During an Ayahuasca ceremony, Chris Isner received clear instructions about an ancient woodworking technique that he now uses to record his and his client’s visions into unique wood sculptures. His work fascinates and everybody asks what materials he is using. It’s hard to believe it’s just wood but as a conscious human being Chris is not using any wood – but only reclaimed “guilt-free” wood.
Chris Isner loves his work and has already created some astonishing pieces that you can see in detail on his website at http://isnervision.com. But his best work are commissioned pieces where the synergy of two minds can produce breath-taking results. We had the opportunity to sit down with Chris and we invite you to dive in the life of one person whose life was positively impacted by Ayahuasca and psychedelics. His work stands proof.
Chris – your work is amazing – can you tell our readers more about what you were doing before you had any Ayahuasca experience?
Thanks. I had been living for a few years in a free house in West Oakland provided by my friend and patron, Tajai Massey of Hieroglyphics and Souls of Mischief fame. Tajai had rescued me from a horrible Rastafarian Boer veggie-diesel mechanic with a dreadlocks combover who had taken me in after a stretch of homeless wandering post-rehab and was ruthlessly exploiting my labour. At Tajai’s, I was doing large tattooed pieces on ghetto-scavenged plywood with this gratuitously over-sized tattoo machine I made that was beefy enough to dig into wood. I made iteration after iteration of a scorpion madonna entity veve I had contracted through a scorpion neurotoxin injection whilst riding a hollow log in the Gulf of Mexico just off the wild North Yucatán coast.
How did you end up being interested in Ayahuasca?
Someone loaned me Narby’s book, The Cosmic Serpent, and I was hooked. I began researching, watching documentaries, and became singularly obsessed to the exclusion of all else which seems to be quite a common experience. Of course, I later learned that this was the medicine calling to me.
Did you have any experience with other psychedelics before?
When I was much younger, beginning as a teenager, who didn’t? While such psychedelic trips can do nothing other than shape our conceptions of reality and reveal basic truths, without the expertise of dedicated practitioners, there’s just so much wasted potential and blind floundering. We wonder what may have been had we discovered curanderismo much earlier, no?
Did psychedelics influence your work before?
Well, if you consider Scorpion neurotoxin as a psychedelic, and you might! I was giddy all day, dreamy for weeks, writing magical realist poetry quite out of character for me. Better than molly. In fact, I kept that big black scorpion in a jar by my bed, feeding it giant crickets, and there were times when I was tempted, my pinky finger poised just out of striking range….ah, but I chickened out, it’s just so damn painful! It was a trap, you know. I had spied a hollow log riddled with woodpecker holes lapped in the surf, spouting delightfully from every hole with each wave.
So, I pushed it into deeper water to push it home and make a fountain out of it. While playing on it, riding and rolling on it, SHE emerged all wet and amorous and gave me a little kiss on the tip of my pinky finger. It was hysterically funny, just imagine the tableau: just me, the log and the scorpion in the sea, no one else around for miles, just a vast mangrove lagoon past the beach filled with crocodiles, flamingos and feral dogs, the jungle’s expanse past that, jaguars, and the scorpion chasing me up and down the length of the log all the way home because I was higher, dryer ground! You see, no one else for hundreds of miles would have been so enamoured by that spouting log to ride it in the sea, just me. Such a brilliant trap.
Visions swarmed the jungle’s screaming night as I sat gaping goggle-eyed, vomit drool hanging from my lip, the Shipibo curandero blasting my mind apart with song, and he wasn’t a man at all but an enormously serpentine undulation studded with a thousand kaleidoscopic eyes! Having heard that the snakes will do our bidding and having come to deadroads in life, I wiped my chin, collected my courage, and ordered that cosmic worm to reveal my path.
I was rewarded with a vision like a YouTube tutorial from some bizarre alternate universe. I saw human hands out of time immemorial shape a wooden bowl using an ancient technique, revealing gorgeous textures, as the faces of primordial entities morphed and twisted through the fractal ooze.
While I do my rough shaping with rotary tools, I use that technique for the refining and finishing. It’s extremely fast, eliminating maybe 80% of the total labor. The smoothing and finishing that would normally take days is done in an hour or two, completely transforming the work far beyond my own ability. I’m always breathless watching the transformation. Honestly, my carving is extremely rough and amateurish, but this technique yields amazing work. It’s true, I do absolutely amazing work–at least it absolutely amazes me–but I can’t really take credit for it, being but a tool myself.
To your knowledge, is anyone using a similar technique today? What about in the past?
Sure, this technique was used for millennia, but I’ve looked and looked and haven’t seen anything like it. The #1 question I get when people see the work in person is, “What are they made of?” Having never seen wood that looks like this before, people assume it’s ceramic or some cast material, even plastic! Given that neither I nor anyone else I’ve talked to has seen anything like it, I think I’ll keep it that way for a while.
What does a day in the workshop look like?
My last workshop was awesome, quite large and rent-free. But a SWAT team kicked in my door, cut electricity and boarded the place up because someone in one of the other units was growing pot–legally because this is California, but they were pirating electricity. So, why’d they kick in my door to my clearly marked, legally distinct unit? No idea but I probably have a lawsuit. Now I have to pay rent which means an 8’x8′ shed which is fine as I need little space to work in.
I sit in a sawdust pile working most every day, dreaming of the jungle, ridiculously in love with my partner, HoYee Wong, abjectly grateful for this second life. I’d say I lose myself in the work but that self was lost long ago. We drink the Vine of the Dead and so we die, not to be reborn but to be replaced. And that’s fine, I never liked that guy anyway.
What does a commissioned project look like?
The most recent piece was an altar to Odin in teak and mahogany, made as an anniversary gift for a lovely neopagan couple.
I only use scrap or reclaimed wood as I just cannot contribute to deforestation. This dictates size and and configuration of elements. The teak panels are from a junked piece of furniture.
What is the weirdest commission proposal you’ve received?
Right now I’m working on a very NSFW altar to the succubus entity Lilith. The client wants it to be as bizarrely graphic and sexually explicit as possible, so imagine if H.R. Giger wasn’t such a prude.
And your favourite?
Always what I’m currently working on is my favorite. Nothing else exists. There really 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 and humans fear power always. Power: simply the ability to do something, synonymous with energy in physics: the capacity of a body or system to perform work. This is all there is and you can see it if you close your eyes and look. It always breaks my heart a little every time I box one up to ship, especially commissions that I haven’t had much time to bask with.
What would be your dream project to work on?
Something big, perhaps with a milled fallen oak on someone’s property, thick slabs. I know that what I’ve done so far is just child’s play compared to what I’m capable of doing. Commissioned work seems to be producing the most interested, unexpected pieces. I work closely with my clients, picking their minds for ideas, responding to feedback, and the synergy of two minds working together yields something I would have never imagined on my own.
Have you thought about teaching your technique to students?
It is my primary intention to go back to Peru with a bagful of tools and teach this technique to some young people. I owe the people there so much and feel a deep need to give back. It requires no real talent to create something gorgeous and given the speed of creation this technique allows, I think it will enable them to do quite well making souvenirs for the tourist trade: ayahuasca cups, medicine bowls, incense holders, pipes, etc.
I think they can earn anywhere from $5-$20/hour or more–pretty good for kids in a place where labourers make a fraction of that. I can also teach them some wicked sales techniques that work like a charm on gullible gringos If someone wants to pay for the tools and the trip, he or she can come with me and we’ll create a truly awesome piece together there.