of hippie haters may recognize in these images the presence of something vast, familiar and important—an ancient, compassionate intelligence reaching out to a world that has lost its way.
As Pierre Riche observes, “So many people in the world today are lacking hope. They’re looking towards the media, the latest trends, the government, to tell them what’s happening. What are people looking for today as a vision of the future, as a vision of hope? There’s not a lot out there.”
He adds that art serves an important function at a time when traditional patterns are crumbling and new ones are being created. “It’s important to have a vision, because we are creating what’s happening; we are manifesting the future. If we don’t manifest the future we want, we’re going to end up with a future that the corporate elite and people in government or dictators around the world want this world to look like. I think visionary art holds a key for a vision that is supportive of the earth, the spirit and the heart, is connected to love and is ultimately peaceful.”
In the interest of helping manifest that vision, Riche has created aquaponic systems into which he’s incorporated original artwork. By pumping water from fish tanks to plant troughs, these systems enable their users to produce food in a way that requires approximately 90 percent less water than traditional farming. In making this technology available, Riche hopes to help empower people, including those in third-world countries, to sustainably grow organic produce “so that we don’t have to be reliant on Monsanto and these [other] companies that are poisoning the food.”
This fusion of art and permaculture exemplifies Riche’s view of visionary art as a window to a better way of life. From his perspective, this movement isn’t just about “pretty pictures and ‘Wow, I’m trippin’ out on this psychedelic imagery.’ That’s a good basis for it, but there’s a message in there: Let’s clear ourselves so we can be ready for what’s coming at us right now, and have the tools to implement these important technologies—organic food-growing technologies, sustainable technologies—so we can get through this mess.”
Gordon, who is living proof that a warlike mindset can be transmuted into a peaceful one, is outspoken about the role art can play in helping humanity transition from one state of being to another. “I think visionary artists are the cartographers of a new era,” he declares. “As a species, if we were going to visualize where we were going to get to, how we want to be, what we want to sound like, what we want to look like, well, it takes visionary artists to create these maps and say, ‘This is how it will be.’”
Such sentiments are echoed by Patrick Sellers and Andrew O’Keefe, whom I encounter at the Felton collective ArtisTree. For the past year and a half, they’ve been touring with Ukiah, California’s Tribe 13 Gallery, setting up art installations at festivals. As a means of putting the visionary art movement in context, Sellers references a recent piece by painter Mark Henson, a former resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains. In Sellers’ words, this painting, “New Pioneers,” depicts a line of people “migrating from this dark, chaotic, hellish world on one side to beautiful green pastures on the other side.” He sees this as the quintessential statement of visionary art’s mission: “How do we, as humans, transcend the negatives of what our society has created and create something new? What is that new thing, and how do we get to it?” Visionary artists, he says, are “drawing that out for other people to understand and relate to, and giving people something to work towards, something tangible and visual that you can experience.”
O’Keefe, who is traditionally trained in video editing and production, observes that throughout history, art has anticipated developments in technology. “Visionary art seems to be speaking to more collective experience that humans are having, so the more that’s disseminated, the more people recognize that this is something concrete and is happening,” he states. “It almost becomes a language people can use to communicate experiences that couldn’t be articulated before.” He shares an insight from Laurence Caruana, author of “Manifesto of Visionary Art,” who sees works of visionary art as mileposts. “We’re all walking through the sand, and this art is serving to offer affirmation that we’re on the right path,” O’Keefe paraphrases.
As Riche points out, we have arrived at a point in history when human intelligence is exponentially increasing. “Technology is going so fast; humanity’s learning rate is crunching and doubling,” he notes. “That’s factually proven. The information that we’re getting and the discoveries we’re coming up with—human consciousness is going off the charts. And I think that’s the same with our spirituality: We’re expanding at an incredible rate. I think visionary art helps us incorporate and assimilate all these changes that are going on in a very profound yet practical way … and realize that ultimately, we are spiritual beings.”
Photo Credit: JEREMEY BOT