Reid Stowe

The Sacred and the Oceanic

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Reid Stowe : A Critical Biography

 

Reid Stowe, Psychonaut on the High Seas

The Voyager’s Diptych, 1990–2016, mixed media, 96 x 96 inches

 

 
 
 

“Tibetan lamas could be called psychonauts, since they journey across the frontiers of death into the in-between realm.”

 — Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman
 
 
 

 

Reid Stowe has literally voyaged “across the frontiers of death into the in-between realm” since he was a teenager. It was not until 2018 that he decided to fully reveal that he has always led a double life. That parallel life has meant constantly creating art and sailing the world’s oceans. The result of this unique dynamic is a vision that is far apart from that of any other painter. When his last epic voyage ended in 2010 he had set a new oceanic endurance record of 1,152 days as the first person to sail for the longest period around the earth, in solitary, without touching shore, without resupply of food or water, and without fuel. It was so jaw-dropping that even the elite community of experienced ocean sailors was left incredulous that he survived. It even found Stowe ensconced in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.  At the same time an artistic zenith was also achieved. Stowe’s large series of paintings defies being pigeon-holed with a particular style or tied to a specific movement.
 

Primitive Bird Optical Altar, 1989–2018, mixed media, 87 x 53 inches

The first reaction to these paintings is that they exude an integrity and authenticity. Then we discover they are the cumulative effect of spiritual experiences — from harrowing to sublime — upon the oceans. At the core of our understanding we come to discover an artist intuitively embracing an inner dialogue between his unconscious-spiritual-psychological life inseparable from his life on the oceans. For decades, Donald Kuspit, dean of American art historians and author of many notable books on modern and post-modern art (including his influential The End of Art) has challenged the validity of certain popular artists whose marketplace-crafted personas camouflage the truth of their roles as faux-revolutionary descendants of a tired Pop Art movement, effortlessly regurgitating a narcissistic conceptualism. He has been as surprised as anyone by Stowe’s paintings:

“Stowe is a serious discovery. He is a natural-born mystic whose long voyage seems to have been an extended religious transcendental experience — and what came out of it were paintings that are quite intriguing.  They are not classifiable in any certain way. They seem to live in a borderline, exploring between the psychotic and the transcendental, spiritual experience. These works definitely come out of what the psychoanalyst Romain Rolland referred to in 1927 as, coincidentally, the ‘Oceanic Feeling.’ They are densely layered and as a body overlap with so many modern concepts in painting.”2

 


 

Sometimes Stowe’s imagery reveals itself as a subtle lure and at others as an explosion of visual effects; in both cases it is an invitation to view fragments from an unconscious realm into which few artists have ventured. Sometimes it takes a fiercely independent outsider and introspective artist like Stowe to remind us how the unconscious serves not only as a powerful source of inspiration but the only source that results in truly compelling art. Throughout history, those artists who have become recognized as “masters” have achieved such exalted status owing to their extraordinary abilities in expressing truly unique visions. For centuries, those visions have been realized through styles and techniques that are so innovative that they evoke from viewers an emotional reaction quite unlike any other. One hundred years ago, Clive Bell, the British art critic and champion of abstract art, put a name to its cause as “significant form” and to our response as “aesthetic ecstasy.”3 Without even knowing Stowe’s extraordinary back-story, his paintings can elicit this emotional reaction. Knowing his back-story reinforces the impact of the “ah-ha” moment.

