Tuesday Mar 18, 2003

Acid Dreams

When I was living in Brentwood, California, an artist friend who had worked with Oscar Janiger on a book had invited me to meet the well-known psychiatrist.

Oscar was a pioneer in the study of LSD’s potential for liberating the intellect and creativity. He gave LSD to some 1,000 volunteers (1954-1962) before it was made illegal. Oscar was interested in how LSD juiced up creativity, raised consciousness, and for its value as a tool in therapy.

Oscar had a comfortable home in the Santa Monica Canyon area and one of the largest personal libraries I had seen—nearly 20,000 volumes and he seemed to know the location of every title.

On this night, it was pouring in Southern California.

I met Oscar. He shook my hand and then said to us: “Let’s go.”

My artist friend and I followed him down the street as the hard rain fell. We made it to a building that housed the large and leaky studio of an artist of some note. I learned that Oscar and this other artist would invite about a dozen or so artists over and hire a shapely model. I had my color pencils with me and joined in. After a while the model got up to stretch her legs. She came over to me and looked at my pad. “Oh, you abstract artists. You don’t need models,” she said.

“Look closer,” I said. “and let your eyes relax.”

“Oh, my God. I do see my body inside all of that stuff,” she yelped.

Oscar had incorporated LSD into his therapy using guided sessions for several notable volunteers including Anais Nin, Aldous Huxley, Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson. Although Oscar wasn’t an artist, he had a remarkable understanding of art. He was particularly interested in the ability of artists to access a state of altered consciousness using this “creativity pill” called LSD.

Oscar took LSD a number of times and it showed him that many things were possible. During the days before LSD became illegal in 1966, he had patients who took part in a creativity experiment. He asked them to paint or draw an American Indian Kachina Doll before taking the LSD and then again one hour after taking it. Some 250 works of art were created during those sessions.

In 1988, he co-founded the Albert Hofmann Foundation, a nonprofit organization, originally chartered to preserve the earliest records of psychedelic activity.

I had seen Oscar a few times after our initial introduction on that rainy night. One evening, I had shown him some of my art. He looked and shook his head as if he understood something.

Then, one afternoon, he called and said he had some paperwork to do at the Hofmann Foundation and asked whether I’d like to see the art he had there. I jumped into my car, picked him up, and we were off. As we were driving down a busy street, he said, pull in there, pointing to a strip mall.

“In there?” I said.

“Yeah, it’s on the second floor. We didn’t want anything conspicuous.”

He had definitely succeeded.

Once inside, he showed me around. There were some Kachina dolls on display. He went to a drawer and pulled out a few portfolios.

“Here, take a look,” he said.

I sat down, and I did look at the art experiments of all those years ago. All the before and after pieces of art: without LSD and then with. Some of the volunteers had been artists, but most were not. All the pieces done during LSD were definitely much looser and expressive. Perception had definitely undergone some liberating alteration. After a couple of hours, we got ready to leave.

“You see,” he said.

“I do.”

Oscar didn’t ask me what I saw, and I didn’t’ say what either. It was palpable that something good had happened.

He locked up, and we drove away from the strip mall toward Santa Monica.»

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