“Most people can’t remember every single time they had a terrible headache or every single time they’ve been angry or happy or manic or peaceful or sad… The mind just can’t recall them all at once and at will. But because I’ve drawn all of these things while I was experiencing them…”
To make emotional connections to a distinct day or significant moment in life, most of us solely rely on vivid memories of the past; but Tennessee local Bryan Lewis Saunders decided 22 years ago he would dedicate the rest of his life to creating self-portraiture that would recall those times. A craft evolved around his attention to feelings and manipulating the environments around him. Now, he has the ability to look through his life’s work and tell how he felt from a combination of colour and brush strokes: “I’ve been angry [299 times in the last 22 years]. I can remember all of those feelings. Even if I don’t remember all 299 events, I can still remember those feelings and then see myself feeling them. The way the aggressive marks were made takes me back in ways a photograph can’t and really makes me angry all over again.”
Bryan’s fast-growing collection of over 10,700 portraits is rapidly becoming an online phenomenon. His portraiture is used not only to document his interpretation of life on a personal level but to also better himself and face his inner demons. He believes his art is “exposure therapy” as well as a journal, it’s a way to battle ongoing problems such as anxiety, insomnia, and fear: “I can draw myself while I’m experiencing those things and greatly reduce that, almost totally destroy it… I also use it therapeutically to purge any unwanted feelings or thoughts like angst or stress, and if something in life really disturbs me I’ll draw that too and put myself in it so it won’t bother me as much after that.”
Sketched in bed while experiencing insomnia.
“After several days without sleep part of my face had become invisible to me so I left those places blank when I drew myself that evening. I later put tape over top of those areas to preserve them and then took my sketchbook and pencil to bed with me to help me sleep. I bunched my pillow up underneath my head so that the invisible taped up parts now represented the places of pressure and gravity between my head and the pillow, or places of contact where the two met. Then I closed my eyes and started doodling and drawing the things I saw in my hyperactive mind’s eye. As time went on the sounds of the pencil on the paper made soft quiet rhythms and captured the force and direction of energy flowing around my head. I also made repetitive circles from time to time to unwind beginning with dark hard pressure to very light. You can see the energy and anxiety and tension lessen as time went on. You can see the very light marks of air tickling my cheeks and the top of my forehead. I don’t remember falling asleep but I slept good (about 9 hours) and when I woke up I removed the tape.”
Perhaps because of how intensely personal his work is, Bryan has been blessed with positive public opinion: “I never get criticism really. My art is so infused with my life I think it would be pretty difficult for someone to separate them in order to attack it. If people like my art or if they’re inspired by me then they come to me. I don’t seek out exhibitions and galleries or chase attention”. His more unorthodox pieces could certainly have raised eyebrows, particularly his drug series, which features him under the influence of substantial amounts of legal and illegal pharmaceuticals: “For so many thousands of people, the drug pictures have been a gateway for them to enter into the rest of my life and work. It’s slowly becoming pretty important to me.”
As such a prolific artist, it’s no surprise that Bryan is easily inspired: “I go about my day as usual but, at some point, I become aware of something different and that will spark it. It could be anything really; a strong or unusual feeling or I may notice something different about my appearance, or if I get a strange pain in my leg or some other unusual physical sensation or a thought, belief. Then once I become aware of something I just try to investigate it or expound upon it.” This approach has truly allowed his audience to explore the twists and turns in his everyday life.
With a life dedicated to art and expression, I wondered whether it had become an obsession or addiction rather than a career: “It’s more like a lifestyle. A way to research, or heal, or make myself laugh and stuff like that. It’s really just a way of engaging with myself and the world and interacting with my experiences.” Bryan, however, stressed he couldn’t be without it. If his hand was forced, he said, his other choice would be ‘violence’ as his source of expression.
By turning that fire into art, Bryan Lewis Saunders has learnt to know himself better, and constructed a creative legacy that will live on. See the results for yourself here:
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