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Visionary Art: In a Process of Defining Itself

Inspired by yoga and meditation, a group of Bay Area artists paint outside the lines of reality

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, french, priest, theologian, scientist

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin a french priest, theologian, and scientist.

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The studio of John Almond is an oasis of calm and natural growth in the midst of an urban jungle. Tucked away between warehouses and light industrial buildings in a narrow alley off the Skid Road area south of San Francisco’s Market Street, it is a big garage that has been converted into working and living quarters. There is a spacious street-floor studio filled with Almond’s mural-sized paintings, smaller watercolors and posters, as well as the vivid paintings of his wife, Cynthia Grace; it is also packed with plaster casts of rocks, some painted in bright, vivid colors, others in blacks and whites and grays that duplicate the natural tones and textures of granite, many of them surrounding a roaring gas fireplace.

A mezzanine holds a bedroom and a small “meditation room,” with a tiny altar in one corner and a shelf of literature on yoga as well as art; outside is a roof garden filled with potted plants, trees, and funky “organic areas” populated with decaying garbage and toads, snails, and other forms of life. But plants, aquaria, and other forms of natural life are everywhere.

“In the future, the urban center will revert to a primordial Garden of Eden,” Almond says. “Plants and creatures will overgrow the downtown areas just like lichens and moss plants grow on the rocks in Yosemite. If man ever reverts back to a creature state, he’ll inhabit the downtown area just like it was when he came down from the trees.”

Almond’s paintings have this kind of feeling to them. Many depict strawberries, often of gigantic scale, swirling through vast, vivid blue skies or radiating geometric lines of force that transform themselves into intricate cell structures containing deep blue fields. Some portray massive rocks that float weightlessly against black voids filled with glittering stars. Some are nightmarish visions of the city itself — —of billboards illuminated against strange night skies, except the billboards contain the images of Almond’s paintings, of high rise office buildings whose peaks shoot waves of crackling energy into the sky, while seeming to feed off a subterranean root structure that permeates the ground beneath. Almost all of Almond’s visions are charged with this sense of vibrant, sometimes violent, energy, premonitions of growth, destruction, change.

“My art has to do with being aware in a pictorial way of our state in the universe, our development and our potential development,” Almond says. “I think from a perspective as if I were looking at the planet from far away in space and isolating phenomena, trying to understand what’s going on. For example, we’re in the middle of this big city, but we don’t understand what this energy center is doing to us.”

Almond, 32, was born in England, lived in Rio de Janeiro between the ages of six and nine, and then settled in California, where he grew up around Orinda and Carmel. He first learned painting from his father, a watercolorist in the British tradition. He studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, received a B.A. at San Jose State, and did graduate work at San Francisco State under Wesley Chamberlin. Most of his instruction followed the tenets of abstract expressionism, but “I could never really get with it. It was too physical, there wasn’t enough mental activity.”

Almond says he first got turned on to “the real joy of painting” through a painter friend, Allen Lynch. Subsequently, he holed up in a beach cottage in Pacifica where he did “nothing but paint” for three years.

Almond spent most of this time doing abstract watercolors inspired by the forms and colors of tidal pools, sea anenomes, capazones, and other marine creatures. “Drugs have also played an important role,” he adds. “It’s a way to help oneself go inward. Smoking marijuana makes you somehow concentrate more on a smaller thing. You keep working a dot into many dots, a line into many lines. You arrive at a kind of microscopic vision, and you keep going into it.”

In 1968, Almond moved back into the city, where he shared a studio with a New York artist, Jerry Morrocca. “His influence brought me out of organic forms and into images and ideas taken from our culture.

“Fillmore West and the light shows were a big influence on me,” Almond added, “as well as a lot of artists—mostly people I know: Bob Comings, Henry Sultan, Charles Greeley, Bob Fried, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Crumb.”