Bell’s observations about our psychological and spiritual reactions to art gained renewed resonance in art criticism during the height of Abstract Expressionism in New York. Yet, art historians continue to struggle with a paradox inherent in contemporary art criticism. Some champion conceptualism — the opposite of Bell’s perception — sometimes encouraging a jaunty art market too often driven by commercialism.  At that glittery end of the spectrum one finds artists anointed as “masters” by the marketplace despite their unawareness of (or delight in) producing works that are slavishly derivative, frolicking in the purely decorative, or confessing to a vapid imagination. Other critics deride the permission freely granted by Marcel Duchamp — that seminal conceptualist master of the early 20th century — to pursue what are seen as comfortably nihilistic subversions of “art” where both the unconscious and art history are denied.  By the 1980s art historians had reawakened a vigor in the dialogue about the difference between a very conscious construction of art — as taught, for example, at the Bauhaus and by Josef Albers, later flowering in Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism — versus the unconscious expression inherent to movements such as Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.  In 1987, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted an influential exhibition (with an eponymous book) called The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985.  That exhibition, whose title was drawn from Kandinsky’s seminal treatise of 1912, re-examined the history of abstract painting, revealing that the unconscious has always been a vital source of inspiration shared by masters.
 

Op-World on Sail Piece, 1993–2015, mixed media, 40 x 30 inches

Most recently, the artist-critic Ann McCoy wrote, “Artists who do draw from the unconscious are dismissed as throwbacks to an outdated Romanticism. Dreams, synchronicity, and visions are thought of as byproducts of bourgeois society and the irrational is to be avoided. Critical theory stresses art that is motivated by politics and society rather than subjectivity.  Artists drawing from mythology, antiquity, alchemy, etc. are dismissed under the heading of ‘historicism.’  This abandonment of the unconscious seems to be more prevalent in the visual arts than in poetry, film, and theater.”4

 

 

 

Art Historical Epic, 1990–2016, mixed media, 96 x 64 inches

The Psychonaut

In 1970 a new term — psychonaut — was coined for those who explored the unconscious and its altered states. The word means “a sailor of the soul” and aptly describes Stowe. Viewers standing before his large paintings — some actually 16-foot sails — realize they are oceans apart from marine panting. They experience brilliant Day-Glo colors as movements breaking free from geometric structural grids. They sometimes become so absorbed by their hallucinatory effects that they wonder if mind-altering drugs induced their creation. For Kandinsky color was psychic vibration. For Stowe color is more than a control over chromatic exuberance. He agrees with Mark Rothko’s statement that if a viewer was moved only by the color relationships in his paintings, then they missed the point.

Stowe the psychonaut is not a follower of his controversial contemporary Timothy Leary (psychologist and author of The Psychedelic Experience), who urged Stowe’s generation to use LSD to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Stowe the oceanic shaman has used psychoactive plants and other entheogenic substances but only to gain deeper insights and spiritual experiences, which were later translated into paintings. “The healing power of altered states of consciousness is no longer relegated to the counterculture of Timothy Leary” writes Michael Pollan, author of the recent book, How to Change Your Mind.  “It’s entering the mainstream. There are now FDA-approved psychedelic therapists.”5 And while Stowe hopes that with pot’s legalization and its farming having become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise it may also be more acceptable to reveal that he was also one of the largest pot smugglers in American history. But that story comes later, as it pales before the significance of his artistic accomplishments.

 

