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  • Writer's pictureRua Fay

Interview with Artist, Bryan Lewis Saunders

This week I had the privilege of interviewing artist, author, and performer, Bryan Lewis Saunders, most known for his series Under The Influence and his collection of over 13,000 self portraits. To be able to speak to someone whose work I have admired for years was truly a humbling experience. During our time together we discussed the art world, film, artificial intelligence, NFTs, drugs and his documentary, Art of Darkness.

Rua: "Good afternoon, Mr. Saunders. First I’d like to talk about your documentary Art of Darkness from 2014 with David Parker. Was that the first time you’ve ever been approached to do a biographical film like that?"

Saunders: "Yeah, I think so and I thought they were DEA agents, I didn't think they were really filmmakers they didn't have like a CV with a bunch of films and stuff and at the time I was getting a lot of drugs in the mail from all over the world and I thought for sure that it was a sting operation. So I met them in public at a pizza restaurant and I had my girlfriend Nicole come with me in case they tried to entrap me, I was certain they were going to try to convince me to do some kind of psychedelics on camera and then arrest me for drugs or something like that. It might sound really crazy but a long time ago there was a bombing at the Olympic Park in Atlanta and the guy, Richard Jewell that saw this suspicious backpack or bomb reported it to the police and then by the time the police had gotten all of these people out of the way the bomb exploded, and then the FBI said to this good samaritan: 'you did such a great job helping find this bomb, can you come to the FBI headquarters we want to make a training video for FBI agents on how to see what you saw.' And he said 'sure' and he thought that he was going to be in this kind of documentary and then the next thing you know they were interrogating him like he was the suspect. So I thought this is what they were doing to me because so many people were sending me these strange drugs in the mail unannounced, I thought they were setting me up or something."

Rua: "Have you been approached to do anything like that since?"

Saunders: "Yeah, there's a new movie that just came out a month ago on Youtube, a documentary by Blind Dweller. I like it better than Art of Darkness, it's a lot more informative and I trusted the person who made it a lot more than the Canadians. He interviewed me but then didn't use very many of my answers and epiphanies from experiments and stuff, he didn't say anything about any of those. And then at the end he sort of used the moral of Art of Darkness for his movie. He just kind of copied Art of Darkness at the very end instead of using the things I told him about."

Rua: "So I got around to reading your book, Interviews Vol. 1 and early on you mentioned turning down an interview from a major magazine because they asked you what your favorite color was?"

Saunders: Oh yeah, Maxim I think, they were like 'if you could sleep with anyone in the world who would it be?' and stupid questions at the time and my ex girlfriend said 'you should say your father just to mess with them.'"

Rua: "That really would've stuck it to them though!"

Saunders: "Yeah, probably!"

Rua: "I'm curious, have you done your self portrait for today?"

Saunders: "Kind of, I just got an invite for that AI image generator, DALL-E. What you do is you type in texts, prompts, and it shows you what you want to see and it generates the image based on your words."

Rua: "Oh, yes I've definitely seen that around."

Saunders: "So I typed in 'pencil drawing in the style of Bryan Lewis Saunders of Bryan Lewis Saunders getting a migraine headache,' it honestly looks like something I could've drawn."

Rua: "It kind of looks like Carl from Up, or Walter White."

Saunders: "I'm probably going to add onto it and just use it as a starting point but I'm really surprised by it."

Rua: "Speaking of digital art, there's been a lot of debate this past year about the function and ethics of NFTs, do you have any thoughts on that?"

Saunders: "Yeah, I don't like NFTs at all, it's a way to make money not make art. People still make the same art so there's nothing creative about NFTs, the only thing creative about them is a way to make money which has nothing to do with art so I don't really care for it. I do like the idea of keeping a digital record like a blockchain but it's so inefficient that it's not really that helpful. And of course you hear stories all the time of people stealing them and losing them, getting them lost on hard drives and stuff like that. It's not the same as having something tangible at all but for the digital artists they think 'well now we can finally make money' but the point of making art is different than making money so I don't care too much about it. There's a lot of people upset right now about this AI image generator because they think it's all plagiarism. Like if the computer is compiling millions of other images to create a new one, some people that's stealing their art but I think that's a super weak argument."

Rua: It always makes me so sad whenever I see an artist I respect get into NFTs like Marina Abromović or Damien Hirst, those ones hurt.

Saunders: "Yeah, I don't think about them too much but just about two weeks ago somebody made NFTs of my art without my permission and was auctioning off. I had to complain to Opensea about it and then they took them all down but by that point I think 10 or 11 of them had already sold."

Rua: "That's funny that there's people blatantly stealing your work because you've mentioned before that you have no intention of ever selling your portraits to keep them a full, concise set."

Saunders: "Yeah but that changed, I found out rich people are really...devilish. Like if I were to die and those portraits were all together, I found out that a corrupt rich person could do whatever they want with them so I ended up selling some here and there or doing special ones on occasion, so there's no way someone could really own them all. Three times my art has been ruined by rich people, I did a whole series on psychological tests and so for one test I had ten different test cards and I did therapy on top of the test cards and then this rich person will buy the whole test but then sell pieces of it so it becomes worthless because then someone qualified of reading the psychology tests won't have access to them. I choose not to mess with people like that."

Rua: "I've always found it strange that so often rich people will try to obtain art that is so clearly not for them. Like do you remember that Banksy painting that shredded itself as soon as it was auctioned off? It's like with NFTs, people are so obsessed with owning something."

