Meet Chris Isner - the man who turned his ayahuasca visions into art
Ayahuasca ceremonies can, without doubt, be life-changing. Many of you Avalon Magic Plants readers have already experienced the wonders of this Amazonian brew. It was also during one of those ayahuasca ceremonies that Chris Isner had a vision of an ancient woodworking technique - a technique he now uses to transform peoples visions into extraordinary pieces of art. We had the opportunity to have a chat with Chris about how his creative life came to be and why it was ayahuasca that, ultimately, changed his life as well.
"I had never carved wood before, but in that first ceremony I watched as a primordial woodworking technique was performed in one of my visions. It was like a YouTube tutorial, very detailed, but from a very distant past."
Hi Chris, can you tell us a bit about how you got interested in art before your ayahuasca experience?
I've always had fiddly hands and an obsessive disposition, so I suppose I was doomed to be an artist from the start, but I never really got anywhere with it. Seriously, I can't sit still without something for my hands to play with, which didn't work out too well in school; I just did a lot of drawing instead of paying attention in class. I do remember a kindergarten field trip to the sculpture ranch of a mad Finnish sculptor named Eino. He made these monumental stone carvings and I knew then that that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, but that dream got lost over the years.
Seems to me there is only one reason to make art, work made for any other being that of a dilettante: lack of choice—for whichever reason—always speaks of a madness, which is power. Power is the ability to do something, synonymous with energy in physics: the capacity of a body or system to do something…a potential, which is ultimately information. This is all there is. This is all there is. This is all there is.
Was ayahuasca the first psychedelic you tried, or did you have any experience with other kinds before, such as magic mushrooms or mescaline?
I tripped on acid and mushrooms when I was a kid, who didn't? Such trips inevitably shape our conceptions of reality but now I see them in a completely different light after working within ancient lineages of practice. So much more can be accomplished, and I say that knowing that I’ve only scratched the surface of inconceivably profound learning. I definitely look forward to mushroom ceremonies with Mazatec shamans and peyote ceremonies with Huichol shamans, taking otherwise amazing enthoegenic experiences to exponentially greater levels.
Indigenous shamans are not just glorified trip-sitters; they perform wonders and master depths of knowledge that we westerners don't even know exist…perhaps can't know exist because we were formed within a completely different cognitive paradigm. A paradigm shift seems necessary to even begin to recognize curanderismo as the highly advanced science that it is.
With Maestra Estele Pangoza at Aya Madre Healing Center, Peru
Carving the jungle
You create some amazing pieces of art that are influenced by these ayahuasca experiences. Can you tell our readers about the first time you took this medicine?
Thank you. Backstory is that I was in a grim place in my life, living solely on the patronage of a great man and great friend, Tajai Massey, an architect and also a rapper with Hieroglyphics and Souls of Mischief, who took me in off the street and probably saved my life.
It was actually Haitian Vodou that got me started on my journey, something I have been fascinated with since childhood. At the house Tajai gave me to live in for several years, I had been obsessively drawing veves for some time, I guess trying to manifest their power into my otherwise powerless existence. Veves are the symbols of the Lwa, the elemental entities of Vodou, known as Orishas in other African Traditional Religions. Tajai noticed me doing this and put me in touch with another great man, his friend and sometime musical colleague, Adimu Madyun, aka WolfHawkJaguar. Adimu put me in touch with yet another great man, his babalawo, Baba Yagbe Onilu, who performed some divination readings for me. It occurred to me that ancient traditional technology might just work for me as well.
Someone then loaned me Narby's book, The Cosmic Serpent, and I was hooked. It developed into an all-consuming obsession: I just had to get to Peru and drink ayahuasca! It took a solid year of scraping and scrounging and skipping a lot of meals, but I finally got there and was incredibly fortunate to fall in with some extraordinarily powerful Shipibo curanderos. That first ceremony changed my life. I desperately needed a game-changer and I got one.
What about the whole experience was it that gave you new insights about art and your newfound ideas about woodworking?
I had never carved wood before but in that first ceremony I watched as a primordial woodworking technique was performed in one of my visions. It was like a YouTube tutorial, very detailed, but from a very distant past. The Voice told me that my ancestors were living in caves at that time.
This technique is 90% of my work. Honestly, my carving is extremely rough and amateurish—a real woodcarver would laugh at it—and then would come the mind-numbing process of finishing, countless hours of sanding and polishing. But with this technique, all of that labor is eliminated. Weeks of monotonous finishing work is done in an hour, magically transforming the piece into something wondrous right before my eyes. And I can't wait to begin the next piece.