Blue Sails, 1992–2017, mixed media, 40 x 30 inches

The chapter that is truly extraordinary is one that enriches the history of abstract painting. It’s a chapter where phenomenal endurance is inextricably intertwined with artistic innovation. Stowe’s artistic path — from origin to evolution to maturity — is genuinely unique. Like other masters, he may be cast as the prototypical hero passionately pursuing a noble quest. Tracing these artists’ paths to fulfillment, we discover their persistence, their quirks, and their obsessions. We learn that their own personal voyages were often fraught with great difficulty and even tragedy (in America alone, think Gorky, Pollock, Rothko, Haring, and Stowe’s friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat). Quite unlike other masters, Stowe may be called art history’s first adventure hero — a hero who discovered a mystical source, and still taps it. If his paintings were not as compelling as his backstory he would have been politely dismissed. Instead, he would had to have settled for being ensconced in just one pantheon, that reserved for heroes of mythic endurance and courage, along with other fearless ocean explorers — but they always sailed with large crews. In the early 15th century Zeng He commanded an impressive Chinese royal fleet, becoming the first to circumnavigate the globe. In the mid 18th century Captain James Cook charted the Pacific Ocean. In the mid 19th century Charles Darwin sailed around the world proving his theories on evolution. Now, consider sailing solo around the world. In the late 19th century Joshua Slocum was the first to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe, albeit making landfalls.  In 1967, Sir Francis Chichester made a solo circumnavigation of the world (with just one stop, in Australia) in 226 days. Two years later, Bernard Motissier sailed in the first non-stop, singlehanded Golden Globe Race sponsored by the Sunday Times in London, and was on target to win but for philosophical reasons instead decided to continue sailing back to Tahiti. In 1986, the greatest Australian sailor, Jon Sanders, logged 658 days. Finally, in 2010, Stowe broke all records with his 1,152 days at sea — more than three years.  His extraordinary accomplishment became known as “1,000 Days — The Longest Sea Voyage in History.” When he finally docked in Manhattan neither the press nor anyone in the crowd on shore knew that more than one hundred paintings on tattered sails were stowed below decks. Few even knew that with the help of his father and brothers he had built his 70-foot, 60-ton Schooner Anne. Fewer still ever saw her bulkheads, into which Stowe had installed tropical woods he had hand-carved in haute-relief. Also aboard were carved wooden statues. It was an environment in which Gauguin would have delighted.

How then, does one come to understand Stowe’s art? Art historians are charged with the responsibility of immediately detecting whether an artist’s works are fearlessly innovative or slavishly derivative. Truly unique works are challenging, triggering an instinct to examine a broader spectrum of a life’s works with the hope of unraveling the mystery behind their creativity. Standing before Reid Stowe’s large paintings it becomes clear that he has broken from the mainstream art world. He is neither an insider nor an outsider. If anything he is inside-out, having absorbed and transmuted elements from nearly every movement from the 1950s to today, including Abstract Expressionism, Collage, Assemblage, Pop, Art Brut, Hard Edge, Op Art, Shaped Canvas, Abstract Illusionism, Arte Povera, Dada, Narrative, Outsider, Surrealism, Graffiti, Neo-Expressionism, Performance Art, and Neo-Geo.  As a result, one encounters a dense layering of styles and imagery including graffiti figures, painted words, flat circles of color, mandalas, linear geometries, strips casting shadows, careful pouring and dripping, and carefully placed jolts of Day-Glo.6 Equally disarming is his use multiple techniques and mediums often combining house paint, spraypaint, acrylics, gold leaf, fragments of photographs, pieces of worn sails from his voyages, beach sand, sawdust, driftwood, sailing rope, and sail repair twine. Most of the pictures he cut from magazines and inserted as collage elements were storage diagrams, work lists, press coverage, and promotional materials — all related to his voyages were play a role of enlightening viewers but were more important because they empowered his vision. He often painted black & white checkerboard strips that appear to play the role of safety tape marking of a hazardous area. The final works sometimes break out of the expected rectangular canvas on stretcher bars and are instead irregular in shape because the chosen support material is an assemblage of large pieces of found driftwood. The result is a complex imagery drawing us in while begging to be decoded.  A compelling multimedia painting by Stowe is the result of more than just this hybrid vigor. Digging deeper throughout six decades of paintings, one seeks answers to the evolution and maturity of his path. After long contemplative viewings, we art historians would never have imagined naming other-worldly oceanic experiences as the wellspring of this creativity.

Flying Above the Birds and Swimming Below the Porpoises Simultaneously, 1970, acrylic on paper, 10 x 12 inches

Youth
In order to unravel the mystery behind Stowe’s works and why they represent a significant departure from mainstream contemporary art, one must first examine the dynamics of an unconscious source traced back to his childhood. By so doing we understand how he became the only painter in history whose artistic life force originated in and on the oceans in command of his own self-constructed sailboats on profoundly dangerous voyages. We also come to grasp why his spiritual and artistic evolution is so distinctive. “There is a big difference between being a guest on the sea and the captain of your own boat, having to make your own decisions to survive,” he says. “I took all that I had learned and experienced on the oceans and went into the psycho-spiritual realm to succeed in this voyage.” This is a crucial distinction that puts a light year between Stowe and any other artist.

