Sometimes it takes an Outsider artist to remind us how the unconscious serves not only as a powerful source of inspiration but the only source that results in truly compelling art
Ed Nelson (1907 – 92) was a recluse living in the foothills of Mount Hood in Oregon. In 1961 he experienced an epiphany that revealed the microcosm (atomic structure) as well as the macrocosm (the universe). Nelson recorded his observations with two distinctly different techniques and media as he plumbed the depths. The first he called “Photo Genetics.” Essential to the process were his “sacred stardust” pigments, the sources for which were rocks and minerals gathered at U.F.O. landing sites on his secluded mountain property. His ritual was to roam about after midnight to determine which spots were emitting magnetic energies. As he began to paint, the atomic particles of his stardust would release their unique images on paper, reacting to the fluxes in the magnetic fields of the land. Night after night, under the ritual’s numinous force, he would work in a trance-like state, appearing to drift off into an oneiric never-never land. He called himself a reporter of “Worlds from Outer Space” and clarified that “These pictures are of the worlds of Tomorrow, with the design and creation of the mightiest of atoms.”
Whereas “Photo Genetics” explored the magnetic life of the atomic microcosm, Nelson’s second technique—“Sentra Photo Thesis”—revealed the relationship between those atoms and all the planets. These works were drawn and painted in watercolor by direct observation from his vantage point in outer space, which he reached via astral projection. He accomplished this with the aid of an invention he called the “anyzager,” an “instrument of truth.” It was with this “same instrument that God can see all things upon the earth below.” Accordingly, his viewpoint was looking down toward the top of the world from the “empyrean,” a heavenly realm controlled by magnetic light. Nelson believed that God had granted him a special otherworldly gift to see true views of the atoms, the earth, and the planets.
Tom Blodgett (1940 – 2013), another artist in Oregon, was deep-diving into the unconscious from a different springboard. Blodgett was academically trained and drew mystical concepts of the figure with his extraordinary drawing skills. This is the tricky part; whenever art historians are confronted with artwork that is difficult to categorize it is conveniently referred to as “idiosyncratic.” Such works are outside most comfort zones. Neither illustrative nor abstract, they draw upon a primal unconsciousness. Owing to his interest in mysticism, Blodgett could easily be seen as a successor to Morris Graves and the Northwest School of Visionary Art. But today the very word, “visionary,” evokes New Age artists producing a plethora of psychedelic illustration based upon Far Eastern Tantric Buddhism. Blodgett’s transformative figurativism could also easily be mislabeled as Magic Realism or a New Romanticism like that of Pavel Tchelitchew, who rendered the human body without its skin; or, Ivan Albright, who focused on its decay. However, Blodgett was less concerned with transforming how things looked in this world than with expressing images that had been tapped from his unconscious, his dreams, and his demons. In this regard the boldness of his approach is closer to the intense surrealism-expressionism of Schiele, Soutine, and Kokoshka. And spiritually he was more aligned with the mysticism of Mondrian, Munch, and Kandinsky—whose paths to the unconscious influenced Americans Marsden Hartley, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and Jackson Pollock.
Blodgett most closely related to Van Gogh—tortured and rejected but steadfastly pursuing his art. A charismatic (and alcoholic) college instructor, he quit before he could be fired, and then taught privately. A prolific writer, he left behind thousands of pages offering rare glimpses into a life dedicated to his plunge into the unconscious.
To his students, for whom he had become a cult-like leader, he stressed “ART is not you. ART is not self-expression. ART is not here to remind you of anything. ART is about what you could become.” The master cautioned, “We are responsible for Reality. We don’t make it. It makes us. We make Art and artwork teaches us what a responsibility Reality truly is.” Intolerant of slavish copyists, he exhorted them to “grab greatness out of the air like a juggler.” He was highly confident of his drawing ability, but frustrated over his students’ inabilities to tap their unconscious. He finally drove them away: “If you don’t expect me to be you, then I won’t make you look silly by expecting you to be me.” For the last decade of his life he was a hermit living with wildlife in a small cottage engulfed within a jungle of bamboo and producing an astonishing body of work.