High art: Artists explore link between drugs, creativity

By Emily Ornberg

The first drawing in Bryan Lewis Saunders’ sketchbook was a self-portrait created for a design course during his sophomore year at East Tennessee State University. When he was finished, he decided the remaining class assignments were pointless because he had discovered what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Since March 30, 1995, Saunders, 43, has created more than 8,700 self-portraits using varied textures, tools and media. He said he constantly experiments with his self-portraits, which he makes daily, pushing himself to use new life experiences as inspiration his art.

In 2001, Saunders stumbled upon a reference book of drugs while living in government housing in Tennessee. Another resident told him he could find all the narcotics listed in the book somewhere inside the building.

“I came home and I thought I’d take a different one of those drugs every day to see what those people are all about,” Saunders said.

For the next 11 days, he ingested or inhaled a total of 50 drugs. He used substances such as absinthe, cocaine, tetrafluorocthane—or huffing gas—and Xanax while creating his self-portraits, which document his altered state of mind.

The portrait series provides insight into the psychology of drug use. The bath salts portrait is distorted and eerie; the cocaine drawing is dark, jagged and chaotic; and the dimethyltryptamine picture is colorful, geometric and bizarre. But the drawings all have one thing in common—they portray a balding, middle-aged man with glasses.

The series went viral in January 2011, and while some people were inspired by his work, Saunders said he still receives death threats from those who believe he promotes drug abuse.

“It bothers me because they act like they know me, and they think I’m the biggest drug addict in the world,” Saunders said. “But if you look at all the 8,700 self-portraits [I’ve done], there’s maybe like 50 of them on drugs. I don’t do drugs. But if you type my name in Google, it just automatically comes up [next to] ‘drugs’ with millions of hits.”

It is well-documented that artists such as Salvador Dalí, Charles Dickens and Jimi Hendrix used drugs while producing their work. Francis Crick was allegedly consuming low doses of LSD when he discovered the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Steve Jobs said LSD was one of the “most important” experiences of his life. Influential bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones used copious amounts of narcotics while making music in the ’60s. But the use of drugs to stimulate creativity has been a consistent controversy in the art world.

Louis Silverstein, a professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department, who published “Deep Spirit & Great Heart: Living in Marijuana Consciousness” in 2012, explained that drug use to spur creativity dates back to primitive societies. People ingested psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs to see images, communicate with deities or unravel the mysteries of the world. They would then use their tools to share their experiences through art.

Silverstein said those who take mind-altering substances often enter states of being that allow them to express themselves in a way that wouldn’t be possible while sober.

“My personal take on it [is that] if there’s a substance that can allow a person to get in touch with their artistic selves or their higher selves, and that substance is not inherently harmful and the people who use that substance [are using it] in a disciplined, respectful way, why not?” Silverstein said.

Columbia is a dry and drug-free institution, but that doesn’t mean substance abuse is not an issue on campus.

According to the Columbia’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Planning, 22,578 students attended the college over three semesters in 2011 and 4,969 lived on campus. The number of liquor law violations on campus increased from 257 in 2010 to 358 in 2011, according to the 2012 Annual Crime Statistics & Fire Safety Report, and drug abuse violations on campus increased by 23 for a total of 176. According to the report, there were a total of 12 drug-related arrests in student residence centers and another 43 on public property.

Jack, a sophomore audio arts and acoustics major, was caught drinking alcohol by residence assistants last year drinking in the Dwight Lofts, 642 S. Clark St. However, he said the experience hardly changed his on-campus use of banned substances.

“[Getting caught] was genuinely not frightening at all,” said Jack, who did not want to reveal his real name. “It’s almost like a formality or a joke.”

