Keeping the doors of the visionary experience open: A portrait of psychedelic artist Luke Brown By Judith Sudhölter
This article, by Judith Sudhölter, was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK print journal (2013 Vol.2)
A quiet Monday afternoon in an art gallery on the Servaes Noutstraat in Amsterdam. The white walls and wooden floor give a warm, homely background to the bright, often neon-like colours printed and painted on the black banners, which picture the far-out mind realms of psychedelic artist Luke Brown. The Amsterdam gallery only gives a limited view of Luke’s immense oeuvre. From an early age he developed his artistic skills in mediums as diverse as sculpture, jewelry, painting, drawing, tattooing, digital art, stage and decor design.
The 38-year old artist arrived in Amsterdam a couple of days ago because of this one-week exhibition. Before he was exhibiting in Switzerland and on the psytrance festival Ozora, Hungary. Where to go next, he doesn’t know yet: ‘We’ll leave that up to synchronist perfection,’ he says. What he exactly means by that I learn when I return for the interview on Wednesday. Sitting amongst his artworks Luke explains all about the role psychedelics play in his artist life.
The visions he sees while tripping not only form the main theme of his creations, they also inspire his way of living: ‘One of the most important things that have been reiterated over and over in my psychedelic experiences is the importance of maintaining some sense of connectedness. A big part of my creative process is therefore like a spiritual discipline, aiming to uphold the connection to that higher intelligence.’
Luke tells me that he learned how to optimize this connectedness by cultivating a state of ‘synchronist perfection.’ He explains: ‘It is a state of being within, which will reflect into the way that things are playing out: a kind of divine alignment to this current that plays out in synchronicities.’ According to Luke, synchronist perfection played a crucial role in his creative journey: ‘It has really been my guide throughout life, because I have seen it play out often enough in ways that are totally mind blowing.’
I ask Luke when he decided to become a psychedelic artist: ‘Well, it was a pretty dramatic realization. I was 17 and in the punk rock and skateboarding scene, when I was introduced to LSD for the first time. During that night I had pretty much my whole identity and my relationship to the universe flipped upside down with the realization that I was an artist.’
‘At the time, I had never committed to making finished works of art. I would do drawings in my notebooks and just doodle, but nothing more. But for some reason I happened to bring a blank sketchbook with me that night, and I had a visionary experience that was so vivid and shocking! My third eye was just bright and wide open, and I had this revelation that I had to catch up for all the time that I had forgotten that I was an artist. So I just started filling up all these pages in the sketchbook. And my brother and his friends, who were with me, were pretty amazed by what was transpiring. It was such a magical act!’
The sketchbook set the stage for the rest of his life: ‘After that I started to have more intentional journeys with LSD, where I would commit to making art. I had trips all by myself, and would just spend the night with pens, paper and paint. The creative experiments that came out of that time established a creative template that I have used ever since.’
His father, a Canadian folk-singer, and mother, a photographer, encouraged his developing artistry. After his breakthrough experience Luke, who grew up in London, Ontario, switches to a high school that has a college level art program: ‘My morning classes were all the normal high school curriculum, but then from lunch time on I was doing everything from figure drawing, modeling, sculpting, film making, and jewelry. I just got my hands on every medium I could imagine.’
One of his initial dreams was, ‘to apply the aesthetic of the psychedelic experience to every medium.’ After high school four years of art college in Toronto followed, in which he incorporated these techniques and skills even further. During these years Luke already sold his school assignments as magazine illustrations, album covers and illustrations for children’s books.
After school he enrolled in an apprenticeship with a tattoo-artist. Luke happened to be talented and within no time he developed a big clientele. Though he liked his job, it soon started to take over: ‘Every single drawing that I did, had some kind of tattooing application.’ He felt limited and knew he had to put it aside at one point, ‘but it was running out of control,’ until Luke started to develop repetitive stress in his wrists and elbows. ‘That was a really difficult time in my life, as it was hard to hold the pencil. I pretty much had to put aside the tattooing, and devote my full attention and energy to painting.’
During this period Luke had another pivotal psychedelic experience: ‘The injury in my arm was compromising much of my sense of confidence and purpose in the world. The realest thing to me, I was suddenly unable to do. And to have everything up to this point jeopardized was emotionally very painful for me. It was a kind of dark, existential despair that I was finding myself in. So I found that my only real option was to just be completely blasted on psychedelics. I just wanted to get to the core of it: maybe there was something I wasn’t seeing?’
