we don’t need another doctor,

we can run our own tests

bryan saunders

it’s been about two years since powder last spoke with tennessee-based experimental artist and stand-up tragedy performer, bryan saunders. known for his daily self-portrait project that he’s been conducting since ninety five, saunders caught world attention when he created a series of these portraits under the influence of various drugs. he’s now undertaking a new major work called we don’t need another doctor, we can run our own tests, a series that explores the realms of the unconscious. saunders has painted self-portraits that tell a story directly on top of psychological test cards. and he’s here to tell us all about the project.
interview with i.t.a.

check the bryan saunders gallery

so bryan your new project is we don’t need another doctor, we can run our own tests. it’s a series of self-portraits inspired by psychological tests. can you explain what the project is made up of? and what inspired it ?

As you know, I often use art as a vehicle to experiment with my self or life and vice versa, so for this work I’ve been creating self-portraits (art therapy) directly on top of a massive collection of projective and apperception tests (psychological diagnostic tools). My original goal was to simply take these tests ‘artistically’ and then evaluate them myself and see what I could learn from the bias. I had taken some of these tests as a child and later on as a young adult and my responses and results always left a lasting impression on me. However, as soon as I got started on this project I realized that they offer the potential to illustrate one's personality. And not only that, you can do so in a way that forensic psychiatrists and other professionals in various psychoanalytic fields can understand. It’s a pretty big undertaking because there have been quite a few of these tests created over the years.

you said that the self-portraits were stories that answered psychological projective and apperception test cards. can you explain what these cards are? how can your self-portraits answer them?

Whereas Inkblot tests attempt to measure the structure of vision, apperception tests are more concerned with perception. They’re frequently referred to as “picture story tests” because of the way in which they are designed and administered. The person taking an apperception test is presented with a card depicting a vague and ambiguous illustration of an unclear situation. Then the person taking the test is asked to verbally create a story about the image. They are told that the story should have a beginning, a middle and an end and be fairly descriptive and so on. Different tests have different agendas and further instructions. The reasoning behind this type of test is the belief that in the details of our personal stories lie our motivations, desires, fears, attitudes towards relationships, feelings, thoughts and everything else that make us unique individuals. So when taking these tests artistically, by placing myself inside the situations depicted and then painting my responses on top of the test cards themselves, I’m bringing visual clarity to the vagueness of the imagery and subconsciously filling in the details with my personality.

you were somewhat of a juvenile delinquent when you were growing up and undertook tests, such as the thematic apperception test. what were these experiences like? what did you learn from them about yourself and the tests?

Well to be honest these tests have always disturbed me. The illustrations are often crudely rendered and can hardly stand on their own as works of fine art and yet the vagueness and ambiguity of these test images can be so compelling that they allow for extremely diverse interpretations which fulfils their purpose perfectly. When I took these tests as a child they frightened me because they opened up parts of my imagination that had always been hidden even from me. The stories I created from them were often violent, tragic and ugly, and I would leave the test sessions feeling guilty, anguished, depressed and just overall wretched and full of despair.

recently, you revisited these psychological tests once more. what did you learn from this experience?

One of the major problems with these tests is the fact that there is no standard scoring system or norm for the evaluation of them. There are many. And often the results seemed to tell more about the person giving the test than they did about the person taking them. So I developed my own simple analytic technique using statistics on the frequency or occurrence of themes that I’ve deemed most important to me. I’ve begun accumulating data now but will have to re-evaluate everything once the project is complete. Without boring you with numbers I’ll give you a few examples of what I’ve been seeing so far:

Seeing and portraying myself as one of the pre-existing characters in most of the scenes and situations was natural for me. In fact this is what I often did before when being administered the tests by professionals. I do not know how common this is and I think that it might partly be due to a narcissistic desire to insert myself into other people’s affairs. I could also interpret this as a wish to be more empathetic. However, I do this frequently in my daily self-portraits too so in reality it could just be a reflection or manifestation of that. As I was taking the tests, I noticed the way that I was illustrating my responses seemed to imply a coldness or lack of emotions concerning the subject matter. This was probably due in part to the cold and emotionless original source material that I was building upon, but I also learned that the semi-flat illustrations along with what I call the clip art symbolism could be used to describe difficult situations and events without me personally having to directly involve my emotions. I like to think that it is more indicative of a defence mechanism than a lack of affect. When evaluating the themes I discovered that I was almost three times as likely to focus on the past as I was the present, but this was directly caused by my taking some of the tests that were designed for children. If the original images had depicted more adults and senior citizens, I believe my answers would have strongly reflected that as well. I addressed my fears as often as I expressed humor but I never had a response where both a personal fear and humor were posited together. I found that I illustrated traumatic memories as often as I depicted situational metaphors and I was astonishingly four times more likely to express a fantasy or an imaginary scenario than a memory or anything else. Any desires I may have were practically nonexistent in my stories. Why is the future missing? I still don't know. Almost every response involved something bad happening. Either a tragic event or some sort of conflict, trouble or frustration was always present. This could be because of the types of stories I prefer to tell or the way in which I most frequently develop a story. Every story needs drama right? I don’t think that this necessarily means that I focus solely on the negative side of things although it may strongly appear that way. Themes of death and sex were both equally present but not nearly as prevalent as when I took these tests as a child.

