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The Origins of Visionary Art in Los Angeles | City of the Seekers

Our new column, City of Seekers examines how creative freedom has enabled LA artists to make spiritual work as part of their practices.
March 31, 2016, 2:55pm
From “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake, 1790 (via WikiCommons)

In 2009, the Los Angeles Conservancy and its Modern Committee examined LA's unique religious heritage with a one-day tour of five spiritual institutions. The self-driving sojourn was called City of the Seekers: LA's Unique Spiritual Legacy, and it brought much-needed attention to Southern California's role in the founding of 20th-century fringe religious institutions. It also helped shed light on the way spiritual freedom in Southern California has enabled artists to make visionary work as part of their creative practice.

Inspired by the Los Angeles Conservancy's project and a spiritual-themed bus adventure from LA's own offbeat tour company, Esotouric, "City of the Seekers" is a column about how Southern California has enabled creative people to make art as an expression of their spiritual practices.

Saitic Isis by J. Augustus Knapp, 1926 (WikiCommons)

In 1928, mystic, lecturer, and occult book-collector Manly P. Hall published The Secret Teachings of All Ages, a dazzling encyclopedic compendium of ancient texts, esoteric traditions, and musings on metaphysics that became an instant bestseller, in part because of the incredibly detailed and visually striking illustrations by J. Augustus Knapp. Due to the book's success, Canada-born Hall moved to LA and opened the Philosophical Research Society in the 30s. It has become one of the stops on the "City of the Seekers" tour. Illustrator Knapp also relocated from his home in Kentucky to continue making art in LA, creating a tarot deck with Hall in the meantime. Through the artful marriage of images and words, the seeds for the derided but nevertheless important New Age movement was planted in Southern California.

Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall; illustrated by J. Augustus Knapp (via WikiCommons)

After Hall made his way out West in the 30s, many other broad-minded people did, too. Most of them settled north, as LA was still just known as a frenzied free-for-all feeding off the nascent film industry. Nonetheless, captivating orators such as Charles Webster Leadbeater and Annie Besant—theosophists who espoused groundbreaking notions such as women's rights—established centers in Hollywood and inspired the likes of Aldous Huxley.

Like Hall, Huxley moved to LA in the 30s and fell in love with the freedom that the rapidly developing area offered. Mirroring Hall's DIY approach to crafting his own credo, Huxley set out to find his own brave new world in the City of Angels, quoting a line from the late-18th century artist and writer William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" in his slim volume, The Doors of Perception, published in 1954. The book describes Huxley's experience with mescaline, which would in turn inspire the name of the band, The Doors.

Huxley Over William Blake's Urizen Praying, by Tanja M. Laden (originals via WikiCommons)

At the same time, between 1941-1960, Huxley penned over a dozen pieces for a periodical published by the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Vedanta is the most visible of the six original branches of Hindu philosophy, and in turn has spawned several of its own offshoots. In the Golden State, it was Advaita Vedanta, as interpreted by Indian mystic and yogi Ramakrishna, that flourished. Ramakrishna's yoga-infused philosophies continue to define the Vedanta way of life in Southern California, where there are five spiritual centers, and is part of the reason there are so many yoga studios in the Western world today.

Left to right: Vedanta Swamis Ramakrishna, (1836 – 1886); Sarada Devi (1853 – 1920); Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) and Brahmananda (1863 – 1922) (all via WikiCommons)

The Art of Ann Ree Colton and Jonathan Murro, courtesy of the Ann Ree Colton Foundation of Niscience, Inc.Peyote Vision (1955) by Cameron, courtesy of the Cameron Parsons Foundation, Santa Monica

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