Rebecca Ann Hill and David Jay Brown are the authors of the beautiful new book Women of Visionary Art that features interviews and artwork from 18 women at the forefront of the visionary art movement, including Amanda Sage, Martina Hoffmann, and many others. Brown, a writer and former neuroscience researcher, and Hill, an illustrator and visionary artist herself, explore common themes with the artists in their interviews, including psychedelic use, dreams, painting techniques, and how womanhood influences their artwork. I spoke with Rebecca and David from their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.
Wesley Thoricatha: Thanks so much for speaking with me today. I love the book and I’m excited to cover this subject that is near and dear to my heart. Visionary art, one could say, is the unofficial art style of the psychedelic renaissance. In many ways, the rise of visionary art in recent years has parallelled the rise of psychedelic research and mainstream acceptance. Why is visionary art important, and how do you see it reflect and interact with the larger psychedelic movement?
David Jay Brown: Visionary art is important because art is important and psychedelics and visionary states are important. There has certainly been a huge influx of visionary art over the past 10 or 20 years, but I see it as stretching back to something ancient, an old tradition of capturing shamanic or visionary experiences. We have in our book art that goes back for thousands of years to the cave wall paintings of France, images that look like people transforming into animals and animals transforming into people. These cave paintings give us some type of inkling about the origins of visionary art, but modern visionary art as we know it grew out of surrealism and psychedelic art and some of the earlier art movements in the 20th century.
As you know, there have been dozens and dozens of amazing scientific studies in recent years that look at different psychedelic drugs as treatments and adjuncts to psychotherapy. With that, the media coverage is changing. For so long, psychedelics were demonized or ridiculed or ignored by the mainstream media, and today we’re starting to get positive and honest coverage. Along with this has come more and more people who have been experimenting. There has been a tremendous influx of people to festivals and different venues where they have been expanding their minds. Visionary art is a way to capture that experience in a way that words can’t.
What we see with visionary art is the outgrowth of all that. There is so much amazing and sophisticated visionary art now; the quality has been increasing over the years. The thing about psychedelic artwork years ago is that it was a lot less complex and otherworldly, and there was more surrealism and less meaningful spiritual visions incorporated into it. I think that genuine intention to imbue visionary meaning and insight is what’s important about today’s visionary art.
Rebecca Ann Hill: David covered it really well, but it’s so true that visionary art is starting to penetrate every aspect of culture. You see it in all kinds of different arts and movies now, even commercials, politics, and religion. If you’re really paying attention, you can see that there is no area of human culture that is not being influenced by the psychedelic renaissance in some way.
DJB: Every aspect of human culture has been impacted by psychedelics because culture springs from the human mind, and psychedelics expand and reflect the mind, so every aspect will be affected in some way. We wanted to focus specifically on the art and women in this movement, but it would be a great project to document how psychedelics have influenced medicine, politics, the movement for sustainable living, the study of ecology, all the different movements. It could be a wonderful subject for a book. When I worked with MAPS, I edited a bulletin for 5 years, and each year we did a special edition on how psychedelics affected education, or how psychedelics affected art, or how they changed psychotherapy— different things. This would be a wonderful project for someone to do.
WT: Yeah, it really does affect everything, right? Because it gets to the root of… well , being. So the effects are holistic.
DJB: Right, it gets to the root of ourselves, so it forces us to reevaluate, to look at everything in a new way.
RAH: So many different types of people are using psychedelics. So if you have a politician compared to an artist or a teacher or something like that, it’s going to heighten whatever field they are in.
DJB: The other thing is that artists take really naturally to the psychedelic experience. I spent time with Dr. Oscar Janiger, a physician in Los Angeles years ago who was doing research with LSD and creativity. He found that when he was giving LSD legally to people of different professions—people from dentists to high school teachers to administrators— he said that the group that had the best trips and easiest time were the artists, and the people who generally had the worst trips were doctors and psychiatrists.
WT: That’s because we’re tripping all the time anyway!
DJB: [Laughs] Exactly, right.