Luke tells me that during this trip, he was faced with ‘every fear that my mind could conjure up.’ The state he found himself in was so painful that, ‘I could do nothing else than completely surrender all my pain and let go of it. And to be able to feel all of it, brought about a deep state of salvation from spirit. It felt like the source of creation would take it all from me, and allowed me to surrender.’
Luke describes his experience as a journey in which he literally faced his fears: ‘They were manifested into a form that I was meeting. It was the head demon of the world, the darkest entity that works as a manipulative deceiver of consciousness.’ However, ‘in the core of my heart I knew that it was just an illusion. It’s just a belief in the collective consciousness that doesn’t believe in itself. And that manifests in this form as some hidden force that we let rule our lives.’
Once he went through this journey, and was ‘being completely broken apart and reassembled,’ he met the being again. ‘It was the same being, but it transformed into my angel and protector, who was waiting on the other side of this abyss, congratulating me for having come through this initiation.’ Much impressed by this experience Luke sought for a way to bring it back: ‘My whole life turned around again in one single night. It was such a significant experience that I wanted to be able to carry it with me and share it with others. Maybe it could be helpful, as a form of medicine?’
During his trip he had witnessed that the being was made of all pieces of art that he had created so far. They were ‘collaging his body together.’ So, after emerging from this night, he started to assemble all these images: ‘taking photographs and coloured laser copies, cutting them out with scissors and thereby recreating the body of this being.’ Right at that moment, a friend asks him to store his computer with scanner and the latest Photoshop program in Luke’s apartment. According to Luke a clear instance of synchronistic perfection: ‘This was my introduction to Photoshop: it was just landing in my lab after one of the most dramatic transformations of my psychedelic life. All of a sudden I had all the tools I needed to be able to do what I was trying to.’
The digital work forms a bridge between the tattooing world and his renewed painting career: ‘It gave me a chance to repair myself and my wrists. And it provided an immediate kind of creative expression: with digital work I was able to achieve certain imagery that if I was to do this with paint it would take me months and months. Now I could do it in a week.’
While Luke recovered from his wrist injury and discovered digital art, more miracles came his way. He was asked to exhibit in a group exhibition in Zürich, next to artists like Alex Grey, Robert Venosa and Hans Ruedi Giger. At the related party, commemorating the 60th birthday of Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, a stranger offered him a piece of LSD that is strikingly enough printed on a picture of one of his own artworks. More specifically, it is printed on the work that he had done that very first night tripping when he was a teenager.
‘So there I was, at this party, exactly ten years to the night that I had had that first awakening. Ten years to the night that I worked on a piece of artwork for the first time: and here it is being presented to me in Switzerland, in the location where LSD was discovered! To me, that was like a huge cosmic revelation, I felt supported in everything that I was doing.’
A year before, in 2002, he had met the godfather of psychedelic art Alex Grey for the first time at Boom festival: ‘Up to that point he was one of my psychedelic superheroes. And suddenly I was able to exhibit right alongside him.’ Grey and other established psychedelic artists like Robert Venosa took him and some of his peers under their wing, teaching them their own techniques and using their status to promote their younger colleagues.
According to Luke this not only led to ‘a cross-pollination of ideas’, it also felt like he was part of a larger mission: ‘A larger kind of vision seems to be crystallizing amongst all of us, a movement that is happening. I see that we are collectively tapping into something that is bigger than ourselves. The psychedelic experience itself shows that there is some larger current that is manifesting itself and that we are just conduits for.’
For ten years now Luke has travelled all over the world to participate in (group) exhibitions and collaborative projects. In 2004 he ended up in Bali to do a music video project: ‘I worked with this team in an incredible location and we were doing everything from costume design to make up, to storyboarding and drawing: just any element that was required.’
He enjoys working in a team of arts and craftsman a lot, so ‘after that season it was pretty evident that Bali was the place for me to be. Since 2004 I have been there every winter, from three up to eight months. I spend my time unplugged from all the social networks in order to pull off the amount of work that I do. It is full art retreat time, not as social as the summer season with the festivals. So I can devote all my time to working on paintings and sculptures and then emerge into the world by the time the spring and summer come around.’
One of the reasons why he likes to be in Bali is because over there he is surrounded by people who understand his way of living: ‘I like to call them co-creative dreaming agents. I believe that all that we are is self-imagination, but this is happening on a collective level: we are all creating the world together. So I would like to work with people who want to take responsibility for all that we experience. People who work and live in the same way of radical self-referral, and who are able to be in the world as collective dreamers.’