At eighteen he painted Flying Above the Birds and Swimming Below the Porpoises Simultaneously. “Though I had started to break up the point of view as early as 13 years old, those paintings were more influenced by Picasso and Klee. This painting is the first showing the maturing of my mystical visions. Next, I painted a mural of that painting 10 feet square on the wall of my family’s beach house and it is still there. The success of this image allowed me to clearly hold those visions in my head for a lifetime.”

Stowe at 17 with large paintings (1969)

Born in 1952, the first of six children, Stowe grew up spending the summers on the North Carolina coast. With his father’s help and encouragement he learned how to build a boat. It soon became clear that he was one of those rare kids who loved spending more time on the water than the land. It was also clear that he was artistically talented. By age thirteen he was experimenting with Cubism. By seventeen his art began to take on new forms as he was drawn to discover how the paths to mysticism could be expressed as visual phenomenon. A photograph of him at 17 shows him seated beneath a large painting employing the psychedelic portraits of the Beatles created as posters by photographer Richard Avedon in 1967. He continued to stretch large canvases and experimented with multimedia, mixing oils, collage, and sometimes worn out rope from his sailboat.

The First Spiritual Voyage

In 1971, when he was nineteen, his family was not surprised when he announced that he needed to drop out of after one year in college and sail from Maui through Gaugin’s South Pacific. His trip found a turning point in Fiji after he befriended Ivo von Laake, a young Dutchman with a 19-foot plywood sloop (and no motor). While living with von Laake in New Zealand, he first learned about the most famous of French sailors, Bernard Moitessier. Von Laake had just spent a year in Tahiti helping Moitessier with his book, The Long Way (published a few years later), so von Laake regaled Stowe firsthand with the sailor’s exploits and philosophy. Stowe was particularly struck by the fact that, despite being in the lead of the historic first solo ocean race around the world, Moitessier eschewed the cash prize awaiting him at the finish line in England in favor of continuing on to Tahiti.  Moitessier later explained to The London Times that he extended his voyage “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” Before the publication of the great sailor’s book, Stowe was struck by quotes such as, “You can take your mind off of the land and just be at sea and keep going.” Stowe clearly understood Moitessier’s meaning when he said, “You do not ask a tame seagull why it needs to disappear from time to time toward the open sea. It goes, that’s all.” This philosophical acceptance would continue to resonate as true with Stowe because he, like Moitessier, was imbued with Far Eastern religions and had discovered yoga at sea as a means of enhancing his experience as well as his art.7

Flying Above the Sea Birds Looking Down on Catamaran Tantra, 1972, acrylic on paper, 10 x 12 inches

The South Pacific thus became the first breakthrough spiritual voyage for Stowe, one where he increasingly felt at one with the ocean. He captured his experiences swimming with dolphins, painting them swimming above him in the sunlight while he was simultaneously looking down at the seabirds flying below him. In another painting he expressed being awestruck by double rainbows. Stowe attributes this voyage as being “how the seeds were planted” in reinforcing the confidence needed for his own record-breaking voyage from 2007 to 2010. “Many people said I had my head in the clouds, but my life was based upon a lifetime of boat building, navigation, athletic and seamanship skills I developed. Then I was free to meditate on the sea and use my insights to go further than the men before me. In my case, I also used my lifetime of art creation to help me.” In his Flying Above the Sea Birds Looking Down on Catamaran Tantra, he states that “This painting goes with the first manuscript, begun when I started building the catamaran. It was intended to be an illustrated children’s book about the adventures I was going to go on in my little catamaran. I was two characters, the sailor and the artist. I went on many of adventures at sea creating art and meditating. We went into a space of unfamiliar shapes, and then into a rainbow void where it was revealed that we would return home and build a bigger boat to take our family and friends on a voyage to paradise. Then we returned home to build the boat. The amazing thing was that most of my fantasies came true. That book is another example of how my art programmed my future and helped me realize my dreams.”