If you look at my instagram page, all of that work—literally tons of work, a lifetime's worth of work—was created in just a few short years. It almost looks like I'm not a lazy bastard at all but I am! I would never even dream of doing this work without that finishing shortcut. I just don’t have the patience.
A recent survey found that over half of all ayahuasca users see some kind of entity when having an ayahuasca trip. Did you experience the same and did it influence your trip in any way?
Yep! I sat gaping goggle-eyed at the lead curandero singing over me, vomit drool hanging from my lip, his song blasting my mind apart, and he wasn't a man at all but an enormously serpentine undulation studded with a thousand kaleidoscopic eyes!
Someone had told me that when you see snakes, you can tell them what to do and they'll do it. I somehow remembered this and told that anaconda entity to show me what to do with my life. After that, I saw the woodworking vision. Coincidence? But I could have so easily missed it by being distracted by the…joyous terror of it all! Yes, that’s what it is, joyous terror.
Now I have a whole gang of snake friends that come to me in ceremony whenever I call them and they do whatever I tell them: they take me where I want to go, show me what I want to see, clean away anything I don’t like. I fucking love those guys.
A lot of your artwork contain faces. Are these images you have actually seen yourself during your experience, or do you apply the technique to new thought-of images as you go?
There were legions of faces morphing through the fractal ooze, I do remember that, but I'm not sure where the faces I carve come from. I was told they could be my ancestors, who knows? Maybe they’re actual spirits. Of course, I don't believe in such things because they are absurd to my western mind, but I also have no doubt whatsoever about such realities existing because that has been my distinct experience. I am oddly comfortable with such a glaring contradiction.
But back to my process…really, it’s just a rolling series of incompetence. I start with an idea and I immediately fuck it up and it goes off in another direction, which I immediately fuck up, etc. etc. I think the difference between artists and craftsmen is one of competence, the craftsman being able to competently execute an idea, which is its own creative prison, while the artist is liberated by incompetence and the learning (and gray hair) that comes with making millions of mistakes.
I pretty much just check out mentally when I carve, my mind drifting, while I watch my hands work, amazed at what is happening.
At first, I just carved bowls like I had seen in my vision—hundreds of bowls—and tried to scratch a living selling them at flea markets. Then I started carving pipes with the faces I had seen—hundreds of pipes. One day, I had a Eureka moment and decided to carve a face into a bowl.
I now know that we cannot work for a living. We can only work for a working and we must live for a living. Doing what we love isn’t work, its life! True, this means we will suffer, but we're all going to suffer in life anyway, so we might as well suffer for what we love rather than suffer jobs we hate.
I am still trying to break the habit of saying “work". It’s not work, it’s art. I am not going to work, I'm going to carve! I’m going to create!
Maestro Wiler Noriega Rodrígues
Do you ever get crazy, funny or memorable commission requests? And if so, can you tell us about one that really stands out?
One guy wanted a shrine to the mother of demons, Lilith. He wanted a very sexually explicit piece and was very exact about its elements. The email exchanges discussing how many cocks would go into which holes was comedy gold. He was really into it, just the 30mm ruby sphere he sent to me cost $500. In the end, he was somewhat satisfied with the piece.
I do love creating pagan shrines for people, imagining and half-believing that the gods are speaking through my hands lol. I end up researching their belief systems and learning so much. Last year, I carved a big Odin piece and lugged it all over Iceland before presenting it to Hilmar Hilmarsson, the high priest of the Ásatrúarfélagið, the big heathen congregation there. They're building the first pagan temple in Iceland in over a thousand years. HoYee Wong and I were married in traditional ceremony on the temple grounds.
Isner/Wong Wedding – Ásatrúarfélagið Hof, Reykjavík, Iceland
Have you used ayahuasca more often since that first experience? If so, have new experiences changed your technique in the last couple of years?
Oh yeah, many times. It’s a calling. I've been back to Peru a couple times since, as well as ceremonies when I go to Costa Rica, and here in California (I'm a Californian, not an American.) I live in Oakland where entheogens have been decriminalized.
Last year in Peru, bufo medicine found me. I can only describe it as The Ultimate Experience, yet I feel absolutely no need to do it again. But with ayahuasca, I can't wait to get back to the jungle!
My wonderful Shipiba maestra is Estele Pangoza, owner of Aya Madre Healing Center outside of Iquitos. It is the only 100% female Shipibo-owned retreat center in Peru. This is a significant achievement. I have found that I learn so much more on my maestra's land surrounded by her family. It’s like home.