Around this time, the familiar themes — —strawberries, rocks, the urban skyline at night — —began to enter Almond’s painting, arising from various sources: “The strawberries began just as fantastic forms, with their geometric alignments of seeds and fantastic red colors. In my first painting, I put them in a Cape Canaveral setting. I’ve kept painting strawberries in all sorts of situations. I just enjoy them regardless of their significance. If there’s any meaning, it’s subconscious, but it’s primarily a visual thing.”

Rock images entered Almond’s art through his work, in 1968 and 1969, as a leaf painter and later as a “rock man” in the natural science division of the Oakland Museum, where he began making plaster casts of natural stones. “I was commuting to Oakland, and got turned on to billboards and the fantastic way they look at night,” Almond adds. Almond did his first large scale painting in 1967, and he has since done five others, including one 20-by-20-foot work in four panels that was directly inspired by the billboard format.

Unlike many artists associated with the visionary scene, Almond does not teach, supporting his work by odd jobs while his wife teaches at the de Young Museum. Almond says a major impulse behind his art is “the sheer joy of painting as an experience, a happening, like abstract expressionism. It really doesn’t matter what you do and how it comes, just watching colors and lines as they happen. It’s a trip.

“I’m not sure what I’m tuned into. I pick up a little bit from a lot of different things. A lot of my paintings relate to the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin. The only established order of thinking that makes sense to me right now is yoga. But more than yoga, I feel my art is my religion. It’s a search for cosmic consciousness, just as a yogi’s pursuit is through meditation, self-discipline, and postures. The art I do I feel is something good just because it’s fun to look at. It makes for good vibrations.”

Phillip Hocking, 31, is something of an anomaly even in an area wherein diversity of temperament seems to be a principal characteristic. He disavows any influence upon him or his work from drugs, the drug culture “or any of the values it espouses”; he dislikes rock, and disowns “a lot of rock related things” as “very gross, even obscene. There are a lot of unconscious forces being spewed up today which are strident and, if anything, debasing rather than uplifting. I’m a pretty Western type guy,” he adds. “It took me a long time to get interested in anything east of Turkey.”

Hocking’s art, however, is as mystical, beautiful, and “visionary” as it comes. His principal works are landscapes— — vast, open vistas of broadly generalized meadows, woods, hillsides, and distant mountains done in vivid oil paintings or in smaller watercolors of incredible delicacy, vibrancy, and glow. Sometimes his landscape views include the images of large roses or other arbitrarily placed symbolic figures derived from Hocking’s reading of Persian Sufi poetry and his study of Meher Baba.

But even his most ordinary landscapes project an intense visionary feeling. In contrast to the graphic sensibility that predominates in much visionary art, Hocking works in luminosities and atmospheres, his forms dissolving into a shimmer of light, space, and even heat: mass converted into energy.

Hocking was born and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, “dabbled” in art during high school, but spent the bulk of his pre-college studies as a math major. “I was very practically minded,” he says. “Almost by accident, I wound up at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where I took an undergraduate degree in advertising. I did a little commercial work, but it looked too high-pressure, so I got out.” After a stint in the reserves, Hocking returned to CCAC and received an M.F.A. in painting in 1964. He has been teaching at the Oakland college ever since.

Hocking’s first symbolic landscapes date from the latter part of 1968, coinciding with his introduction to religious and mystical literature, at first by way of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, later through the lectures of Krishnamurti and the writings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, finally arriving at Sufi literature and Meher Baba. Hocking cites one of Baba’s more familiar statements: “To penetrate into the essence of all being and significance, and to release the fragrance of that inner attainment for the guidance and benefit of others, by expressing in the world of forms, truth, love, purity, and beauty—this is the sole game which has any intrinsic and absolute worth.”

“That’s what art intends to do, and it’s what the visionaries have in common,” Hocking observes. “They are trying to turn art again into a medium for spiritual expression. In my case, art is the visual means of creating a story. The importance of content in painting disappeared during the eras of abstract expressionism and minimal art. Now we’re really kind of turning back, in a cyclical way, to a use of visual art as it was in the Renaissance or Middle Ages, not as an end in itself, but as an illustration of spiritual events or inner states of development. It is part of a general resurgence in non-intellectual responses to things, now that the machinery created by intellectual approaches is breaking down.”

