Bryan Lewis Saunders: Art “Under the Influence”

Bryan Lewis Saunders: Art “Under the Influence”

July 10th, 2012

[Editor’s note: This article does not represent or speak for or our affiliates.  The following post does not reflect the views of, and the opinions presented herein are the property of Bryan Lewis Saunders alone.]

“For hundreds of years, artists have been putting themselves into representations of the world around them.  I am doing the exact opposite.  I put the world around me into representations of myself as I find this more true to my Central Nervous System.” –Bryan Lewis Saunders

By Bryan Saunders, 2 Psilocybin caps

Bryan Lewis Saunders is an artist from Tennessee who has created a self-portrait of himself every day since March 30, 1995 (that’s over 8,500 illustrations). One collection is particularly striking—portraits created under the influence of different drugs. From cocaine to computer duster, Bryan has snorted, smoked, and ingested all kinds of mind-altering substances to give these paintings and sketches some creative life. We spoke to Bryan Lewis Saunders to learn more about his experience with drugs and the physical changes a marathon of substances can bring about.

Bryan: Some experiences have been moderately harmful to my health, the ‘Under the Influence’ series as well as the more recent ‘Third Ear Experiment.’ But having said that, out of the 8,500+ self-portraits only 50 images total are under the influence, so it’s a relatively small part of the overall body of work. Doing a drug only once isn’t very dangerous in and of itself. Where I got into trouble was the increasing rate at which I was ingesting them and the mixing of different types together.


Since drugs are so often associated with stagnation and addiction, we asked Bryan about his atypical relationship with these substances and the purposes they serve for his art.

Bryan: At this point in my life I have a different initiative or goal when I approach new drug experiences. I’m not using them to relax, or have fun, maintain or escape like when I was younger. I’m not trying to have a pseudo-religious experience, and I’m not trying to punish or heal myself either. I’m just trying to see what that drug has to offer me in regards to my self-perception. I usually wait a long time before doing it too. I’ll wait 6 months or more after receiving something new so I can be in the exact same environment with the exact same mental state as the other drugs when I did them.

Bryan recalls a particularly terrifying experience with Trazodone, an antidepressant that may induce suicidal thinking.

Bryan: I got two pills from a Vietnam Vet. that said, and I quote, “The VA gave me these to wean me off Valium. Take two of these at 8:00 and by 10:00 you’ll be asleep. 10 o’clock tomorrow morning you’ll wake up totally refreshed and alive again.” Well, I took them both at 8:00 and by 10:00 I was jacked up bouncing off the walls. Then I got nausea, dry mouth, stomach pain, neck and back aches such that I couldn’t sit, stand or lay down. Tremors. I was unable to get still with shortness of breath. Diarrhea. Extreme sensitivity to light, even the TV with a beach towel folded and draped over it was too bright! Then what I can only describe as a monster black cloud of doom moved over my head and settled upon my shoulders and every so often it would gain 15 more pounds. I thought I was going to die and that turned into a serious meditation on suicide. I could only come out from under the covers and draw in short 5-10 second bursts. The marks are very sparse. I was too wrapped up in sudden fear, annihilation, darkness, and death to draw. I learned never to take medicine from a stranger after that.

Drugs are only an occasional gateway to access his internality. In addition to self-portraits, Bryan Lewis Saunders communicates his unfiltered self. “Stand-up tragedy” (the polar opposite of comedy that seeks to provoke sadness in an audience) and soundscapes of sleep talking are other unusual art forms in which Bryan represents different levels of consciousness.

By Bryan Saunders, 1/2g Cocaine

Bryan: In addition to the stand-up tragedy rants and performances, I also record my sleep talking and combine it with semi-wakeful descriptions of the dream to create what I call the stream of unconsciousness narrative mode. I’d say stand-up tragedy is about reality, whereas the stream of unconsciousness is of the dream world and fantasy, and the daily self-portraits can be anything and everything. In all three the world is captured while it’s in the process of being internalized. Everything that happens gets filtered through my mind [whether] I’m dreaming or awake or reliving traumatic events on stage, and all three are presented with brutal honesty as I never self-censor anything ever. I don’t believe in it. Most people view censorship as artist control, as an artist I see it as audience control. Censorship dulls, destroys and takes away the clarity and brightness of truth. It’s my total disregard for self-censorship that people may find alarming.

“Alarming” is a good word to describe his collection as a whole. Even Bryan’s drug-free art comes off as a little bizarre, so it isn’t surprising that many people wonder how many drugs this guy is on. But, save for the self-portraits specifically labeled “Under the Influence,” these are just creative self-expression. We asked Bryan to respond to this stereotype often drawn between unusual art and drugs.

Bryan: I don’t blame them for this type of thinking but it always saddens me. For a long time now the links between insanity, drugs and art have been romanticized to the point of mythology and commercialized into grotesque financial affairs. It’s no wonder this ideation is so pervasive. I remember in art history class there were students that every time we were introduced to a new modern artist their first questions were always, “What drugs was he/she on? Was he/she drinking when they did this? Wasn’t he/she institutionalized?” “And were they sleeping together?” What can I say, it’s the culture we live in.

And for those curious about his artistic influences, Bryan Lewis Saunders  shares with us the following:

By Bryan Saunders, Crystal Meth

Bryan: All kinds of forms of media and news events have influenced individual self-portraits. Way too many to list. News, movies, magazines, ads, tabloids, other artists paintings and drawings, comics, even Chick Tracts. Everything I come across is susceptible for absorption. The self-portraits over all, as a single body of work, I’d say could have been influenced by Cézanne, Martin Kippenberger, Henry Darger, Van Gogh, Jonathan Borofsky, Gunter Brus, Antonin Artaud and many more.

Risking adverse side effects and health risks, Bryan goes to new lengths to demonstrate his self-awareness. His illustrations provide much insight into the subjective experience of drug use and the physical manifestations of the self they may produce. Against the current cultural backdrop of drugs Bryan’s work seems like complete insanity, but the foundation of his artistic visions are intriguing, and for that we want to thank Bryan for sharing his experiences.

Bryan Lewis Saunders art, including the collection “Under the Influence,” is available for viewing on his Facebook.

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