Imagined Catamaran Sailing into the Giant Void, 1972, acrylic on paper, 11 x 14 inches.

Peter Nichols’ insightful (and often chilling) A Voyage for Madmen (2001) is the exemplar book on the physical and psychological demands of ocean solo sailing for very long periods. “Normal people aren’t driven to try to sail around the world without stopping,” he wrote. “They don’t stop their lives midstream and embrace, with single-minded effort and every resource available to them, a hair-raising stunt never before attempted and which has every chance of killing them.”8

It’s important to point out that Stowe is neither an egomaniac nor junkie of adrenalin rushes. He never had a guru or spiritual guide. He never sought a life on the ocean for personal salvation. Rather, he has always returned to the ocean for enlightenment, and this act is inseparable from his approach to making art. On his first trip through the South Pacific he brought with him books by Carl Jung such as Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) and Man and His Symbols (1964). Also influential on his path to self-realization was The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1927) by Walter Evans-Wentz, a Theosophist.  Equally alluring was Carlos Castaneda’s very popular The Teachings of Don Juan (1968) about shamanism and mysticism. “Even more important,” says Stowe, “is Tibetan Yoga and secret doctrines because the techniques are powerful and bring on ecstasy for me more than ideas or teachings.” Today, the numerous art books on Stowe’s bookshelves are joined by titles on Far Eastern Buddhism, Zen, astral projection, metaphysics, magic, esoteric psychology, yoga, and the universe — all pointing to his holistic exploration of creativity and the unconscious. In Imagined Catamaran he uses ‘imagined’ in the title “because I had not yet built the catamaran. I even put a Chinese Junk type sail, which I never ended up using. This painting also goes with the children’s book.”
 

Ivo and members of the Stowe family on catamaran Tantra’s first test sail in North Carolina, 1973

Crossing the Atlantic

As a result of his year in the South Pacific, Stowe became increasingly drawn to emulate Moitessier in both philosophy and spiritual approach. He soon planned his next adventure on the high seas. After hitch-hiking from Arizona to his grandfather’s beach house on the Intracoastal Waterway near Shallotte Point, North Carolina, he passionately explained his need to build a boat that could cross the Atlantic Ocean. Once again his family supported his dream, and for the next eight months he focused on building a 27-foot catamaran with red sails he named Tantra. In the summer of 1973 von Laake rejoined Stowe (now 21) and the two young men launched into the North Atlantic. The media was captivated by the daring adventure, reporting that there was no motor and only a sextant for navigation.

 

Desert Fortress Town, Morocco, 1973, acrylic on Masonite, 24 x 24 inches

After arriving in Portugal, von Laake returned to Holland and Stowe continued to sail solo to the Moroccan coast. He described this solo ocean voyage as, “a young man’s life or death rite of passage into a modern sea shaman.” Settling in Mogador (now called Essaouira), he met a spiritual healer in a tea shop who told him stories about his practice of laying on hands. Using the tea shop as his base, Stowe was inspired to paint many colorful scenes of life in the coastal town.

 

Night-time, Azores Harbor Shoreline from the Catamaran Tantra, 1973, acrylic on canvas mounted on plywood, 12 x 63 inches

 

 

 

 

 

Stowe taking a site with his WWI brass sextant, 1975 (photo by Bobby Stowe)

 

Von Laake rejoined Stowe after three months and they crossed back over the Atlantic, this time arriving in Bahia, Brazil. Because both young sailors went into deep meditation while they created art at sea, Reid titled this voyage, “Two Together as One into the Void.” From Bahia they continued north and then up the Amazon River where they set anchor and went ashore.  Stowe collected abandoned canoes and carved them into mermaids and yoga goddesses and ceremoniously sacrificed them to the sea.

