The man with a thousand faces

talks to Bryan Lewis Saunders about drugs, prison & self portraits

photo credit: Bryan Lewis Saunders

photo credit: Bryan Lewis Saunders

Bryan Lewis Saunders didn’t always want to be an artist. “I wanted to be a comic book artist when I was 10 and my mother was very supportive but I got bored with it really quickly and decided to be a herpetologist instead. Then I never thought of being an artist again until I was in college in my mid twenties.”

A near obsession with self-portraiture is what Bryan is best known for. On 30th March 1995 he began drawing himself everyday, and hasn’t missed a day since. “It has become physically impossible to not do them. Seriously. It is part of my hardware now. I can’t fall asleep in the day time unless I have done one, I have done one in a drunken blackout without knowing it and I have done many of them under semi-conscious states.”

Would he ever stop? No. “The only way I could stop was if I was in a coma, or a permanent vegetative state.”

Bryan started his self-portraits for a number of reasons, “one was to teach myself to draw. Another reason was my belief that the act would make my life more interesting as if everyday would be a remix. And yet another reason was to purge myself of stress, anxiety, pain and suffering caused by everyday life.”

Looking for experiences that might profoundly affect his self-perception, Bryan devised an experiment where everyday he would draw himself whilst under the influence of a different drug. It was this controversial series which first caught the attention of many.

He has drawn himself under the influence of everything from crystal meth to cough syrup, usually getting the drugs for free from neighbours who offer after hearing about the project. As a consequence, Bryan has suffered mild brain damage. He is still conducting the series, but over greater lapses of time. “Like life it too is an ongoing project, I’m sure I will add to the series again one day.” True to form, Bryan’s latest conceptual piece: Extreme Makeover: Fuck Mattress Edition hasn’t fallen short of controversy. “The reactions to it online were quite revealing about different people’s attitudes. Some of the comments were quite absurd!”

I used to imagine myself dead and bloated surrounded by thousands of self-portraits that no-one would ever see

It was never intended to cause such a stir, as he explains “basically, I had a few dollars in my pocket and wanted to do something nice for someone. I don’t make enough from art to buy someone in need a house, like the TV show Extreme Makeover, so I just did what I could afford. A friend of mine told me about the mattress and where it was and about the used condoms and dirty panties lying around it and I thought, ‘Now that’s something I can fix up nice.’ So I enlisted some friends to help me.”

To many, a discarded mattress accompanied by condoms and clean underwear is seen as devaluing sex. Asked if this is the case, Bryan replies, “No, I think it just temporarily made ugly and filthy a bit more beautiful and clean”.

With repertoire like the drugs portrait series and Extreme Makeover: Fuck Mattress Edition, I asked Bryan if he feels the need to create something controversial in order to live up to the hype surrounding his work. “No. I don’t ever feel the need to do anything controversial I just do what I want or what I feel I need to do for personal reasons in response to the world around me. Today people are so easily upset over nothing, that is what is so shocking to me. It’s 2013 and a pop singer can dance and behave like a 3 or 4 year old that has grown up watching MTV and people just lose their minds over it.”

Interestingly, Bryan is somewhat reluctant to sell his most infamous works. “For the most part I won’t sell bodies of work that involve self-portraitrature simply because they all belong together. One giant body of work, my life, and I don’t want to split and divide that up.

I’d sell the drug ones though because they are so present online they will never die and they are such a tiny aspect of my search for self that it would be nice to put them behind me for good.”

Bryan lives in the John Sevier Centre, a housing project in Johnson City, Tennessee – a building which has seen its share of tragedy. “I did an album called “Busting Open” once about people in my building dying and not being discovered for a while and their bodies bust open.”

A great influence on Bryan’s work was his youth. “I got into a lot of trouble with the law. I was small and got picked on. But then I became a bully myself and ended up in prison by the time I was 21. In prison I found that it was socially acceptable to just go off, lose your mind! So I would rant and rave at times. It was very cathartic.

Years later during a performance I had a flashback of prison and realised that I was rehearsing there and didn’t even know it.”

So, has life as an artist turned out as Bryan expected? “It’s actually a bit better than I envisioned because I have such a wonderful gallery representing me. MIKA Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. They work extremely hard and really know what they are doing when it comes to the business side of things. I used to always imagine myself dead and bloated surrounded by thousands of self-portraits that no-one would ever see. But I know now that that won’t be the case at all. It’s quite comforting.”