WT: I guess when you are making your living through the intuitive dimension that it’s a lot easier to tap into the psychedelic experience than for those who are much more logically focused.
DJB: Yeah, people who tend to have a right brain or holistic focus—those who tend to be more musically oriented, more visually oriented, more holistically oriented, more playful, less rigid in their thinking, less attached to specific ideas— those are the people who seem to take best to a psychedelic experience.
WT: As a former exhibiting visionary artist myself, one thing I loved about the book is how you ask technical questions of the artists. It was a special treat to hear some of the specific techniques they used.
DJB: Yeah, we know that a lot of our readers won’t be artists, but one of our goals with this book is to inspire young artists, and we thought it would be good to include some of those questions for the sake of the artists that read the book.
RAH: It’s funny, a lot of artists didn’t want to give away their secrets! [laughs]
WT: [Laughs] That’s hilarious. It’s not like if you read about the Flemish mische technique you’re able to bust out some crazy visionary painting.
RAH: [Laughs] Yeah, sometimes we had to dig really hard to get some of that information; at first they didn’t want to tell us. Some of the ladies would only divulge pieces of it.
WT: Well to be fair, as someone who tried to make it as a visionary artist for some time, I can say that it is hard out there to actually make a living. You have to be hustling nonstop. I mean, we’re in a capitalist paradigm that’s sort of a masculine and competitive environment, and there’s good and bad to that, but I totally understand the reluctance to share something that gives them an edge.
DJB: I think what you said there is really important, and also partly why there are so many more men than women in galleries.
RAH: Yeah, I never really thought about that.
DJB: Yeah, because men tend to be more competitive in general, and the hustling world is more their thing. Yeah, it’s pretty difficult to make it as an artist… or as a writer. [laughs]
WT: [Laughs] Yup. In the creation of this book, did anything in particular surprise you about the artists?
RAH: Well, there were some women we interviewed who hadn’t ever done psychedelics.
DJB: Yeah, that was kind of surprising, because they seemed to be able to tap into very similar states of consciousness and visionary experiences. It was also interesting to see just how much connection there was between the interviews, how much resonance there was between each of the artists.
RAH: …and how you could see yourself in each artist.
WT: I think the point about some of the women not doing psychedelics is an important one to make, because the visionary state transcends any particular tool we use to reach it. Psychedelics are one of the most overt tools for getting there, but there are many other means.
RAH: Absolutely. Shamanic drumming, dreaming, meditation, holotropic breathing…
DJB: Some people are just naturally visionary. The rest of us have to do plants and drugs. [laughs]
WT: [Laughs] Right. And I think in a way that reflects a similar distinction in the psychedelic movement. Really what we’re talking about with the psychedelic movement is healing, transformation and evolution. And again, the psychedelics are just a tool or catalyst for these things. Not everyone involved in art, ecology, women’s rights or spiritual cultivation is coming from a psychedelic place. I think it’s good to always keep that in mind.
DJB: I think that’s such an important point you’re making, Wesley. Whenever anyone does a psychedelic, before they get involved in all those things we talked about, the first thing they do is discover themselves and work on themselves to be a better person, more self aware. Anyone who is even slightly on a path towards self improvement can utilize them in a very positive way and become a more compassionate and more empathic and more sensitive person. Even if they are not getting involved in ecology or holistic medicine or these different things, at least they are becoming better people. Just having a population of people who are psychologically healthier I think is a great step in the right direction.
WT: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
RAH: What we are trying to do with this book is to allow people to know that it’s ok to open their minds and hearts to what visionary art is trying to do. I really believe that visionary art has a place in culture where people are able to view it and then be turned on in a way that you can’t be otherwise. It opens the mind to think about who we are and what we’re a part of. It can make us more socially and ecologically aware so that we can be more environmentally sustainable as we continue to grow. So I think we should listen carefully to the messages that are depicted in the art and carry on from there.
We are very grateful to Rebecca and David for speaking with us. Check out their book here and stay tuned for a future conversation about femininity and ecology.