Whether the sources happen to be mystical or more purely technical have no particular bearing on the ultimate meaning of the work, Hocking feels. “Anything that is beautiful provokes in a person a sort of exalted response, an aspiring toward higher things. This is Baba-related art.”

The work of Robert Moon, 29, represents the most literal translation of yoga into Bay Area visionary art. Much of his work of the past two years has revolved around a series called “Swami Vishnu” in which an androgynous male figure is depicted in various Yoga postures and juxtaposed in mysterious relationships with vast seas of swirling water, all done in remarkably sensitive drawings that are later translated into exquisite lithographs. The figures sometimes hang in suspended flight above remote expanses of rippling waves, sometimes float upside down beneath them; occasionally they are greatly enlarged in scale to fill an entire sky.

These images are not so far removed from “reality” as they might seem: Moon has been engaged in yoga for the last two years, and practices daily underwater in a swimming pool at his home in Woodacre, hyperventilating so he can remain submerged for three minutes without breathing and carrying a large rock to keep himself weighted near the bottom. “It’s a ritual. It has a beginning and an end, and the end is on the bottom. Most of my drawings are from direct experience with water and poses.”

Born in Portland, Oregon, Moon came to the Bay Area when he was 17, spent three years in the Army, then entered the San Francisco Art Institute, where he received a B.A. in painting and an M.A. in graphics. Two years out of school, Moon now teaches at both U.C.-Berkeley and Laney College in Oakland. Moon embarked on a series of three-dimensional prints— — cutouts and foldups that primarily depicted worms, turtles, and other animals in a format that was partly flat, partly projecting from the flat surface on the wall. “I was interested in placing a life form combined with inanimate matter.”

Moon later began printing on hand mirrors — —”the print became an object, unrelated to a flat surface”— — and at this time waterscape and landscape began to enter his work in a significant way.

“My mind began tripping on water— — the surface of water as a meeting of forces, where the air comes down and rests. Water has occupied me ever since. When I first got into yoga. I realized that my state of mind was related in some way to what happened with the water—a stillness, and at the same time a basic fluctuation. Water is an object that moves, but yet it doesn’t move. The only way I could express this was to do the figures in postures and then put them on the water. I didn’t realize why at first, it just seemed right. If I could make the drawings have a sound it would be an om, a tone, a sarod drone.”

Moon says he was “heavily involved” in the rock-drug scene when it first began surfacing around 1964. “But I’ve grown away from it. I don’t like rock anymore. It all sounds the same to me, it’s become popularized, and I feel it has grown kind of negative. I like positive music. I’m leaning now toward Detroit music— —black music has a life to it that rock misses.

“As an artist, you want to reflect what’s going down all around you, but I can’t get it into myself to be a social commentator,” Moon adds. “I can only relate to my environment by putting good or positive vibes into it, trying to show a good light even though things appear to be crumbling.”

The work of Michael Bowen, 32, forms an important link between contemporary visionary art and a visionary strain that began to emerge more than a decade ago in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the work of such artists as Bruce Conner, Robert LaVigne, Wally Berman, and John Reed.

As early as the late Fifties, Bowen was alternately painting dynamic, gestural abstract expressionist canvases, and spectral figures that seemed to emanate from halos and nimbuses of mystical light, humans and demons that grappled in battles that were as much mythological as psychological. He was an early practitioner of the “funk” collage, enshrining derelict objects, old photographs, and other discards haunted by decay and nostalgic associations, in and also of more finished montage techniques in which images from various sources were brought together in elaborately surrealistic allegories.