Stowe frequently took sitings with his brass sextant. “This is the only photo I have of me using a sextant. And the sextant was so important to me because it was the tool that allowed me my complete freedom to go where I chose, asking no man for permission, filling out no forms. I am lucky to have the photos I have. I never really thought of documenting my adventures in the beginning. I traveled light, only with my little pouch of paints, a few tools, and simple food. I thought of titling my smuggling manuscript, The Sextant Smugglers. These were the days when a captain had to know how to use a sextant, before satellite navigation came into use around 1986. Sextant navigation is not easy and takes a special effort that is very rewarding.”
 

Amigo Da Verdade (Friend of Truth) Bahia, Brazil, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 31 inches

He also painted on sails and charts his proposed routes with self-portraits on the other side cheering, “Hooray, I made it!” These paintings not only translated his experiences of the Atlantic crossings, but he considered them to be “programming paintings” that would help him succeed at sea in the future. Stowe recalled painting Amigo Da Verdade: “It rained hard throughout the morning. We meditated, did yoga, and gazed down through our slatted deck at the fish congregating under the catamaran. When the rain stopped the animals and the people came out and began their activities. I made this painting at that moment.”

The pair parted again when the opportunity arose for Stowe to help a Frenchman sail his boat to Martinique in the Caribbean. However, while sailing out of the broad Amazon River delta at night they were captured by pirates and robbed of all their valuables. The pirates asked about the little catamaran that was anchored nearby on the river but Stowe said he knew nothing about it. The pirates argued about whether to kill them, but eventually decided to leave them hog-tied on the sailboat. After being prisoners for three nights and two days, they managed to untie themselves and during a storm at night tacked out of the mouth of the Amazon.  That morning a mahi-mahi jumped into the air, rang the ship’s bell, and fell into cockpit. They realized it was Thanksgiving Day, and the sea gods had confirmed their good fortune. The region remains dangerous. In 2001, a group of pirates shot and killed New Zealand’s most famous sailor, Sir Peter Blake, in the same area.

 

A hand grab rail from the catamaran Tantra, 1972, carved and painted wood, 4 x 22 inches

 

 

 

 

 

Carnaval in Salvador, Brazil No.1, 1974, acrylic on paper, 10 x 12 inches.

Carnaval in Salvador is part of a group that Stowe painted during the voyage and were meant to illustrate his manuscript, The Voyage of the Lightship Tantra (written 1973–75). He describes the book as “The story and loves of a young man who sails the smallest boat to four continents doing yoga, painting, and becoming the shaman of the sea. The highlights are losing the boat to pirates and returning to the Amazon, rescuing the catamaran, and later sailing a boatload of pot back home with plans to build the magical Tantra Schooner (later renamed the Schooner Anne).”

 

 

 

 

The Pilot House

“The pilot house is the most important and most used room on the schooner. For cold, stormy, or even hot wet spray conditions, the pilot house is the most comfortable place to be and still see 360-degrees and keep an eye on the sails through the skylight. Knowing that the schooner would spend its days in the void of the sea, I wanted the interior to have an inspiring wonderland of rich tropical carved woods that would contribute to the well-being of the crew. Feeling that I sail on the cathedral of the sea, I wanted the interior to have a spiritual uplifting theme that would actually help us through long days. Practically, the pilot house is right above the motor room and serves as a work shop/art studio, with navigation table, tool trunks, work stations — and there is a bunk and places for eight people to sit together for meals. There has always been a wood/coal stove in the back of the pilot house. I only used the motor coming on and off the dock. I never have used the motor at sea, but it is very important to be able to maneuver into tight spaces.
   In 1979 we sailed to the Caribbean with a full cargo, but with nothing built in the interior because I always intended to use tropical woods. We were in Bequia when Hurricane David, one of the deadliest hurricanes of the century, made a direct hit on Dominica, about 150 miles north of us. Afterwards, we sailed up to Dominica, which is a mountainous island. Huge trees had been toppled and there had been many landslides. Natives with chain saws salvaged these rare woods and we bought from them and traded food and goods.  They loaded us up with teak, mahogany, and at least ten other beautiful woods, which we only knew by their Creole names, such as Bois Lézard, Maho La Mer, and Kowosol. I used these for the whole interior, including the pilot house with my twenty carvings of spiritual, nautical, and nature themes. All have all contributed to the magic and rich history of the (Tantra) Schooner Anne.”
 

