Stacked high in a corner of his apartment in Johnson City, Tennessee is what he's trying to protect. Neatly filed in a tall bookcase are dozens of 8"x11" notebooks containing his life's work: over 10,000 self-portraits, at least one each day for the last 21 years. It's an endeavor he hopes to continue until his dying day.
Saunders' project began in 1995 and has become all consuming. It's threatened his health, mentally and physically, and confined him to abject poverty. However it has also provided moments of peace and equilibrium. But most of all it's a project that has been misunderstood -- or misrepresented.
"Most of the time," he sighs, "people only want to know about the drug ones."
"It was too much"
Saunders rose to internet fame around 2011 when images from his series "Under the Influence" spread across the web. A Jon Ronson
interview followed and sites began publishing his portraits -- not always with the artist's permission.
"Under the Influence" is a set of 91 self-portraits from his project that Saunders created on drugs and alcohol. The idea came to him in August 2001 when he swallowed a Valium, then Butalbital, a barbiturate, the following day. Over one period Saunders took 18 drugs in 11 days.
"It was too much," he says. "It was self-abuse. I wasn't in the best of places mentally."
Saunders never paid for any of the drugs; they were largely gifted by people in his tenement building. The list makes for a heady cocktail: morphine, psilocybin mushrooms, Geodon, Percocet. Then there was compute duster, bath salts, huffed lighter fluid.
"It's very easy to sensationalize it," Saunders says, reflecting on his portraiture's appeal.
"It's very easy for people to say 'This is your face on this drug, this is your face on that drug.' I can say 'This is my face when I worked at McDonald's when I was 30' -- a grown man working in the kitchen at McDonald's. I've got my face on that too. But people, they're just not as interested."
It gets frustrating, he says, but students who contact him asking about art and mental health make the media attention worthwhile.
"I'm prone to this type of psychosis," he explains, "so if I get under too much I stress, I try to use art as therapy."
"Art is my main treatment... if I didn't have this creative outlet, feelings would just bottle up and bottle up and bottle up inside of me, until they just explode.
"But because every day I'm purging some stress, anxiety or some depression, some anger -- even mania -- I'm little by little getting rid of it."
Saunders graduated with an art degree from East Tennessee State University in 1998, already experimenting with immersive projects and performance art. He moved away, before ending up in "a couple of mental hospitals, institutions, group homes," as he puts it.
"My family rescued me from one of these crazy, crazy group homes," he says, "then I went to China to become a stand-up comedian." After discovering China lacked a stand-up scene and failing to carve his niche, Saunders returned to Johnson City in 2006 to pursue professional -- if not commercial -- art.
All the while he had been drawing between one and nine self-portraits every day in the same, uniform Strathmore 400 series hardbound notebooks he still uses now.
It was an experiment that began on January 30, 1995 with a pencil sketch of a smiling, bespectacled man.
"There's a luminosity or something in the picture," he says, digging it out. "I was really excited and happy. But the first eight books are almost all black and white. I was really depressed."
Over time Saunders began using his self-portraits as a mirror and a tuning fork: a way to find out if he was on song. He describes the process as "kind of like Tarot cards."
"I just draw myself automatically and then see. If I have claws or sharp fangs or something, maybe I shouldn't go out tonight. I've done it so many times that if I see these type of features, or I use these type of colors, I know that I'm more prone to drink excessively or something, [or] get into some type of trouble."
"People aren't meant to remember every single time they're angry like this"
Flicking through the self-portraits, happiness waxes and wanes on Saunders' face.
"I have so many self-portraits now I've been trying to come up with a database," he says. He draws when stressed, anxious, or stimulated in any way. That's how Saunders knows he's had 116 headaches in the last 21 years, or drawn angry 199 times to date.
"People aren't meant to remember every single time they're angry like this," he reflects. "It's really overwhelming when you break experiences down... when you're drawing or painting, you're prolonging the experience."
Among the 10,400 self-portraits are series where Saunders took a vow of silence, drew blind, replicated deafness; even made artworks while being tortured. "Under the Influence", he says, pales in comparison to the creativity afforded by some of his other experiences.
"Third Ear Experiment", when Saunders replicated deafness for a month in 2011, "was the most profound [series]," he says.
"I could still hear through the base of my bones and the inside of my mouth... no matter what I did with my ears I couldn't stop hearing totally... The last ten days I was hallucinating all day every day. It was a really powerful experience -- very tortuous -- but also kind of meditative too."
Meanwhile during "Vow of Silence" Saunders "ended up just representing myself more alone, inside myself."
The point, he argues, is that there will always be an emotional or physical response to an environment, natural or artificial. As an artist it's his job to harness it.
"I think all of my pictures are one work of art, really," Saunders says. The goal, he explains, is to collate the whole gamut of his adult experiences into something resembling a cohesive whole.
He hopes to bring together his collection in an installation mapping his portraits on three axes, representing energy intensity, stress level and positive to negative emotion.
"The goal would be to have people walk around inside a three dimensional representation of my emotional mind," he explains. "From the doorway you'd be able to see, just by where the pictures are within the space, my personality."
Delusions of grandeur
Funding (or lack thereof) has prevented Saunders' plan from becoming a reality. He has one patron, who supplies Saunders with art materials. But no works of art are for sale, and never will be.
"I'm not concerned about business or galleries -- anything that constitutes professionalism," he says. "I don't like those types of experiences where people buy art or sell art. It stains the idea of art for me."
Saunders has only ever shown in gallery spaces where sales were off the table, and has turned down opportunities when art and commerce intersect.
"One time at Art Basel
, [a gallery] said 'We've paid $65,000 for a corner in this tent and we want to put your stuff in there,'" he recalls. "I said 'I don't want to be in this art fair... it's disgusting.' I think it's just gross."
"I don't feel it's worth selling yourself for this type of thing. I'd rather stick with my principals and be in poverty than try and get out of poverty and not have any self-respect."
Saunders is aware of the double bind he's put himself in.
"I do have delusions. I am delusional. But at the same time these things can become tangible," he says of his installation idea.
"If you look at the second half of the twentieth century, so much art to me has been people materializing their delusions of grandeur.
"Some people get to [build their installations], some people don't," Saunders says, citing Damien Hirst and Chris Burden.
"How do you think that happens?" he asks, letting the question hang in the air.
"It all gets thrown in the trash"
If Saunders refuses to sell any of his portraits, then what will be their fate after he's gone?
"I hope that I have a person in my life that would take care of this big cumbersome burden," he says, laughing. "I have no idea really... I think about it almost every day and it's a hard one to answer.
"I really think that when I die it all gets thrown in the trash."
More immediately pressing is the word on the tip of Saunders' tongue: the word he's trying to use to define his experiment. He's attempting to reflect the cause and effect nature of his project. Impressionism is too limited. "Influencism" isn't quite right, he says, nor is "Experiencism".
"Any time I start creating some type of outline of what drawing everyday encompasses, it just become so full up with all these different things.
"But it's just life, really -- I'm just interacting with it in a different way."