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Ben Tolman learned early on to treasure his drawings. After all, he could never be sure when they’d be ripped from his hands and destroyed.
Tolman grew up in a family of what he calls “super-hard-core” Mormons in Rockville. He spent his childhood in a decidedly non-Mormon way: doodling demons, ghouls, and a grab bag of creepy-crawlies in his many sketchbooks. “That was my thing when I was a kid, drawing monsters,” says Tolman, now 25. “Me and my friend Bobby, that’s all we did. I’d go over to his house after school every single day, and we’d just sit there and draw monsters.”
The precocious illustrator, as his parents soon discovered, also found space in his monster-packed schedule to deal with more-mature subjects. When Tolman was 13, his mother, who’d been an artist before settling down into married Mormonhood, uncovered a trove of naked-woman drawings her son had lovingly crafted. She carted Tolman into the yard and put the art on the ground. “She burned all my drawings in front of me,” he recalls. “I think it was really that that sparked the ‘I wanna be an artist.’”
That desire intensified over the next few years, following typical-teenager experiences such as the time Tolman’s parents, suspecting him of various illegal activities, called the cops to search his room. Officers didn’t find any drugs or weapons, Tolman says, but they did cart off his sketchbooks. “I just, like, felt really fucking betrayed,” he says. “I didn’t even care about any of the other random things they took. But them taking my sketchbooks, that was the last straw….It just gave me an intense desire to do it more and get better at it.”
He did do it more, and he did get better at it—much better. Today, the fruits of his determination adorn the walls of his Dupont Circle apartment: five large, minutely detailed drawings, each manifesting an interest in a weighty subject such as death, womanhood, or freaky-deaky psychedelic mushrooms. Each ink-on-illustration-board piece took Tolman at least three months to complete. His magnum opus, the Hieronymus Bosch tribute The Garden of Earthly Delights, took him two years. The piece currently hangs in the Warehouse Gallery’s “SEVEN” show—right next to a little red sticker that warns viewers that, like the art in his apartment, it’s not for sale.
Tolman is not about to lose another cherished drawing. “It’s like selling your children,” he says.
If indeed it’s like that, then Tolman has been a faithful, if randy, father. Of the seven large works he’s completed over the past several years, he’s allowed himself to sell only one, and when he’s not sleeping or working, he’s conceiving more art—lately a series of peyote-flavored paintings for the District of Columbia Arts Center’s Wall Mountables exhibition. To judge from his output, Tolman still thinks about monsters and naked chicks, even naked chicks with three boobies. But he’s also got a hard-on for the True Nature of Things.
“I’m really, like, baffled by the concept of being alive. It’s just so fucking weird,” Tolman says. He doesn’t get why more people don’t feel the same way. He adopts a pained expression when discussing the culture of the 9-to-5 job, a constipated one when talking about his parents’ religion. “They’re really great people,” he says, “but they don’t have the ability to see life for what it is or really think for themselves, because they’re sort of in this narrow track of doing what they’re told.”
Unfortunately, Tolman has had to venture down that track himself: He works for the Boss Man at the Spy Museum’s gift shop. But he’s probably quitting soon, he says, to spend more time with his art.
The whole existence quandary didn’t become a serious concern for Tolman until his late teens—which is also the time he started swallowing serious quantities of those mushrooms.
The artist had always been a fan of the psychedelic experience. In high school, he venerated R. Crumb and even created a kee-razy drug comic of his own. “There’s this standard character that I’ve been drawing from when I was a little kid,” he recalls. “I just made up stories about him. Like, mostly it was him taking mushrooms and going outside.”
After Tolman dropped out of high school, and then left his graphic-design curriculum at Montgomery College after one year, he became that character, embarking on a journey to see what Psilocybe cubensis could do when taken in horse-stunning amounts. “I don’t think I can articulate myself too well with this type of thing,” he says. “When you do higher doses, it gets really, really strange. There’s a very strong feeling of contact with another entity.”
One night, he picked up a pen to try articulating that feeling visually. What resulted was eight hours of nonstop drawing and Fistranthumum, a sketchbook illustration swirling with body parts and snaky filler all meshed together like a plate of surrealistic spaghetti and meatballs. Tolman was pleased. “There’s no way I could come up with that on my own,” he says. He never completed another drawing under the influence of mushrooms, but he did use them to get many pieces started. And along the way, he somehow became a more relaxed kind of guy.
“Because there was so much tension with my family, I was just kind of, like, angry,” says Tolman, who won’t go into his current drug diet. “The ’shrooms definitely had the effect of centering me and showing me what in my life was important and what in my life was bullshit.”
He enrolled in San Francisco’s Academy of Art University for illustration, thinking he might make a career of it. That didn’t work out, so he transferred to the Corcoran College of Art & Design to study fine arts and set about creating his suite of large drawings. His parents accepted their son’s apostasy; they even eventually encouraged it by helping to pay his tuition. “After them not being responsible for me anymore,” he explains, “they’ve been very supportive of me.”
