“My plight is the plight of the aspirant who does not renounce.”
Jim Woodring is one of the most influential artists working in underground comics and while there is no other comic strip that comes as close to depicting the various moods, images, and ideas that can arise during an LSD trip, Woodring does not consider himself a psychedelic artist. Nevertheless, despite his medium of comics and his use of classic cartoon tropes such as the anthropomorphic cat named Frank, Woodring stands within the great tradition of visionary artist. Below is an email correspondence between Woodring and myself, portions of which appear in my new book Too Much to Dream.
Woodring’s most recent books Weathercraft and Congress of Animals are both available from Fantagraphics Books
PB: Can you tell me a little bit about the visions you had as a child?
JW: I wouldn’t call them visions; that word has a spiritual connotation. They were hallucinations and apparitions, neurological misfires perhaps born of my intense confusion and occasional bouts of paranoia. The paranoia was absolutely horrible. I was convinced my parents were going to kill me and I delayed the moment of falling asleep as long as I could so I could escape when they came into my bedroom to do it.
I frequently saw things at night — silently jabbering heads at the foot of my bed, distorted animals and objects hanging in the air over me. Often I saw a huge staring eye that made me vomit with fear. I also saw radially symmetrical shapes made of beautiful flame-like colors hovering over me. They made pretty harmonica-like droning noises. Later, when I needed a design for disembodied entities in my comics I used those forms and called them Jivas, after the Sanskrit word for “conditioned soul.”
Nowadays I have a major hallucination every two or three years. In my twenties it was two or three a year. As a kid it was virtually every day.
Did you ever try to understand them as having religious or spiritual significance?
They seemed significant and meaningful to me but at the time the only religion I knew was Christianity which I disliked, distrusted and did not understand in the slightest. So I thought of the hallucinations as particularly interesting aspects of life rather than metaphysical messages. I used to have what I called “sticky moods” which I now think were spiritual ecstasies of a sort, but they were unaccompanied by hallucinations. I wish I could experience them with that intensity again.
Other artists, like William Blake, were moved to draw through their own youthful visions. Did you look to other artists for kindred spirits?
The first artist I encountered who I felt was a kindred spirit was Boris Artzybasheff, when I was in junior high school. There is a collection of his work called AS I SEE that really knocked me for a loop. I saw much more in his work than he intended, I feel certain.
In high school I was so out of it and culturally isolated that I never heard of Dali or Surrealism until I went to see a huge Surrealism and Dada exhibition at the L.A. County Art Museum in 1968. That experience goddamn near put me in a coma for days. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. Discovering that there were adult men and women who devoted their lives to portraying through oblique yet incisive symbolic language the most elusive and dangerous and appalling truths about reality — it was a rebirth for me.
You were a teenager in the later sixties and a young man in the early seventies. Were you reading underground comics at the time?
Yes, R. Crumb was another huge influence for me. I first saw his work in 1969 and was immediately swept away by it. And then Justin Green, Rory Hayes, Bill Griffith, Robert Williams — all those guys were my heroes and exemplars.
In what ways were you influenced, if at all, by the counterculture?
Well, drugs. The first intoxicant I ever ingested was LSD; really harsh red sunshine, a four-way barrel. This was in 1970, the year I graduated from high school. I hadn’t even drunk a beer before that. I had the classic overwhelming total meltdown, terrifying and life-changing. As for the overall culture, I liked it. I liked the music and free love, too. Hippie culture was a great liberating adventure at the time, regardless of how stupid it looks now and despite the destruction it ultimately wrought. I’m damn glad I had a taste of it.
What do you see as the destruction wrought by hippie culture? Was it the naiveté?
The hippies were destructive for a number of reasons. For one thing they were parasites who could only live the way they did (correction: the way we did) because others were willing to work. Huge numbers of able-bodied Aquarian Agers were on welfare and receiving food stamps and getting their dose of clap fixed at the free clinics, all at public expense. That helped Reagan and like-minded anti-altruists persuade America that slashing social services was good for the country.
