When you hear the term “visionary art”, it commonly conjures up wonderous images that have been painted on canvas with acrylics or oils, or intricately detailed digital creations. In a broader context, however, everything from Shipibo textiles to building-sized interactive installations to ancient cave paintings and carvings could rightfully be described as visionary art. And of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Chris Isner is a visionary artist who was inspired to start wood carving after an ayahuasca experience in the Amazon jungle. Something about the earthy, nature-centered energy of ayahuasca and the medium of wood create this sense of groundedness, wonder, and, for lack of a better term, rightness. We spoke with Chris recently about the experience that catalyzed his journey into visionary wood carving, and what it’s like to have your life redirected by mother Aya.
Thanks so much for speaking with us Chris. Can you share a little bit about your background as an artist growing up and the work that you currently do?
I just recently realized during a guided meditation that becoming an artist was due in large part to undiagnosed childhood nearsightedness. I didn’t pay attention in class because I needed glasses and couldn’t see the blackboard or teachers very well, so I lost interest and just drew a lot. Always being Best Artist in Class was my cachet growing up. Nearsightedness also meant that people were leery of me because I was always glaring at them, meaning I was squinting in order to see them. That isolation allowed for a lot of free time to make art. What a trip that such a simple little thing can have so profound an effect.
I never got anywhere with art, though, not really. It was only a few years ago that I started making a living with my work, and that only due to a few people who provided stability in my life: Tajai Massey of the Hieroglyphics Imperium and Souls of Mischief who took me in off the street and gave me a free house to live in for years, as well as a free art studio to develop my work in; my babalawos who helped empower my path; and my wife, HoYee Wong, who makes sure the bills get paid.
What exactly happened in the Amazon that changed your path as an artist forever?
The lead curandero “singing me” during my first ayahuasca ceremony appeared as a huge, undulating anaconda, and someone had told me that ayahuasca snakes will do our bidding if we ask them, so I asked him to show me what to do with my life.
I had read Jeremy Narby’s excellent book, The Cosmic Serpent, and I was hooked. Quite obsessed actually. I watched documentaries, read countless retreat reviews, and thought of little else other than getting to Peru. Fact is, I was in a desperate place in my life, suffering from depression, PTSD, and alcoholism while trying to stay sober post-rehab. I was barely holding onto a part-time job as a handyman/housepainter.
It took me a full year of hard scraping to get the cash together to get myself to Peru. When I did finally get there, I had the great fortune of falling in with some extremely powerful Shipibo curanderos who allowed me to attend their private ceremonies. I had four of them focusing on me. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much because they were just such sweet, humble people, but when the medicine started to kick in and they started their stupendous singing, I knew I was in for one hell of a wild ride. I desperately needed a game-changer and that’s exactly what I got. Within the joyous terror of the medicine, the anaconda showed me a vision of dark, weathered hands using a primordial technique to form a wooden bowl. The Voice said, “Your ancestors were living in caves then.” I’ve been using that technique ever since and it has radically transformed my life.
At first, I carved bowls like I had seen in the vision, hundreds of bowls, and tried to scratch a living selling them at flea markets. When I got tired of making bowls, I started carving pipes, hundreds of pipes with the faces of entities I had seen. One day I had a Eureka moment and decided to carve a face into a bowl. That was in 2017. If you scroll my Instagram @isnerart you’ll see literally tons of work, a lifetime’s worth of work, all made in a few short years. If I had the space, the wood, a couple of guys with chainsaws, and a good client, I could do monumental work. I only use reclaimed wood and there’s a lumber yard near my studio that cuts reclaimed slabs, so that’s one component down.
Describe your artistic process. How much of it is an act of “channeling” or flow, vs the more tedious labor of doing what needs to be done to complete a project?
I usually start with an idea, which I’ll immediately screw up. My work and life in general is really just a rolling spasm of incompetence and I just don’t let it stop me. Every mistake yields new, unexpected direction and I roll with it. Eventually I arrive at a place that I could have never preconceived, and that piece informs the next, etc.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I channel energy and spirit when I work….but it certainly feels like I’m channeling energy and spirit when I work. Like, I have no idea where all the faces come from; someone told me they could be ancestors… could be. I basically check out mentally and watch my hands work, just amazed at what is happening. I work extremely fast due to that technique, which eliminates most of the labor and magically transforms my rough, amateurish carving right before my eyes. I never know how it will turn out, not really, and watching that transformation is what keeps me going.
How do you feel about the term “visionary artist”? Is it pretentious or on point? Is all art “visionary”?
I’m not even sure about the term “artist”. It’s not as though I care at all about art because I don’t, it’s just what I do because I really have no choice in the matter: a compulsion that obsesses me. I have other interests.
I’d think there is a difference between work that illustrates visionary states and work that is informed or taught through visions. In that regard, icaros are visionary art; healing is visionary art; the acquisition and use of power to manifest from one world into another is visionary art. Power is the ability to do something, synonymous with energy in physics—the capacity of a body or system to do something—and this potential is ultimately information. Activating fields of information to manifest realities within constructs is wizardry. So, instead of “visionary artist”, we might as well say “Wizard!”
And I’m not even sure “art” is the correct term for what I do. Now and then I receive a message from someone basically saying, “Your work and story inspired me to do what you did: go to South America, get healed, and now my life is completely changed. Thank you!” My work and my story are powerful, meaning they have the ability to do something. You can sense the power in it just by looking at it, and that power is the ability to radically transform lives, which is some badass wizardry if you ask me. But I don’t feel as though that power/ability/information is mine, thus the feeling of being merely a channel.
Those messages mean everything to me, and those transformations are what make me interested in growing my success, so I can do ever greater work and reach more and more people. So far, I have only scratched the surface of what I am capable of creating. I see truly great things, jaw-dropping things, but time is running out! We are all on this planet to do great things and there is nothing greater than transformation.