for this project you actually created your images directly on top of the test cards. what was your reasoning for producing the works directly upon the diagnostic tools? what effect did this create?

My first thought was that if I did art therapy on top of the diagnostic tools not only would I not need a doctor but I could also become one. I often kid myself into believing that I think critically most of the time, but in reality my mind is quite subordinate to my emotions and with that comes magical thinking. And when holding these test cards for the first time, especially the really old ones that are soiled and have been well used over the years, all I can think about is “Wow! If these cards could talk!” I mean think about the wild imaginations of children and disturbed adolescents and adult criminals, the people that take these tests to hear what these cards have heard would be amazing. Someone should make a film about that! The test cards to me are like windows into lost fantasy worlds and over exposed PET and MRI scans of hundreds of people’s minds only much more interesting to look at. The cards themselves in some instances are now precious historical artifacts. Instead of painting on a white piece of paper these test card backgrounds are readymades with magic endowed with meaning and history and all kinds of rich content already soiling them. I know some think this project is like an act of vandalism because many of these tests are extremely old and fragile and rare and they have significant historical value. So to set the record straight in two of the cases I had replicas made. They were tests that had existed as a single copy and were used only by the doctors who developed them and were never published or distributed but were still well known, studied and written about. Two others had been entirely forgotten by history, even the images were lost, and a good friend of mine named Alice Salyer and I somehow managed to resurrect them from the dead. In those cases I made good quality scans before I “ruined” them.

you used a range of different psychological test cards for the project. what effect did using differing test cards have upon what was produced?

Well each test is unique. For example one was created for the disturbed adolescent, while another was created to study and interpret adolescent fantasy. It really depends on the individual test. I never research the tests before I take them. The only reading I do prior to administration is the instructions section of the manual. As a result, some tests elicited more memories than others, some memories more traumatic than others, and some more fantastical etc.

what was the overall effect the undertaking this project had on you? did this project create a significant change in yourself?

As with all of my art experiments I’m sure it has changed me some but the experiment is still going on. All new information regarding self-knowledge is helpful. The most obvious effect this project has had on me thus far is that I've become more open to using the same artistic style on multiple pieces now. In what ways these tests and evaluations will change me, I'm still unsure of that. Only time will tell. I’m curious to see what new experiments will take place and how they will relate if it at all to this one and the others.

let’s discuss a few of the portraits themselves. “i bitch-slapped the devil and that is all you need to know.” obviously the whole premise to this one was that you were not going to elaborate much more. but do you think we could?

Nope. That is all of the information the public will get from me about that one. That is unless I decide to put that story on an album one day.

Can you choose three other self-portraits from the project and discuss the creative process, what they mean and the effect creating them had upon yourself?

1-“Lennep’s Four Picture Test” Dr. D.J. Van Lennep (1930) “Tou Tong!”

For this test one is given all four watercolor cards at once and is instructed to combine them to form a story using them in any order they like. So I picked one of the cards and added my face to the figure and then started adding other details creating a story as I went from one card to the next. When you are done telling the story they are to be arranged in a particular order for analysis.


C) I was standing outside in the rain when my neck started getting stiff and really hurting. B) So I went upstairs to lay down and then I got an ocular migraine. A) I went next door to see if my Chinese neighbor had any Excedrin and he shouted, "Tou Tong!”, meaning headache, and then he hit me in the chest with a martial arts lightning bolt and magically transformed my pain into a halo. D) The next day I felt hungover, drained and kind of blue so I went to a tennis match and told everyone at the country club about what had happened to me the previous evening.


One of the major problems I detected from this test was the coloring. All of the other picture story tests are black and white, and the dark and murky earth tones of the “Four Picture Test” looked depressing. That said, what this test seemed to do extremely well was capture my overall perception of pain and it did this subconsciously and very quickly. I am often fixated on mental and physical pain and have created many works of art dealing with this subject. When I experience extreme neuropathic pain I lose the ability to think critically and often begin to think magically with a slight leaning towards spirituality. Since my late teens I have practically been driven to tell others about my experiences with pain and my perceived relationship between pain and spirituality. I found it quite remarkable that this test was able to identify that part of my personality so clearly, quickly and concisely.