Bowen’s more recent work has strong overtones of Southeast Asian art and, particularly, of Tibetan painting. Ranging from drawings, silk-screen prints, and watercolor sketches to large oils on canvas and oil pastel on paper works, they are populated with more or less literal images of temples, golden cities, multi-limbed figures and one-eyed animals, sometimes drawn into mandala compositions, often accompanied by inscriptions and texts in flowing script of cryptic calligraphy. They radiate an uncanny, supernatural glow, as if the images were spun from auras of color and pure light. These visions are partly inspired by yoga meditation and discipline, and are partly an outgrowth of what Bowen calls “astro-traveling” induced by his first experiences with peyote and LSD.

Bowen physically visited Nepal three years ago, but he says, “When I went there I felt I was going back. When I first took peyote and LSD I experienced a transference of consciousness and the transference was both Tibetan and Mayan. I was writing mantras and other things that I knew nothing about. After visiting Nepal, I became aware that I’d been living a Tibetan life style without knowing it since I was 18 years old—sleeping close to the floor, sitting in a lotus position, with a sexual attitude that was open and tant-tric in the true Tibetan sense.”

Bowen’s life story is the stuff of which paperback novels are made. Born in L.A., he was sent to military school between the ages of seven and 16, when he ran away from his family to “make the Laurel Canyon scene.” For eight months, he lived with Edward Kienholz while studying nights at the Choinard Institute, and he also ran around with Berman — —”he gave me my first easel”— — John Reed, John Altoon, and other artists who centered around the old, avant-garde Ferus Gallery. “I was the kid who hung around all the big guys.”

When he was 17, Bowen married John Carradine’s wife, Sonia, and they took off to Virginia City, Nevada, with bigamy charges in hot pursuit; a year later, they ended up in San Francisco. Bowen and his first wife split shortly afterward, but he now has custody of their teenage son.

In San Francisco, Bowen plugged into the North Beach scene, which then included such figures as the sculptor Ron Boise, and Janis Joplin before her name meant anything. Bowen settled into a waterfront studio-loft with two other painters, Arthur Monroe and Michael McCracken, and the three took off on an intense painting trip. The California School of Fine Arts was still a major fountainhead of abstract expressionist painting in those days, but Bowen proceeded on an independent path. “I only used the school to steal paint,” he says.

Toward the end of the Fifties, Bowen met John Cook, who then was living in Carmel. “He was my only teacher—my really spiritual teacher,” Bowen says. “John introduced me to the Tarot, to magic in general, and this began my psychic experiences.”

Bowen has spent most of the last ten years traveling, in one form or another. “All of my work represents a symbolic journey into higher realms of consciousness, back through the illusion of time to the very first beginnings that are contained within our being,” he says. “The inner search is more important to me than the painting. Painting is a side effect of the search.”

Physically, Bown has circled the world several times, with repeat visits to Mexico, India, and Nepal. Psychologically — or psychically, depending on your point of view—Bowen says he has traveled through “a series of personality transferences” ever since his initial experience with LSD and peyote “in Muir Woods when I was 20.” In subsequent years, Bowen had sessions with Timothy Leary, but “Leary came later and he was part of the search itself.”

During these personality transfers, or “astro-flights,” Bowen says he has “viewed reality from the perspective of a high Tibetan incarnation—which I myself was, and am. At first, the transfered reality was both Tibetan and Mayan. But when I visited Mexico in 1965, I felt kinship with a dead past only.” Bowen says he spent a great deal of his Mexico trip “searching for the master of enlightenment” and eventually encountered an Indian who turned him on to the datura flower. “It was the first time I ever went completely out of my body. These experiences all became complete when I visited Nepal three years ago.”

Bowen’s inner search has included a great deal of extroverted catalytic activity that helped set in motion some of the more historic signposts of the psychedelic era in the middle Sixties. He helped launch the old Haight Street Oracle, “originally as a mouthpiece for Timothy Leary and his ideas,” and was one of the organizers of the first Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park.

