Visionary Art: In a Process of Defining Itself
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.”
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