Pot Smugglers of the Caribbean

In 1974 luck smiled upon Stowe again when an adventurer on the Amazon sent a letter saying that Tantra was spotted still anchored in the delta. Stowe returned, stealthily slipped aboard at night, and quietly sailed his catamaran out of the Amazon. In the Caribbean, he arrived at the then sleepy Port Elizabeth on the island of Bequia. To his delight he discovered the island was a haven for sailors and he settled in painting many canvases, usually on worn sailcloth. He also discovered that many of the sailors were earning significant amounts of cash to support their wanderlust by smuggling boatloads of marijuana to the American shore. And then the big idea hit him. He was the most experienced ocean sailor of the lot. If he worked hard and saved all that money he would have enough to fulfill his dream of building a large schooner to make the longest voyage at sea. Stowe soon became known to the Colombians. He accepted the challenge and quickly made a reputation as a reliable captain in the Caribbean.
 

Stowe on a Giant Cow Pie of Magic Mushrooms, Bequia, 1975, purpleheart wood from Guyana, 4 x 4 inches

Purpleheart, which is a very hard, durable, and water-resistant tropical wood, has always been one of Stowe’s favorites. He used it to carve the rail all the way around the Schooner Anne as well as the sea serpent figurehead off his bowsprit and in the interior flooring. After the long voyage, Stowe and Soanya returned to Guyana to repair the schooner and it took them months to acquire it. “Painting is my true love,” he says, “but I have had so many mystical experiences with tropical woods absorbing, carrying, and resonating spirits.”

We surfer sailors knew that after a big rain for a few days the magic mushrooms would grow in cow pies. We also figured the surf would be up in the calm after stormy weather. So, we carried our surfboards over the hill to our favorite beach where no one lived and passed through a big cow pasture. There were mushrooms everywhere. The locals called them Jumbi Umbrellas and were afraid to eat them. A Jumbi is a mischievous forest spirit in the Carib-African Voodoo culture. I found a place where the farmer had raked the manure into a giant pile and it was covered with mushrooms. I climbed on top, squatted down, and started picking and eating them. Then we went surfing. It was an enlightening experience. We saved a lot for our friends, but they do not taste good later because they quickly wilt and turn brown.”

Coincidentally, 1974 was the year Jimmy Buffet wrote “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”

             I've done a bit of smuggling, I've run my share of grass
             I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast
             Never meant to last, never meant to last

Iris the Yogini, 1974, acrylic on paper, 10 x 12 inches.

For Stowe, pot smuggling became a way to earn a living, just as pot farming today has become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. By the end of 1977, he had completed the construction of his schooner and had the money he needed to build his boat. at end of year He even got married — to an artist, Iris Groskoph. “This is my first wife, and she later became the mother of our daughter, Viva. Iris was great, but the wildness of my lifestyle, especially at the height of my smuggling days, caused her to opt out and settle in Maui.”

Moitessier would have been intrigued if he had known that Stowe carefully studied the construction of 19th-century American schooners and concluded that the Gloucester fisherman was the quickest and the most seaworthy sailboat. He even went to Mystic Seaport and studied the complicated ropes and pulley plans for its famous schooner, the L.A. Dunton. From time to time Stowe would climb atop his neighbor’s roof to get a better perspective on how the schooner was taking shape, and then slightly bend the steel rods used in its construction until it was just right. Stowe describes his schooner as being “round like a bottle, with a deep keel, so it floats like a duck in rough seas, and cuts through the water like a submarine.” With family pitching in, by the end of the summer Schooner Anne was launched from the same North Carolina shore where Stowe had built Tantra just six years earlier. A year later his daughter, Viva, was born. For the next two years the young family explored the Caribbean in their 70-foot, 50-ton ocean home. The island of Dominica was a favored port of call because this is where Stowe collected most of the tropical hardwoods from which he carved sculpture and made furniture.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Portrait of Reid Stowe, 1985, 47.6 x 24 inches