Saunders: 'Yeah, I had a gallery in Tel Aviv for a while and one thing I learned was that a rich person doesn't need to know anything about art or business to open up a gallery, they only need money. They just have money and can open up whatever business they want and can peer pressure their friends into buying into it."

Rua: "that sort of leads into my next question. As a film student there's a huge debate as to whether or not you need probably schooling to be successful in the field and I'm just wondering about your thoughts on that in terms of the art world?"

Saunders: "I think you do yeah, you don't really see anyone who's well known that don't have like a masters degree. There's probably a few that only have bachelors degrees. There might be some outsider artists like graffiti artists who don't but in terms of fine arts you really won't see people be world renowned without a degree. I don't think Basquiat went to college but then again it's extremely, extremely rare."

Rua: "I suppose why your art has resonated with me is because I'm someone who has struggled with mental health issues and in your book of interviews you mentioned that you refused to continue an interview because they labeled you as 'mentally ill,' could you tell me more about that?"

Saunders: "Yeah that was NPR, All Things Considered I think was the show, I just hung up on them because they clearly just wanted to pigeon hole me. They said 'obviously you have mental problems' but I wanted to talk about my art and my experiments but they just wanted to talk about mental illness. I felt like they just kept rewording the same question over and over like 'what are you on?' 'What's wrong with you?' I just ended up hanging up on them."

Rua: "Do you believe audiences have a responsibility to view art that makes them uncomfortable?"

Saunders: "Hmm...I would like that to be the case but I don't think American audiences believe that. There's all these trigger warnings now where people sort of announce things that might upset people, like when I was doing spoken word performances people would ask if I was going to do a trigger warning and I didn't really know what that was and then I'd just never do it. I remember when I was in Texas, there was. performer right before me and she said "my pieces are going to be about sex abuse and prison and rape and lesbian relationships in prison" and she kept listing all these things but when she got to the poem it didn't have any of that stuff in it. And after she said all these things she went around to each person in the audience and said 'this is a safe space' and it just made me really uncomfortable seeing this. So when I had finished my performance, some people had told me that she and one other person was really freaking out, and they thought she was going to try to interfere with or stop my performance. I believe you should never have a trigger warning when you do performance because you establish expectations for what's gonna happen and you'll probably end up disappointing a lot of people. I don't believe in it I think you should just say what you have to say. Some people try to be offensive and shocking on purpose, I used to do that but I always had a reason for it, not just shocking for shocking's sake. This is the best example, one time 'd written a poem about overweight girls sucking dick to be accepted and I was really graphic about it because it was something I was all the time growing up. So I wrote this whole poem about it, and there were some overweight girls at my performance and this group of skinny girls in the front kept laughing at the overweight people. But then afterwards the overweight girls came up to me and said "don't ever stop talking about that, people need to know about that." Then I wrote a whole other story about this time I saw a girl behind a donut shop offer $38 to anyone who could break her jaw because she wanted doctors to wire her mouth shut so she couldn't eat. And there was a line of drunk men just punching her in the jaw. After that performance they banned me from that venue. But I still will not do a trigger warning, I will just tell people what's happening."

Rua: "Do you remember any specific media that influenced you as a child?"

Saunders: "Oh man, the first paintings that ever influenced grandparents sent me to a drawing class when I was like 4 or 5, and this teacher had all these paintings of brown paper grocery bags that were wrinkled in different ways, and that must've had a huge impression on me, seeing the same bag with different wrinkles and shadows, I think that made a big, subconscious impact on me. Another painting...was when my mom took me to France and Spain when I was about 5 and there was a painting of...I forget which saint but he was being flayed alive and that gave me nightmare, I think that definitely made an impression on me. Go-Go music from Washington DC and punk rock also made a huge impression on me."

Rua: "I'm curious, what is your favorite movie?"

Saunders: "Let's see...It's not really a movie it's a series of videos but George Kuchar did this series called Weather Diaries where every summer he would go to a small town and videotape himself in a small hotel or videotape the weather or videotape the TV talking about the weather...have you ever heard of this?"

Rua: "No, I don't think I have."

Saunders: "Oh my god it's so incredible, he has these big romantic movie scores so it'll be like him recording a tornado warning on TV or filming out the window when there are leaves blowing but there's all this classical's really hard to describe but it's just a beautiful thing. This filmmaker Joe Gibbons is the artist who videotaped himself robbing a bank with a barbie doll and a camcorder (Barbie's Audition). Joe Gibbons is one of the best filmmakers, he's really a visionary in a way because he made confessional films before there was like reality TV, he did this one film called Confessions of a Sociopath where he would shoplift art books from book stores, sell them back, not pay his bills, talk to bill collectors and just engage in all this dangerous behavior. I also love Werner Herzog kind of films and some of the Harmony Korine films."

Rua: "The last thing I like to ask all my guests is of course, what is your favorite swear word?"

Saunders: "My favorite swear word...oh gosh...I don't know I use them all. I probably say 'shit' more than anything else but I really don't know. Actually...Jesus penis!"

Rua: "Okay well, Mr. Saunders thank you so so much for doing this, I've been a fan for so long so thanks for your time."

Saunders: "No problem thanks for talking to me! Have a great day!"

Being able to interview Bryan Lewis Saunders was truly a unique and exciting opportunity and I'd like to thank him once again for his time. I learned so much about visual arts from our time together. To support Mr. Saunders, please visit, check out David Parker's documentary: Art of Darkness, and Blind Dweller's video essay: The Extraordinary Self Portraits of Bryan Lewis Saunders.

Once again, thank you so much for supporting!

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