‘By working with intentions we are crafting reality from our self-imagination.’ Luke refers to synchronist perfection again: ‘It is like holding a certain intention or vision of what you want to create, and then just letting it go.’ This is also how he works as an artist: ‘Tapping into my creative current has all to do with cultivating a certain quality of consciousness. So I really have to shape my whole life to allow for this state to occur.’ In order to do so Luke developed a big devotion to yoga, meditation and eating healthy: ‘all these elements are necessary to establish a maximum connectedness to source.’
Over the years Luke noticed these kind of ideas and lifestyles were arising in more places around him, and he presumes it is the onset of some bigger movement in history: ‘It seems to me that something like this is emerging in the collective consciousness. Developments in technology seem to be accelerating exponentially and I think collectively we are having the opportunity for some monumental leaps of growth. All the technologies that we have are really externalizations of our own true potentials. We have already hit the tipping point where the collective has chosen to awaken. Right now more and more of us are able to witness that single consciousness that exists in all life. And this realization is much more powerful than believing oneself to be separate from all the other beings.’
So far, Luke has been mainly talking about his experiences with LSD. Would he say LSD forms the main influence on his work? ‘Well, it has probably been the most consistent one, since it is the one that I have been really able to use for making art. It is very user friendly. Though, in recent years I have been much more involved in plant indigents.’
Luke tells me he has been working with ayahuasca and peyote, both in traditional ceremonies and the latter one also in church meetings: ‘In my experience these plant entheogens are a more sentient kind of substance.’ This also holds for other natural substances: ‘Taking mushrooms and DMT felt like interacting with some quality of consciousness: they represent a form of intelligence that you can have a two-way dialogue with. Whereas my experiences with LSD compares more with a computer simulation program that you can just play around with.’
With the plant substances he is able to have visually based conversations, he says: ‘I can ask them: “How about this?” and: “What does this do?” And they would reply back to me, in visual form. So I perceive them as incredible art teachers.’
He tells me that in his paintings he tries to recreate the visions he has as accurately as possible. His works indeed seem to be expanding with colour and show refined, multidimensional universes inhabited by deities and other unknown beings. The paintings themselves have, reminiscent of the psychedelic journey, a trippy effect when looked at, and are often suffused with a flavor of spirituality.
Luke explains: ‘I noticed many of my visions showed me specific symbolic content and imagery. As I wanted to get more familiar with the meaning and terminology of all those things, I started to study several esoteric and spiritual traditions.’ He perceives a deep sense of connectedness and familiarity with these traditions, ‘like I was awakening to a memory of these things that I didn’t know until I started to get into them.’
Traditions he feels most strongly connected with are Dzogchen Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism: ‘The Dzhogchen Buddhist tradition has roots in a kind of psychedelic shamanism. For centuries there existed shamanic traditions in Tibet that made use of altered states of consciousness through entheogens. It wasn’t until Padmasambhava came to Tibet and convinced the people that their shamanic traditions were congruent with Buddhist philosophy, that the two traditions merged together. Eventually all these fanciful, colourful, multi-headed and multi-armed bodhisattvas and dharmapalas (wrathful deities) became equated to Buddhist psychological states of consciousness.
‘To me that makes sense. It doesn’t really matter if they are actual beings that exist in some other dimension, they are just qualities of consciousness, and all the symbolism – all the things they hold in their hands and the elements that comprise their imagery – are symbolic of qualities of consciousness.’
Next to esoteric, hermetic, magical and kabalistic traditions, Luke also names South American shamanism as an important influence: ‘In that regard we live in an amazing time. We don’t live in one place anymore, where one insular community is all we know and their cosmology is all you get. Instead we have the opportunity to study all of it and hybridize these traditions, piece them together in whatever way makes sense to us.’
Inspired by the Vajrayana tradition Luke also makes pieces that he describes as ‘psychedelic avatars.’ An example of this is his image of Kwanyin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, depicted in a stormy ocean with a lotus flower and standing on a dragon, the full moon rising right behind her: ‘These archetypical expressions are meant to be a kind of sacred mirror. You can imagine yourself as them, they are an aspiration of your being. Doing so will help you to arise to your highest potential of consciousness.’
His goal in making these inner realms and journeys visual through art? ‘Having these things manifested into the world is a way of maintaining access to a higher dimension. It is like keeping the door cracked open, so that these experiences that have been so profound to me, are not just distant memories, but they are something that is always here.
‘I hope to be actually beneficial and comforting to people. And it seems so: lots of people come to me and say they recognize their own journeys in my work. That is really an amazing confirmation for me of what it is that I am doing. I think for them it is like an affirmation that what they experienced is tangible and real: not just a trip they had, but something that has meaning and significance. So, the artwork is a way to confirm something that has been really special and transformative for myself and others.’