The 1980s was a fruitful decade for Stowe in painting but after the couple separated the island of St. Barts held particular attraction for him. There he became friendly with Basquiat and soon thereafter rented a loft in SoHo and the two often got together. “I liked Basquiat a lot. He even painted life-size portrait of me, inscribed my name above my head, and gave it to me,” recalled Stowe, “but he was always trying to score heavy drugs and that was not my scene.” Stowe was more focused on scoring art materials discarded by frustrated painters. As a “beachcomber in SoHo” he found a steady supply on the sidewalks. This explains why his paintings sometimes bear the signatures of other artists on their versos.

Another artist with whom Stowe became friendly in St. Barts was singer Jimmy Buffet. “I met Buffet in St. Barts in the early 1980s when everybody was partying together. We got to know each other well enough that he said he wanted to write a song about me. But recently I heard he was distancing himself from his old smuggling buddies. Maybe now as pot is being legalized he might reidentify himself with the St Barts sailing smugglers, because it was all colorful good vibes.”

       I used to rule my world from a pay phone
      And ships out on the sea
      But now times are rough
      And I got too much stuff
      Can’t explain the likes of me

       Jimmy Buffet, lyrics from “One Particular Harbour” (1983)

 

 

 

 

Self-Portrait Spirit Mask, 1983, 60 x 45 x 22 inches

Envisioning Art through living the disciplines of Buddhism, Yoga, and the Tantras

“My spirit is fierce and forges ahead through all fears. Like many ancient and tribal masks, mine are also fearsome to scare away any negative spirits that aim to hold me back. Often, I see myself looking out through their eyes and connecting through them to all spirit masks and we work together in a realm that transcends time. To leave the touch of the real earth longer than any real body since man evolved, I had to overcome the fears of all men. Over the years, each day further and further on the sea, I faced the fears men faced at each different age. I know by experience there are just as many men afraid to go into the unknown now as there were in the beginning, as there were when sea monsters existed and the earth was flat. Now men think they are smart, but they have different fears to face to comprehend — and follow in my footsteps and eventually go beyond. Note the oversize phallic mallet in my hand. Even my tools are customized and empowered so that each stroke carries the most magic to make the mask as powerful as possible.”

It’s important to clarify that Stowe saw pot-smuggling as the means to raise the money necessary to build his schooner. His own use of pot or psychedelic drugs was not out of a desire to become lost in space. Rather, he learned that the proper use of mushrooms and marijuana were a means to attain knowledge of the sacred, which was as a path to enlightenment. “Throughout the long story of man, marijuana and other mind-altering drugs were used sacredly as a sacrament for various purposes,” he says, “It is the phrase ‘recreational’ that sets the future of pot up for unenlightening experiences that lead to problems.” When Stowe did smoke pot it was always in the Buddha pose meditating or practicing yoga. Consistent with this philosophy of connecting to higher powers was his adoption of the Tantric traditions for transmuting and lifting his sexual drives into spiritual energy.

The Nirvanic Symphony, 1973, acrylic on paper, 10 x 12 inches.
 “This painting, like all the others from 1970–75, is an illustration of my mystical experience of listening to the music in my head. When Ivo and I sailed south of Morocco in heavy winds we were nearly flipped over as we surfed down one wave, plunged into the back of another wave, and water sprayed in our air vents. Days of stormy winds, waves, and wetness are quite hectic and stressful. I relaxed in my narrow bunk with the waves pressing the thin plywood hull against my shoulders on both sides and put my hands over my ears. As the painting shows, there I am sitting in the lotus posture in my third eye with big ears, implying I am listening. The sound of the waves is most dominant. I also hear the music of my friend Ivo who plays the silver flute. I hear Moroccan music, birds, and bells, and Carlos Santana’s guitar — it all blends together into beautiful music.”