Bryan Saunders: portrait of the artist on crystal meth
Johnson City, Tennessee, is a long way from bustling, well-to-do Nashville, a five-hour trip by car. The man I’ve come to visit, Bryan Saunders, lives on the fourth floor of a housing project called the John Sevier Centre. It was once a fancy hotel, back in the 1920s, then a home for the elderly. Sixteen people died in a fire here on Christmas Eve 1989. Nowadays it’s so insalubrious that each apartment is fitted with a loudspeaker. Every few hours they burst into life: “In five minutes we will be testing the fire alarm system…”
"Jesus!" I say the first time it happens. "It’s like being in prison."
"It’s intrusive," Bryan smiles. He’s happy to see me startled. "They say stuff all day sometimes."
"Who lives here?" I ask.
"Mentally and physically disabled veterans," he says, "unemployed people. You can live here for $18 a month."
"Can it be a dangerous building?" I ask him.
"Not from fire any more," he says. "Nowadays they have sprinklers everywhere. If someone burns their toast, there’s three fire trucks here in 10 minutes. But people die here and it’s mysterious. The police don’t advertise why and it’s just creepy. That’s why I picked an apartment that’s not so high up. I can throw my sketchbooks out of the window if I have to."
"How many journalists have come to interview you here over the years?" I ask.
"You’re the first," Bryan says.
"The first ever?" I say.
"Yeah," Bryan says. He looks a little melancholy. "Nobody," he says.
Bryan is an artist. For the past 17 years he’s been sitting in this room – or somewhere like it – drawing a self-portrait or two every day. “I’ve done 8,700,” he says. “Every day is different. Like snowflakes and DNA and fingerprints, no two are the same.”
The thing is, 50 of these 8,700 self-portraits have lately become very famous – celebrated all over the world, with millions of Google hits and aforthcoming exhibition alongside Damien Hirst at the influential Maison Rouge gallery in Paris. They’re the 50 he drew while he was on drugs. Each was created under the influence of a different substance, from marijuana and cocaine through lighter fluid and “bath salts" – "They’re what everybody says are causing people to eat each other’s faces" – to prescription pills with names like Cephalexin and Risperdal. In fact, most of the 50 were prescription pharmaceuticals. “That’s the popular thing today,” Bryan says. He says he hates drugs but feels obliged to try new ones, “just for the drawing”.
Bryan Saunders paints self-portraits under the influence of every drug he can find, from Valium to lighter fluid by way of Xanax and meth. He used to be an outsider artist. Soon he’ll be exhibiting alongside Damien Hirst in Paris.