Tolman’s Corcoran pieces invoke a hodgepodge of religious, historical, and just-plain-strange iconography: carnival freaks, wormy winged monsters of a type that will be familiar to the readers of heavy-metal magazines, and, everywhere, open, staring eyes representing the heightened consciousness of the heavily zonked. Combined with the works’ typically insane level of detail, the imagery has netted Tolman critical comparisons to any number of visionary and outsider artists. He’s happy with the assessment, having respected and shaken hands with visionary greats Alex Grey and Paul Laffoley.
“Yes, Ben’s work is original, but does suggest the influence of other artists such as HR Giger, Ernst Fuchs and the finest of the nineteenth-century illustrators,” e-mails Brigid Marlin, founder of the England-based, 300-strong Society for Art of Imagination. The society is including Tolman’s work in its “Inner Eye” show, traversing Europe this fall, but Marlin’s admiration for the artist stops at Tolman’s dabbling with the fun fungi. “It is true that drugs can open one’s eyes to the spiritual world—to the oneness of all things; but this vision does not become truly one’s own in that easy way, and drugs can often have an adverse and dangerous effect on some minds.”
That doesn’t seem to concern Tolman—or his admirers at the popular psychoactives database, Erowid.org. The site’s controllers chose Tolman as their “February Featured Artist” in 2004, and they later published his Cognitive Transformation in their newsletter. That drawing, a skull that’s smoking a butterfly-exuding pipe as a fetus curls inside its brainpan, garnered the admiration of the site’s visionary-arts curator, Christopher Barnaby. “Cognitive Transformation illustrates the variety in spaces inside the body and the layering inherent in the experience of the now,” he e-mails from Sydney, Australia.
“People who have had an experience with any kind of hallucinogen,” says Tolman, “really respond to that one.”
In 2004, when he was in the last stages of The Garden of Earthly Delights, Tolman clutched a pen for eight hours a day, four days a week, for four months straight. “I’m always searching for a masterpiece, just trying to figure out how I can express myself better,” he says. “Bigger just seemed like the answer.”
As Tolman drew, a cathedral appeared, backed by a starry night. He did the shading between the stars with the tiny point of his Rapidograph, spending three days of sun darkening the sky before him. Lifting his eyes, he could see Bosch’s 16th-century original taped to his studio’s wall. “That’s always been my favorite painting,” he says. “For me, Bosch…embodies everything I really like about art….He’s such a tight craftsman, and he has such a solid imagination.”
Yet the inspiration for his own Eden, he says, wasn’t Bosch but A.G. Rizzoli, the oddball Californian draftsman who drew fantastic buildings as symbolic representations of his friends in the 1930s and ’40s. “Here’s one of these guys who just, like, lived in the basement or whatever and never went out. I think he probably died a virgin,” says Tolman, who can doubtless appreciate the sacrifice. Like Rizzoli, Tolman wanted his building to be symbolic. It was to be a monument to his relationship with his girlfriend, Jana Svrzo.
Over time, the couple made an appearance, standing on either side of the cathedral, Tolman with hands demurely clasped over his belt line. The “garden” part of the picture mostly went into one of its elaborate borders, which teems with the sort of twisting, vinelike embroidery that marked his ’shroom productions.
“It’s kind of like two railroads start at each end of the country. How are they going to meet?” says Scip Barnhart, a Corcoran instructor who runs the Union Printmakers Atelier on Blagden Alley NW. “That’s a real tour de force, that particular garden….Even though his art is not traditional, his drawing ability and his intensity in his drawing is a traditional kind of attention that is very, very rare these days.” Lenny Campello, who selected the piece for “SEVEN,” says, “You could spend an hour in front of [The Garden of Earthly Delights], and you won’t be able to see and decipher all of the things he’s done to it.”
At least not without a microscope. The drawing is ridden with eye-aching script Tolman sneaked into the margins. Some of it is partly indecipherable: “…will read this after I’m dead?” is one snippet permanently marred by smudged ink and perhaps finger sweat. More clear, maybe by design, is the text in the bottom right corner: “to whoever might own this after I am dead: please fill in the dates of our deaths after the correct time.” The instructions refer to the memorial plaque drawn between Tolman and Svrzo, which is already engraved with the lovers’ birth years.
The drawing was scheduled to appear in Irvine Contemporary Art’s summer show but was nixed by the gallery owner after he learned the artist wouldn’t be selling it. That’s just fine by Tolman—at least until he actually does quit his job. “What kind of drives me to spend so much time on this type of thing is, I really have a kind of fixation with not being forgotten when I’m dead. I think most people probably do,” he says.
“Or maybe that’s just an artist thing.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.