Many of them (us) also failed to become educated or worldly in a useful sense. They made what was good about the movement — a belief in peace, love, granola and so on — look stupid by association. They did some good, though. Since they usually had terrible terrible relationships with their parents they did their best to make sure they had good relationships with their own children, and they helped end the Vietnam War.
It’s hard not to see you in your work some classically psychedelic themes. Did psychedelic drugs motivate you artistically?
It’s impossible for an artist to take LSD or mescaline or any other skullcracker and not have it influence their work. That said, the themes in my work haven’t changed categorically since I was in high school before I took drugs. Like surrealism those experiences confirmed and expanded my ideas rather than providing them.
Ultimately would you say psychedelic drugs gave you fodder for your art or simply reconciled certain things you already knew/experienced?
It’s very difficult to put into words what psychedelic chemicals actually do, so that’s a hard question to answer. Mostly what that stuff showed me was how delicately balanced our perceptions of reality are. If a few molecules of LSD can wipe away the world like a wet sponge demolishing a watercolor painting then that world as we know it must not be very durable. But I was already looking for what lay beneath the surface when I first took the stuff. I just didn’t know how easily the surface could be demolished.
I never tried to reproduce in drawings any of those acid or psilocybin experiences except that after that first experience I made a couple of attempts to draw objects with colored pencils in a way that reproduced that distinctive LSD color-printing-out-of-register effect. And I once put a specific LSD hallucination — a swollen red tornado ceiling raining down hot gold coins — in a comic strip. But it didn’t change the focus or goal of my work. I didn’t become a psychedelic artist per se.
I noticed on your blog you mention Salvia as an “interest?” Can you describe its role in your life/art?
Salvia divinorum, as you may know, is a somewhat horrible and entirely heavy-duty hallucinogen. There are people who think it ought to be illegal, and it was recently illegalized in Florida. I don’t care. It’s so powerful in its concentrated form that I can see it doing real damage, even though the effects only last a few minutes. I haven’t had any in a few years but I still have what you could call flashbacks. The alien, distinctive feeling it produces comes over me spontaneously sometimes — not so powerfully that it’s dangerous, but still quite strong. It’s the only substance I’ve ingested that gave me an inkling what might be meant by shamanistic. It has a definite female personality and it can strip the cover off reality like nothing else I know. It’s deadly serious; no fun at all. I don’t recommend it. I made one picture under its influence called “Life After Man.”
When did you discover Vedanta?
1984. By that time I had been looking for a spiritual tradition to embrace for years. I figured one was probably as good as another so I had been trying to get into Christianity. The Christian mystical tradition is very rich and I had enjoyed reading Dark Night of the Soul and St. Augustine’s Confessions. I somewhat naively thought I could find that kind of thing in church, so I went to Christian services for a couple of years and asked every self-professed Christian I encountered about that path.
I didn’t find what I was looking for so I decided to abandon the attempt; and on that very day I encountered the name of Sri Ramakrishna for the first time and was immediately attracted to it. The next day I bought a used copy of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna in Los Angeles and as soon as I saw his photograph I felt he was the guy for me. And when I started to read the book I knew he was. I read that book over and over. When I reach the end I begin again. I love it. Nothing makes me as happy as Sri Ramakrishna in his various manifestations.
Can you tell me about how your own current spiritual practice relates to your art?
Mostly by being in opposition to it. It’s ridiculous to sit in meditation and try to stop thoughts from arising (chitta vritti narodaha) and then get up, sit at the drawing board and try to whip the mind up to think as wildly as possible. It’s downright crazy to try to subdue the ego for an hour and then inflame it for the working day and then try to subdue it again at the end of the day.
My plight is the plight of the aspirant who does not renounce. As Sri Ramakrishna said the mind of the worldly devotee is like a fly that is attracted to a flower one moment and to shit the next. The mind of the renunciate is like a bee; it is attracted only to the flower.