In an earlier post, I mused about visionary art and how it can provide outposts for mental exploration. During the second year of university, I took a Humanities course, during which I was exposed to a lot of things including the ecstatic works of William Blake. I was lucky to visit the National Library in London a few years ago and see some of his handmade books up close. The beauty and spirituality of these works are truly remarkable.
Recently, I’ve come across the amazing work of another visionary (thanks to Professor Melanie Baljko), Hiledegard von Bingen, the 12th century polymath and mystic nun who was consumed by visions and wrote three visionary books. The first book, Scivias (“Know the Way”), describes 26 religious visions followed by interpretations. She experienced visions in which God ordered him to share her visions, after which she decided to write the book.
It is common to think that it is impossible to find contemporary visionary art. However, there are a few artists whose work is celebrated as instances of modern visionary art. A few years ago, I bought a copy of Pablo Amaringo‘s Ayahuasca Visions at a MAPS conference. This extraordinary book (published 1999) illustrates a number of visions that this artist had during encounters with the plant medicine. The strange thing is that he was later attacked by malevolent forces activated by some shamans in the Amazon and decided not to participate in ceremonies anymore in fear of being harmed by negative energies!
Another much celebrated contemporary visionary artist is Alex Grey of Tool fame. His paintings and vision of art is truly unique. A few years ago (2009), I spent some time at his house and art studio in Upper State New York. At the time, he was building a gallery/temple (COSM) to host his works (an ongoing project). I volunteered there as a cook and met him and his wife and many interesting characters that were working there on some capacity. I stayed on for their annual Halloween party and went back for a New Year’s party.
It was really good times and I have a funny memory to share. Alex Grey’s painting studio was right next to the kitchen I was working in and I often heard him listening to Classical music (mostly Schubert piano works) and painting. He is a very calm and grounded man with a great sense of humour. Out of principle, he doesn’t sell his most famous works and is saving them for display at visionary permanent exhibit. This detail makes the following anecdote more interesting as most of his artwork were kept in the same building I was cooking in.
As I was preparing dinner one night, a piece of cheese left in the oven (by someone in the morning, not me!) caught fire! The alarm went off and there was panic all around. I was holding a big tray of potatoes and was stunned by the prospect of this house and all the paintings burning! Suddenly, Alex Grey ran out of his room, cursing and looking around to see what was wrong. Seeing the fire, without hesitation he ran to the oven and energetically blew it out! We still had to wait for fire trucks to come and turn off the alarm and I was stressed out a bit because of my part in this but Alex understood the situation and knew this was not my fault. Whatever it was, it made me very memorable and next time I wanted to go there, I was easily remembered 🙂
Before I end this post, I want to to mention another favourite artist whose work is perhaps not visionary but more fantastic or phantastic! Zdzislaw Beksinski was a contemporary Polish painter and artist whose work is celebrated as some of the most original examples of fantastic realism. He grew up during the cold war and experienced many painful things and his work reflect that. Unfortunately, the end of his life was also very tragic. A few years after the death of his wife and his son’s suicide, he was murdered in his apartment in Warsaw.