The Arkana Spiritual Center, with locations in the jungle outside of Iquitos and in the Sacred Valley, is another great destination. The maestros with Arkana are mostly all from the famous Maestra Justina Cerrano family. I went to their village of Vencedor with Arkana's owner, Jose Saenz. It is a grueling twelve-hour speedboat ride from Pucallpa, deep, deep in the jungle.
When I showed Maestra Justina and her husband, Maestro Cesár, video of me screaming through my bufo ceremony, oh, they laughed their asses off! Justina started calling me Huala, which is apparently a big jungle toad that screams like that.
In Costa Rica, Soltara Healing Center is the place to go, the only place in CR with Shipibo curanderos. I had a ceremony on the beach there one time with Soltara's owner, Dan Cleland, which was epic!
Dan ruthlessly pushed me out of my comfort zone by purchasing a massive, two meter-tall slab of wood for me to carve. I tried to weasel my way out of it, but Dan wasn't having any of that and he insisted, forcing me to create my most ambitious piece yet.
I had a third-eye-opening experience while carving that piece. I was carving out its third eye vortex with a 25,000 rpm diegrinder, when it kicked back hard and smacked me right between the eyes…giving me my own third eye vortex! The Tico builders must have thought I was insane, walking by laughing like a maniac with blood running down my face. I rubbed some honey in it and went back to work with a splitting headache. Who’s the badass Spirit Warrior then, eh? Eh??
La Madre Ayahuasca at Soltara Healing Center, Costa Rica
A lot of people are experimenting with microdosing ayahuasca. Is this something you would try to expose yourself to new ideas and perhaps techniques?
I've thought about microdosing ayahuasca, or even pure vine brew, if nothing else than as a preventative measure. Harmala alkaloids shut down angiogenesis and cause beta-cell genesis, among many other things. Try googling: “harmine angiogenesis" and “harmine beta cells". Or microdose it just for mental and emotional health.
Actually, I also owe my career to mushrooms. After that first trip to Peru, I began a six-month shroom microdosing regimen which really allowed me to just put my head down and carve day after day without being paralyzed by depression and anxiety.
You see, when I had my woodworking vision, I knew right away that I would never work a job again no matter what, and I knew that meant I would suffer. And I did suffer: fear, doubt, insecurity, deprivation, living dirt poor in a dilapidated back yard shack. In the past, that would have been a recipe for disaster. I would have completely shut down in that state and wound up in rehab again, but the mushrooms allowed my mind to operate in the present moment, working on tasks that I set for it, rather than drifting in the past and future constructs of its own making.
It seems to me that whenever the mind is allowed to operate too long and too often in states of non-reality, dysfunction ensues. We assume that brain chemistry dictates thinking, emotion and behavior, but I think it’s quite the opposite. Allowing the untended mind to trip on its past and future constructs all the time, which are states of non-reality, actually creates depressed and anxious brain chemistry. I think entheogens in general tend to anchor the mind in the present where it is optimally suited as a tool to accomplish whatever we want, harnessed and put to strict use.
After all, the mind gets to play as much as it wants for a full 1/3 of our lives while we sleep.
What are some of the current projects you have been working on?
I just finished a big Mapachero. I've carved a lot of shamanic tools this year, pipes and rapé applicators, also quite a few pieces for my friends in the Vodou and Ifá communities, including some drums. I traded a big piece for some ceremonies. I’ve also been making “perk” works for a fundraiser to benefit Maestra Estele and her community.
The next piece is for a young man who owns a great CBD Company (Element Health Supply), we're loving his products. I’m actually carving his tattoos, an idea I really love. Our ink is just so personal to us.
I most enjoy carving people’s visions. Something amazing happens, like a visionary synergy, and it just flows through my hands. Of course, I never know what it'll end up being, but that discovery is the fun of it.
Stoned Ape Theory for Aubrey Marcus, CEO of ONNIT. His vision gave him the idea for gorilla kettlebells.
Mapachero – 27” x 20” x 3.5" salvaged redwood and quartz crystal
Vision Commission (also with Maestro Wiler)
Stoned Ape Pipe
Where can our readers find you online?
I'm always happy to pack my tools and jump on a plane. Just find a slab of wood for me and we'll do something great. Because that’s it, isn’t it…that’s why we're here, to do great things. Great women and great men do great things. Having the courage to expand our consciousness is Great Things. We may not feel like great men and women all the time, but I assure you that we are.Back