BOOKS | Back to Nature. We Ate the Acid : Joe Roberts

We Ate the Acid [Courtesy of Anthology Editions]

San Francisco-based artist Joe Roberts’ hotly anticipated We Ate The Acid is no ordinary volume of art, says JAMES FOUNTAIN

In his second book, composed entirely under the influence of psychedelic drugs, Joe Roberts takes his audience on a compelling journey through his acid-soaked mind.

On the way, he uncovers some fascinating and disturbing facets of the human psyche through intricate and colourful pencil drawings, paintings and mixed-media.

Joe Roberts
Smiley Culture – artist Joe Roberts

Born in 1976 and growing up in Milwaukee, Roberts is a lifelong advocate of the benefits of mind-altering substances.

The book’s introduction by New York-based writer Hamilton Morris encourages us to ‘avert our eyes, looking to the dim confusions of the past to avoid the glaring confusion of the present.’

In its attention to micro-detail, the book focuses the reader on the simplicity and beauty of nature. Roberts advises the reader, ‘The way you choose to explore it is the way you choose to explore it. Make sure you take notes.’

This mantra for freedom of thought and of exploration is literally the key to happiness which Mickey Mouse, dressed as a Sorcerer, grasps on the front cover. Mysticism is a good thing, Roberts feels, something we have forgotten in the West.

Roberts’ heightened sense of the world around him is displayed through Californian woodland scenes of people eating mushrooms and experiencing, not only visions, but also nature in all its intensity – moonlight splashing the trees, star constellations and wild animals lurking in the shadows.

The artist confesses that growing up in the household of a librarian father, who was also an avid comic book collector, has had a big influence: Micky Mouse appears numerous times in the book, an extended metaphor for curiosity.

Other comic-book heroes like Batman make an appearance, the Bat signal shining out across the night sky in one drawing. So immersed is Roberts in popular culture that these comic book characters serve a moral purpose.

There are glimpses of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali in the ninety or so carefully crafted hallucinogenic pages of his book, yet Roberts remains exhilarating and utterly original. A one-off.

He exhibits wonder at the natural world, and his enthusiasm and curiosity burst from every page. There is a refreshing bold honesty to his style which belies an uncomplicated curiosity.

‘All I am trying to do,” he explains, ‘is make a visual language that communicates that place we go that words fail to describe.’

We Ate the Acid by Joe Roberts is published by Anthology Editions and available for purchase on 4th December or for pre-order now here.

JOE ROBERTS on Milwaukee, Marvel, mysticism and mushrooms…

“I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but the day I left the hospital my parents moved to Milwaukee and I grew up there.

“I’m sure growing up in Milwaukee contributed to my style.  There is a great museum there. I spent hours walking around it by myself. I would find myself lost in the displays and it felt like I was visiting other worlds than the one I was in. 

“My father was a librarian and an avid comic book collector, so I spent a lot of time in the library reading and drawing Ninja Turtles after school waiting for him to finish work. 

“My grandfather Steve Vasy was an artist, so it’s only natural he was the first artist I loved. He taught me all sorts of things about art. At the time I didn’t realise that is what was happening. I thought I was just having a good time hanging with my grandfather, but when I think back to it now, he was teaching me things.

“I grew up immersed in popular culture. My parents were not religious and I think that a lot of the stories and lessons I learned on how to be a good and decent person came from comic books. 

“Psychedelics for me always come with lessons. The pop culture references in my art is sort of my way of sharing these lessons in a language I understand.

“I hope my art allows those who look at it to realise that the present is the only thing that actually exists. Of course, we all have our own memories and stories, but truthfully the only thing that is real is right now.

“The recurring symbols throughout the book are sort of my way of trying to translate what I see when I close my eyes.  Mickey Mouse for me is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He represents the student in all of us and he clearly makes mistakes. We all do. He was also on the first blotter I ever ate and that was perhaps my heaviest trip.

“When you take a psychedelic, there shouldn’t be any rules about how you do it or what to expect. It is your trip. I think it is important to share these experiences with each other to help make sense of them and taking notes afterwards when it is all fresh in your head is a good way to do that. 

We Ate the Acid is basically made from my ‘notes.’ I guess all I am trying to do is make a visual language that communicates the place we go that words fail to describe. 

“As a whole we have lost touch with (the mystical) side of ourselves. It is 2018 and I think overall we are in a bad place. There is so much greed and fear right now.  We have so much potential as a species and we are still acting like fucking idiots. 

“Psychedelics have a way of slapping the user in the face with how silly all these things we are fighting about right now actually are. Psychedelics – especially mushrooms – have really shown me how connected we are to nature.

“Terrence McKenna [American ethno-botanist who advocated responsible use of natural psychedelics] said the psychedelic experience is ‘our birthright’ and I agree. We have been lied to about these substances for a long time now, and I think people are starting to realise that.

“Probably everything I ever make will somehow link to We Ate the Acid because that book was made out of things I made when I was experimenting heavily.  I still don’t feel like I have any of it sorted out.”

Joe Roberts was interviewed by James Fountain. James is a postgraduate journalist at Leeds Trinity University. This is his first piece for theCV.