2-“Blacky Pictures: Cartoon I” Gerald S. Blum (1950) “Oral Eroticism/Allergic to Formula”


1. (a) Blacky is happy. 2. (b) Mama is pleased but tired. 3. (b) Blacky would rather stay as long as possible to be sure he gets enough nourishment. 4. (c) Blacky sometimes doesn't get enough to replace all of the energy he burns up. 5. (c) Blacky feels like he will want to be on his own very soon. 6. (b) In the future Blacky will enjoy eating but will like doing lots of other things just as much.


For this test the subject is told to imagine that they are the cartoon dog named Blacky in a series of pictures and then answer multiple choice questions about each picture. This test was by far the most ‘Freudian’ of them all and I believe it is reflected well in the imagery and responses. I purposely tried to brighten them up and make them happier and not appear as disturbing as they originally seemed, adding color etc. but this had an adverse effect and on more than one occasion I almost vomited while taking this test. Taking this test really made me physically ill. Thinking of all of the children that had taken this test and the bizarre if not perverted questions they had to answer. It was a hard test to get through.

3-“Roberts Apperception Test For Children: Card 4” Glen E. Roberts Ph.D. (1982) “Night at the Movies”


When I was 14 my mother wrote a note for me so I could get into R rated movies without being accompanied by an adult. One night I went to see Mausoleum alone and noticed a blind girl in line at the theater behind me. Before the movie started I was looking around the theater and the blind girl and her dog were sitting in the very back row. It struck me as odd that a blind girl would see a scary movie alone but who was I to judge. Anyway, after the movie ended I went to the bathroom. When I came outside of the theater there were cop cars and an ambulance on Elden St. in front of the theater. I ran over to see what had happened and the blind girl had got run over and was laying in the road. The dog also got run over and was breathing heavy but I didn't want to paint that I thought it would just be too much to handle. I sometimes wondered if she had stepped out in front of the traffic on purpose, as if she went to see a movie blind and then committed suicide. Or maybe the soundtrack just knocked her senses out of whack. I don't know, could have just been an accident I guess.


This test was designed for children and I’m using it here as an example of how sometimes these vague and ambiguous images can have the power to clearly bring repressed memories to light. Halfway through the illustration process I realized with great shock of what I was depicting. It was a true story from my childhood. I seldom if ever thought about it and rarely if ever told other people about it because it was so upsetting and yet I had not forgotten about it. It was just always there lurking in the recesses of my mind. Another bizarre phenomenon that can occur from taking these tests in this manner is evident here as well; the girl in pink standing over the girl in the street is an archetype of some of the women on my mother’s side of the family. I did not plan it that way at all. It was totally subconscious.The girl in pink closely resembles both my aunt and her granddaughter when they were at that age. Even though no female member of my family was present at the time of the accident or had any involvement at all with the original event this archetypal relative just leaped out of my subconscious with no obvious explanation as if it were created from the same process that takes place wen we dream.

what is the overall conclusion you’ve come to whilst undertaking this project?

The tests can work really well if you take them yourself and interpret the results yourself. Especially if you don’t censor anything from yourself no matter how ugly or scary or embarrassing. It can be an incredible tool in the arsenal of self-knowledge. I would be really interested to see or hear professional opinions of my test results and then compare them to my own! Check the effectiveness.

bryan, what projects do you have coming up for the rest of the year? have you held any exhibitions of late? and also, your daily self-portrait project: how many years has it been going on for now and how many portraits have you created?

Over the last few months I’ve been working on a multimedia project titled “Under the Influence of Torture” in preparation of a live performance I’m doing with the great international artist and occidental shaman John Duncan. We will be performing together at LUFF October 16th in Lausanne. Video, spoken word, live audio… One aspect of this project that may or may not end up being incorporated into the performance is a series of self-portraits of the same name where I do the best I can to draw myself and what it feels like as I am being tortured. Using kinesthesia and proprioception to create the images. Similar to the “Sensations” experiment I did with Nicole Bailey but instead of intimate loving feelings it is pain and suffering in space. The "Sensations" will have it's third exhibit this year at the same time as the LUFF performance. I am very fortunate to have two invaluable, must-have, vital friends Brad and Lisa that have been helping me with the tortures that I can’t safely perform on myself at home. I think I have 29 works of those so far. Also, there is a nice documentary about me traveling around the film festival circuit now titled, “Art of Darkness” hopefully it will come to a theater or festival near you. I have over 9,500 Self-Portraits now, never missed a day since I started in March 30th of 1995.

check the bryan saunders site