Substance abuse on college campuses is a nationwide issue. Approximately half of full-time college students binge drink or illegally use drugs at least once a month, according to a 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. From 1993 to 2005, the most recent years that data is available, the number of college students who abused opioids like Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin increased 343 percent; the abuse of stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall increased 93 percent; use of anti-anxiety medication like Xanax and Valium jumped 450 percent; and use of sedatives like Nembutal and Seconal increased 225 percent. The number of college students’ who use marijuana daily more than doubled to 310,000 during the same period, and cocaine, heroin and other illegal drug use went up 52 percent to 636,000, according to the study.

Almost 38 percent of collegeadministrators who participated in the study said the reason for increased drug use is the public perception that substance use by college students is a normal rite of passage.

It shouldn’t matter if the ends justify the means in regards to art, Saunders said. He said though he believes everyone should be open to every type of influence and inspiration, there will always be people who scrutinize artistic inspiration.

“People always seem to care about how art was created … It shouldn’t matter,” Saunders said. “In art school, when they showed me a Jackson Pollock or something, somebody would say ‘Wasn’t he drunk? Didn’t he go to a mental hospital?’ They always got caught up in a sensational-type drama.”

Anna Evans, a junior art & design major, said when she thinks about drug use for the sake of creativity, she thinks of musicians or painters—not graphic designers. She said she doesn’t use drugs to produce her art because she believes working meticulously on a computer while under the influence would be difficult. Evans said she thinks the use of substances to spawn creativity is cheating.

“I feel like if you can’t do your art without the help of drugs, it’s not 100 percent creative,” Evans said. “If you can’t perform [sober], it’s not you.”

Jack, however, as a music producer, said marijuana is extremely beneficial for the creative process.

“When I’m trying to come up with ideas and what kind of song I’m trying to make, I usually smoke [marijuana],” he said.

Although artists may use drugs to augment creativity, occasional drug use can turn into abuse and addiction. Untreated mental illness and drug addiction affected the lives of many prominent artists including Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

In a July 2011 article for Scientific American magazine, David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained that the link between drug use and addiction is connected to “prerequisites” for creativity.

After conducting studies on the heritability of addiction, Linden found that 40 percent of a person’s predisposition to substance addiction is genetically determined. Although there is no single “addiction gene,” the known genes cause a decreased signaling of the neurotransmitter dopamine for pleasure and reward. Through brain-imaging studies and biochemistry tests in rats and monkeys, Linden found that addicts categorically crave pleasure more often but feel it less intensely.

This reduced receptivity to dopamine may prompt drug-addled artists to create more work, Linden said. He found that carriers of these genetic variants are more likely to take risks, seek out new experiences and act compulsively. Though none of these traits are directly related to creativity, Linden said they may lead artists to push themselves further and motivate them to show their projects to others.

Christopher Kingston, an intake coordinator at New Hope Recovery, a Chicago addiction treatment center, said many artists in treatment feel they won’t be as creative if they give up drugs or alcohol.

“From what we’ve seen, that might be the case at first because they’re so used to using [drugs] in order to be creative,” Kingston said. “But after longer care with these individuals, they realize they can be more creative when they can be more sober.”

He said constant substance abuse will ultimately hinder artistic innovation because it impairs judgment and may cause brain damage.

“Just like anything, drugs and alcohol are going to get in the way of [creativity] eventually,” Kingston said. “I’m not going to say that it doesn’t help one be creative, but your full potential for anything isn’t there when you’re using drugs and drinking daily.”

Saunders said some drugs, such as the tranquilizer Seroquell, led to some of the worst experiences of his life.

“The psych meds are probably the most treacherous of all drugs,” Saunders said. “They’re the most evil things on earth, practically, because they separate your mind from your body.”

Saunders said his drug experimentation led to extensive brain damage and hallucinations, and he had to check himself into a mental hospital to recover.

Whether or not artists use substances, Saunders said everyone is unique in their quest for inspiration. He said he has trained his brain to take inspiration from anything, not just the influence of drugs.

“Everyone has their own way of seeing [things], because we’re constantly getting bombarded with phenomena every day—audio, visual; every sense is coming into our nervous system,” Saunders said. “My way is to put the world into myself. I just try to do it different every day and make it more true to me.”