Back in 1973, Collie Ryan recorded three albumfuls of folk songs at once before retreating deep into the Texas desert. She’s squatted in an old bus along the Rio Grande ever since, spending her days painting mandalas on hubcaps. While she has no plans of dropping back into civilization, she will share her mystical observations about circles and sing us a song or two. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Why did you have to move your bus?
I had to move off the river in the last three months. We had an enormous flood. It took out what was left of the golf course. Since I had been living 22 years down there at the permission of the owners, it was my agreement with them that if they needed the land that I would leave. They needed the land to lift the golf course up higher so it wouldn’t flood. I am in the process of finding another place to put my trailer and we’ll see what turns out.
What do you like about the Texas desert?
The Chihuahua desert is really a beautiful desert. Each desert has its own character. It’s just absolutely beautiful and big and empty around here. There’s a lot of ocotillo way down in the Big Bend where I’m at. We kind of drop down below the plains of Texas and there are all kinds of mountains and valleys and fantastic rock formations. There’s a feeling in this desert, as most deserts have. There’s a feeling that people come down here—it happened to me, it happens to most people—they either get real antsy and don’t want to stay here at all or you come down here and it just feels so good. It feels like coming home. There are a lot of people moving in down here because of the chaos that looks like it’s going to happen in cities and the expenses and trouble going on in the world. Once it catches a hold of you—it might take 20 years, but you end up down here. It’s a famous place in Texas. It’s 200 square miles of nature’s more fantastic artwork. As Big Sur is to San Francisco, the Big Bend is to Austin and Dallas. It’s a getaway place, an inspiration place. You come here to paint, write, build original housing. Joshua Tree is that for L.A., though it’s gotten real crowded there. Joshua Tree has a really fine feeling to it, too. I imagine it has something to do with the minerals under the ground and the magnetics of the earth. Certain places produce a wonderful feeling that is very healthy to your spirit.
What is most inspiring for your art about the landscape?
The colors down here are fantastic. I’m originally from California, around the Bay Area where there was a lot of green. I moved to the desert and I began to enjoy the light. I’d always read about the light in Greece. Maybe I’ll get to go there someday and see for myself. And then down here in the Big Bend there’s a curious factor that there’s all kinds of colors in the earth. I use brown in every work. There are probably 50 shades of brown from the purple end to the gold end. It’s really an inspiring place to play, to paint, because number one, if you can live simply, you end up with more time. If you are living in the city you have X amount of money to earn to pay for your rent, etc, which keeps you moving X amount of hours to keep the electricity, gas and a very high rent going. