He was ordained as a reverend into the Church of Satan by Anton Szandor LaVey in 1992, has placed curses on politicians and corporations, and caused media mayhem when, during his Apache Whiskey Rite as a political protest, he allowed himself to be anally penetrated by a woman wearing a harness with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s strapped to it.
Steven Johnson Leyba is a rare breed of creator and his reputation often proceeds him. He’s a painter, writer, musician, performance artist, occultist, activist and founder of the Coyotel Church. His art does more than transcend the norm; it annihilates it. His work refuses to fit neatly into a pre-packaged box ready for society’s mass consumption and there’s no doubt his artistry deviates from traditional methods. From bodily fluids, such as blood and urine, to earthly elements, like dirt and sand, Leyba’s mixed media pieces pulsate with living energy.
The artist’s Native American and Jewish ancestry also heavily influences his body of work. As the descendant of people that have been historically oppressed and marginalized, he seeks to reclaim their past and culture through his creations.
His latest exhibit, FIRE, recently debuted at The Dark Art Emporium. The pieces displayed in the art show are pages from his 17th handmade book of the same name. The work took him two years to complete and features individuals whose passions he sought to render. Although it’s not common to be able to touch artwork, guests were welcomed to run their fingers across the paintings.
The reverend had a stimulating agenda planned for opening night. In addition to reading excerpts from his new memoir “We Are All Indians Now,” he led everyone in a fire ritual performance. The collective creative energy of each celebrant present would contribute to the power of the ceremony.
Small pieces of paper were passed around and we were told to write whatever we were passionate about on one and then place it in the basket. These would represent our magical intentions for the rite. A bottle of whiskey was also circulated for anyone wanting to take a swig and set their throat on fire.
Before commencing, Leyba posited two blatantly thought-provoking questions, “What is your fuckin’ passion? What is your fuckin’ fire?” What proceeded was all the more brazen and uncensored.
A circle had been formed at the center of the space, acting as the hub for the ritual. After removing his first layer of clothing, Leyba knelt on the floor beginning to spread a white substance within the circular sigil. Other elements were added around and inside it with each layer increasing the strength of, not only the object, but the intent.
It wouldn’t have been a true Leyba ritual if there wasn’t some provocative action involved. To escalate the energy in the gallery, the artist conducted the remainder of the ritual partially nude, wearing just a t-shirt cut out with holes exposing his bare chest. Vigorous chanting and further reading of his memoir ensued.
I believe many of us felt the vibration in the room intensify as the ceremony progressed. It was truly a powerful and rousing act to witness. No one moved when it was finished. It was as if we were all attempting to gain our bearings again in reality.
Curious to know more, I had the opportunity to ask Reverend Steven Leyba a few questions to get more insight into his work.
Q: Your 17th book “FIRE” was two years in the making. How did you select the individuals you wanted to include in this project?
A: Most of the people were friends whom I felt were creative. But several were people I resonated with online on social media. They sent me pictures for the paintings. Just went on instinct and followed my bliss. I try not to think about who or why too much because I want it to be a natural right brain process. I don’t want my ego getting in the way of their portrait. I capture the emanation of the person, not merely who they think they are.
Q: You mentioned that in addition to capturing passion, you also unintentionally captured the anger of your subjects while working on the book. How did the added fuel of other people’s fury affect your creative process?
A: I visited many of my subjects in their environment. I wanted to capture the passion and creativity. I did, but some seemed stuck. Especially artists I have known for years in San Francisco and other night cities. I didn’t realize till I was finishing the book and a good friend whom sent me a selfie, I did two pages of her, said the paintings were horrific and captured her rage. She was about to get radiation and chemo. That was the last part of the book and I could see the fury towards the end.
I had gotten MRSA on the road, so I felt like the stories I have read about shamanic healers that were always sick as if they were taking on their subjects’ illness. Lots of times creative people get stuck and the frustration and anger are there, and they don’t know it.
Many of the people I painted said I captured a totality and I helped them realize their fury. Several people stopped talking to me all together. The history of portrait painting is a lie. I wanted to paint who they really are, not make some pretty propaganda most people want of themselves. Their anger was an unexpected fuel source for my art. It almost killed me because it felt like my body was absorbing their toxins. It was also a wakeup call with my mortality staring back at me. I was forced to paint them but not take on everything, which I tend to do.
I also learned to paint more with less and paint on the road. To have a portable studio and be able to paint anywhere at any time, all the time. Being in new environments constantly forces a perception change. Living in the world of one’s subject, you take it all on. I learned I can paint their truth as I see it but not have to take on their whole world. I am an empath and people have said my work has helped them heal. That is a beautiful thing but also, I was forced to then leave their environments and return to finish the book in solitude.
Q: Along with the new exhibit, you also debuted your memoir “We Are All Indians Now.” Are there things you felt were important to reveal here that you may not have shared with your audience before?
A: Yes, the amount of intensity I live in. That I am not perfect. How does one who is known to some extent for honesty and living an authentic life be even more honest? Completely honest and not paint myself out to be some super underground celebrity. There is a lot of love in the book, but my rage is in there. It is a complete self-portrait and I feel it is one of the most honest memoirs ever written.
My editor is a celebrated author who wants to remain anonymous. She was disturbed by how I would have intense, short and troubled relationships. She said I go from one relationship to another like having the same relationship with different people and that I would go from drunken rants to brilliant writing. I didn’t disagree with her; it’s my life.
