The Daily Heller: Look Who is Minding Magic Mushrooms

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Mushrooms have been used for various healing, nutritional, spiritual and mind-expansion practices. Long associated with the psychedelic movement of the ’60s, their powers have an even longer legacy. Virginia-born, Brooklyn-based comix artist, musician and record designer Brian Blomerth has been on the trail of mind-altering matter. His 2019 book Brian Blomerth’s Bicycle Day recounts the discovery of LSD, which, as we know, was initially used by the military as a supplement to its growing psychological warfare arsenal.

Blomerth’s latest technicolor adventure, a pyrotechnic mix of lettering and graphic style, Mycelium Wassonii (Anthology Editions), explores the history of mind expansion through an account of the lives and trips of the overlooked research duo R. Gordon and Valentina Wasson, the pioneering scientists who, a decade before youth culture adopted it as staple of pop culture, proselytized the use of magic mushrooms in the United States. The Wassons’ journeys took them from Russian folk wisdom to Midcentury Manhattan, from the indigenous traditions of the Mazatec people of Mexico to the mysteries of ancient Rome—and Blomerth’s book is a globetrotting vision of science and mysticism. I asked Brian to be our tour guide on this trip …

How did you become a mushroom master?
Well, I am defiantly not a mushroom master. My sister has been sending me photos of mushrooms to identify recently, and I can’t do it all. To prepare for this I read the Wassons’ catalog of books. So, if it’s not in their books or in this simple field guide I purchased so I would have an accurate list of mushrooms in the Catskills … I really don’t know about it.

What is the genesis of the book Mycelium Wassonii?
The foreword for my first book, Bicycle Day, was written by Dennis McKenna (who co-developed a technique for cultivating psilocybin mushrooms). We exchanged one e-mail and he suggested the Wassons as a good choice for a follow-up book. They were already on a short list … but that really solidified it. If you know Dennis’ work … you know that if he calls … you listen.

Mycologist Paul Stamets‘ current introduction refers to Mycophobia. What is this state of mind and its relevance to your work?
So, the book Valentina and R. Gordon Wasson wrote together is called Mushrooms, Russia and History Vol. 1 and 2. Originally, the couple had planned to make a cookbook with an essay in the beginning on the topic of Mycophillic and Mycophobic cultures. The “cookbook” became a two-volume globe-spanning treatise on ethnomycology. Gordon had a theory that some cultures fear mushrooms and refuse to eat them, and other cultures embrace edible mushrooms and truly love them. This all comes back to a honeymoon tale I describe in the book. R. Gordon was initially disgusted (Mycophobic) when Valentina foraged some fresh mushrooms, but then tried them and realized they were delicious. This became an extremely passionate hobby and game between the two of them that stretched for years and eventually led them to Mexico, where they uncovered that shamanistic mushroom use was still active among the Mazatecs.

I was raised in New York hippie culture, yet with a fear/aversion to psychotropics and psychedelics. Your imagery triggers some of my “nostalgic” phobias—is that the intent (or part of it)?
Obviously, I enjoy artwork that probably relates to your phobias. I sort of see drawing as a stew you make with other illustrators throughout time. All the work you love you sort of dribble some in … try stuff out. Have fun with it. Dance around the pot while it’s boiling. As a child, I hated stew. Still do. Really prefer soups. Don’t know the difference. Loved drawing. Still do. Don’t know the difference.

The illustrations are both witty and profound (disciplined, too). Did the mushroom intake directly influence your style?
In Bicycle Day I used neon fluorescent Pantones because neons are colors that are created chemically (and were synthesized around the same time) as LSD. For this book I chose watercolors because I felt that was more analogous to Psilocybin (a natural-occurring compound). Also, watercolors are the tools of naturalists. It’s a quick way to transcribe a natural specimen that will degrade to others. As far as the rest of my work is concerned … who’s to say. I sort of think of it as classical cartooning. Treating Carl Barks as Shakespeare. Adult-contemporary dog-face? This whole thing is still somewhat of a mystery to me, which keeps me somewhat involved. 50% intent. 50% confusion. The universe does whatever it wants. I just live here.

Victor Moscoso, the legendary psychedelic poster artist (and friend), once told me that he only did one of his famous posters while on a trip. “I couldn’t do it if I were high or tripping,” he told me. Where do you fit on that functional spectrum?
Yeah, I mean, the focus has to be on drawing while I’m drawing. So it’s a 100% sober endeavor. On the other hand, drawing is also highly boring … I mean, it’s fun and I love it but there are a lot of things that happen on autopilot. So, I mean my mind wanders a lot. Reflect on the day. Reflect on my life. Think about critters I have seen in the distance. It’s a spectrum and I’m on it.

Tell me how your wife, who seems so pivotal in this adventure, fits into the work you’ve done?
Well, I love my wife. For the Wassons I really wanted to accurately show how it was a true collaboration between them for their work. This is probably one of the greatest “couple games” in history. They learned everything they could about mushrooms mainly for each other. The Wassons engaged in a globe-spanning study with the help of the USPS and the New York Public Library. Mycology for them was a beyond-passionate hobby. They were both “amateurs” in the field and had day jobs. Valentina Wasson was a pediatrician. R. Gordon Wasson was vice president of public relations at J.P. Morgan. However, through sheer will and with each other … they turned the field on its head. It’s an incredible love story, and well, in my book … I did my best to show some of that.

What do your characters represent literally and spiritually?
They are all real people in these books. So … I wanted to tell their story as accurately and simply as possible. I want the book to reference a lot for people who are familiar with the Wassons’ writing, but in a subtle way. Tried to pack in a lot of details that appear random … but on further inspection are a reference point. There’s a Russian easter egg on the back for a reason.

What do you hope the outcome or reaction to this book will be?
If I’m any indication, it’s twirling my head around! The goal of these books is to present these earlier figures in psychedelic research accurately and push for a similar goal that they were … that psychedelics should be legalized for research purposes. Research into both Psilocybin and LSD were both stymied but are opening up again. Both Hofmann and the Wassons aren’t countercultural figures. Hofmann goes so far as to name his biography LSD: My Problem Child. So, I think that’s important. Anyone who is interested further should look up MAPS or the Hefter Research Institute. As for me … I hadn’t seen anyone do books on these topics that were easily approachable and extremely simple to get some of these points across. So, I threw my hat in. It may not be perfect … but it’s what I got.