I’m riding my goat down a trail in an extensive park.”
So begins one of artist, musician, and extraordinarily vivid dreamer Philip Carey’s many dream accounts.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
“I get to the university and ride inside,” he goes on. “But a prof tells me the goat can’t come in, because they can’t have any carbon inside. I think, aren’t we all carbon?”
The dream is one of a great many which Carey has recalled, written down, and then elaborately illustrated in as much detail as a Post-It note would allow. It’s a narrative that, like many dreams, takes absurd ideas and attempts to stuff them into the structure of waking life, creating a sort of magical realist tableau that, sadly, many people never remember.
Fortunately, however, Carey’s nocturnal wanderings are carefully chronicled in several self-published volumes and, most recently, a solo show at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. Titled “1,001 Dreams of Philip Carey,” the exhibit showcases a selection of the Morro Bay artist’s doodles from his nightly trips into the subconscious. But Carey apparently dreams just as much in the daytime: He admits that some of the largest works in the show were created during countless dull meetings at his former jobs. (Indeed, one can occasionally make out a name, phone number, or bulleted discussion point beneath the colorful, freewheeling designs of 35 Years of Meeting “Notes” 1973-2008. The abstract ballpoint-and-prismacolor landscape of Notes on a Desk Pad 1990-1993 was the product of “2 1/2 years of being on the phone with a pen in my hand,” he says.)
Other series, like “Some of My Phobias” (getting buried alive, apparently, or caught in a giant spider web) and “Mini Philip gets into Big Trouble” (a thimble-sized Carey rattles around in a drawer of odds and ends) are similar examples of the artist’s restless imagination.
But if you’re wondering where on Earth he finds the time and the patience, well, he doesn’t. It finds him. A kidney disease means Carey has had to receive dialysis three days a week for the past two years, a lengthy and unpleasant process he began mitigating with intricate drawings. A body of work he called “Art from Dialysis” soon resulted from these sessions, including a series titled “Places I Would Rather Be Than Dialysis” (the mountains, a desert, a tropical paradise, a swamp).
Carey says he loves to travel, and it pains him that his dialysis treatments aren’t covered by insurance outside of the United States. Leaving the country for any length of time, he says, would quickly be a drain on his life savings. So he travels within the United States whenever he can. And when he can’t travel at all, he dreams.
While Carey professes to have little interest in dream analysis, he does admit that many of his dreams seem to evoke punishment and persecution. Of a particularly macabre dream illustration involving a forlorn-looking family and a dead pig, he explains, “There’s a family who has to drag around a pig carcass as a penance for something.”
A drawing of a “vintage dream” from 1985 depicts Carey in his underwear, knocking at the door of a woman’s home. He asks if he can use the phone to call home, and perhaps borrow some clothes. But just as she says no, Carey recalls indignantly, “I realize her apartment is actually a Laundromat full of clothes—and a payphone.”
That dream and several others were made into a short video, also on view at the SLOMA exhibit, featuring Carey’s drawings, narration, and dramatic reenactments, accompanied by music he wrote with several composer friends.
I notice another drawing series devoted to the dreams of actor Steve Martin, and inquire if Carey is a fan.
“Oh, he and I did a lot of stuff together when we were young,” Carey nonchalantly replies. “I met him at Knott’s Berry Farm at the Bird Cage Theater, where he was singing and acting.”
The two worked together at the Bird Cage in the ’60s, he says; Carey sang, while Martin played the banjo. They even took a cross-country road trip one summer. Carey says they still keep in touch.
(Martin even provided a generous blurb promoting Carey’s latest book The Monsignor has Arrived for the Bar-B-Que but Gophers Have Eaten All the Crackers! And 178 Other Strange Dreams of Philip Carey.)
Still more of Carey’s art centers on the mailing and receiving of letters. A large portion of 1001 Dreams is comprised of Carey’s wildly decorated envelopes, another of his dialysis diversions.
Approximately half of them are for sale, stamp and all. (“Part of my art is that the envelopes have to be mailed,” he explains.) Another half are from the private collection of one Linda Ferriera, a longtime friend and the envelopes’ primary recipient.
Of course, it’s no wonder that letters would flutter occasionally into the artist’s dreams, threatening to one day carry him away with them.
Of a dream drawing he titled Leaping to Catch the Envelope, Carey writes, “There’s a huge decorated letter floating on the canyon breeze. Vines are growing out of it. As I leap from the bluff to catch it, I’m wondering if it will plunge into the abyss.” ∆
Arts Editor Anna Weltner wonders that every day. Contact her at email@example.com.