I didn’t set out to make great literature but, like with my painting, I wanted to create what I want to see in the world. Some of it is so dark and/or heart breaking. It was hard to finish. I was still living it as I was finishing it. I call it my “tell more than all” book, with all the chaos and what I call A.S. (Active Sabotage) from people who enter my life with an agenda and a distorted view of who I am. But that is the path of the warrior. I am here to learn, help and grow, not make myself out to be some sort of hero or guru. I am a human being and that is the book I wanted to write and did.
Q: So, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the curses you’ve performed in the past are legendary. You’ve cursed politicians, major corporations and even the 49ers. Who or what do you think is deserving of a curse these days?
A: I feel the greatest threat to humanity other than humans is A.I., Artificial Intelligence. My next curse is on Artificial Intelligence because humans designed it to be proficient and perfect and humans are far from it. We are moving towards a totalitarian state and it will be on autopilot and we will live in a completely unjust world without accountability. We already live in a country where accusing someone of something is all you need to destroy their lives.
In this age of automation we will see more and more robots, drones and computers bossing us around and there is nothing we can legally do about it. Hawaii just passed the Universal Income so every citizen will get money each month. Other states will follow. China already has a social credit system and cameras everywhere. Artificial Intelligence will be creating the new software and possibly the new laws. I grew up watching “1984” come true and “Brave New World.” But today we are living in a Philip K. Dick novel. I am excited about much of the new science like Quantum Physics. But letting the creation rule our lives seems like suicide and much of what humans do is to our detriment.
I feel artists and writers of today are just politicians. Political actors on social media promoting their bodies and personalities. I find celebrity worship a great destruction and mental illness. I curse any authoritarian. I could be wrong about A.I., but I have read enough to know the bad outweighs the good. We don’t really need it and I don’t want some delusional corporate-controlled algorithm running the show. As far as I know there is no “artificial creativity.” The DSM book (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) has a few mental health diseases that many of my creative friends could be labeled as. Creativity is the enemy. It is seen as a pathology, a mental health issue unless it is completely controlled by the corporate state. A.I. could very well interpret the DSM book as law and make judgements on online activity and force mandatory pharmaceutical drug compliance.
I play the bad boy outlaw in much of my art. This could be interpreted literally. People misinterpret and mix fact with stories people tell about me. People make up all sorts of crazy shit they said I did. Many of the myths are not even possible. It seems to me society feels that any rogue creativity poses a threat, especially when it is a critique on society. To me, that is an important role that artists used to take on but, in our times, no one wants to paint real pictures; just the ones with their outfits and bank accounts.
Q: You emphasize the significance of creativity that is not a prisoner to conformity. Do you see hope in the next generation of artists and innovators to realize this?
A: I see many of the greatest minds of several generations enslaved by celebrity. It is corporate control. A great way to silence radical minds with the trappings and addictions of fame and fortune. It’s ludicrous and everyone with an Instagram page is an “internet superstar” it is so heartbreaking and superficial and boring. That may very well be the downfall of America when the saturation gets so bad everyone sees the all-pervasive boredom. I feel the powers that be want us all to stay home, get universal income, smoke pot and play video games.
Much of what many Millennials call for is more and more speech control and trigger warnings and finger pointing. Gone are the days of public discourse and basic adult debates. America has become the Wa Wa state. Even the First Amendment is seen as hurtful. Mental health diagnosis and gender are the new identity politics. We don’t talk to each other anymore. We just tattletale and point the finger at others rather than hold an argument or listen.
I have great hope for Generation Z as they don’t play the walking on eggshell game. They are not really interested in telling people what to do or pointing out people that say the wrong things. They don’t live the social narrative. They seem to be doing their own thing, not paying attention to the latest Liberal Authoritarian agenda or right-wing fear monger. I hope they are the clean slate and they are the new authentic people. They seem to be freer than the earlier generations, but I do feel what they create will be refreshing because it will not be about celebrity, conformity and telling others how to live. There is hope. Every generation rebels against the other. There is so much to rebel against these days.
Q: Would you like to drop any hints to projects you have in store for the future?
A: For me, creating in writing in real time. Writing as I am living it. Memory mixes moments, facts get blurred. Also, with book 18 EARTH I am using it as a recharge and painting on the road, but also in nature in remote places where there are no people. The past two years I lived mostly in a hogan on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. I binge and purge with being completely remote and alone to being and creating in diverse and sometimes impossible places. EARTH will be portrait and landscape combined. How does one do this? How can you paint a portrait of someone that doesn’t look like another picture of ego?
Medicine wo/men in North America have stepped back from earth activists because they feel they can do better work in nature away from social temples and controlled agenda protests. They speak of the 5th world post ego. Is it hard to see an egoless state? In a new and unknown way not scripted by any existing religion or known mindset. A way to be in sync with nature because we are nature.
Expect the unexpected and expect a world museum of censored art and a major exhibit of my censored art. I am one of the most censored artists in the world. Imagine a world that doesn’t censor art and feel the need to control and regulate every person’s life.
The times, they are truly changing. And my work will do what it has always done. It will paint our times and not the propaganda of the corporate masters.
“FIRE” will be on display until the first weekend of February and admission is free.
You can support the artist by checking out Steven Johnson Leyba’s Patreon page.
To view and purchase pieces from the current exhibit, visit The Dark Art Emporium official website.