Bowen’s current life-style embraces a strange combination of yoga, discipline and old-fashioned American hustle dedicated to supporting his art and a $600-a-month house across the boulevard from Yacht Harbor in San Francisco’s posh Marina district. Here Bowen lives with his wife, three children, and a variable group of members of an “artists’ ashram” which he has established, patterned after an ashram of 2,000 persons in Pondicherry that he has twice visited during his travels to India. Composed largely of scientists, artists, and writers, it was “an ideal mixture of science and art, a Utopia for artists.”

Bowen and the small group of artists who live with him observe the basic yoga principles of meditation, diet, abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and chemicals, disciplines which he regards as essential alternatives to his previous “one-shot occult experiences, which are dangerous; they can burn you out. Discipline, in this sense, is the exact opposite of its meaning in the West, a discipline of the inner spirit rather than regimentation imposed from without,” he adds. “The outside falls into place with the inner spirit, rather than the other way around.”

The ashram also serves as a kind of show and sales room for Bowen’s paintings. For the most part eschewing galleries, Bowen and his wife invite individuals or small groups of people to their house where Bowen’s paintings can be viewed, and sold, on a private, personal, informal basis. Bowen supplements income from his art with importing art objects during his trips to the Far East.

“I’ve had to shuck and jive my way around,” Bowen says. “But it’s a shuck and jive for the divine. Painting is a divine manifestation. I like to sell my paintings because it enables me to buy the time I need for the inner search.”

Bowen says the visions in his painting stem from two primary sources: Trances, and a form of meditation known as “tratak.” In this, one learns to focus the eye on the dot at the center of a mandala until it begins to work back through space and time to produce retinal illusions which, Bowen says, are duplicated more or less precisely in his paintings. “There’s a golden city over the hill, and beyond that the temple of the master. These are not just mythological images, but real things—the golden city of consciousness, the human eye turned on by light.

“The most important influence on my art is God, but there is no separation between God’s natural botanicals and God himself, or yourself,” Bowen adds. “The journey is to the here-and-now. The journey and the destination are identical. All true artists have been visionaries. They see in time.”

The group of 12 artists whose work has been considered in this survey could easily be extended. In the Bay Area itself is a score or more of other artists of great accomplishment or promise whose work in one way or another flows from the visionary impulse: Henry Sultan, Charles Greeley, Jennifer Badger, Carol Heineman, Cynthia Grace, Shiela Martin, Stan Padilla, Patricia Heryfeld, William Kirchner, Susan Kelk, Gail Fried, John Kessel and many more. There are visionary filmmakers — —Jordan Belson, Scott Bartlett, Bob Brannaman, Ben Van Meter — —and visionary photographers such as Tom Weir. The visionary sensibility extends back to the work of earlier San Francisco artists like Bruce Conner, Jess, Jay De Feo and Robert La Vigne, and is reaching ahead into a new generation of artists who are arriving at visionary forms of expression via a more direct route than the circuitous trip through abstract expressionism that forms the common background of most visionary artists now.

One could doubtless extend the list a great deal further in space — —Bowen says he has encountered visionary artists in the most remote parts of the world — —and in time, back through such artists as Blake, Grunewald, hosts of anonymous medieval illuminators and Persian miniaturists, and ultimately — —if Meher Baba’s teachings are correct — —to God Himself. The definition of “visionary” is, of course, hazy, and in many ways arbitrary, and it is probably best left that way. “Visionary art,” like art itself, is perpetually in a process of defining itself, and the “inner search” continually moves further on.

The one thing that seems sure is that these artists are all taking part in a greening of contemporary American art; as Buddhism, yoga, the thought of Pierre Teil-hard de Chardin and Meher Baba all represent parallel paths to the same ultimate destination, the various expressions of visionary aritsts all share common spiritual goals, and roots. Contemporary visionary art is perhaps best summarized in the words of Peter Di Gesu: “It’s a sort of collectivism, just like Impressionism was—a collective consciousness which each person manifests differently according to his personality and karma. In expressing your vision, you are simultaneously communicating. We’re all one.” 

Editor’s Note: Last in a three-part series

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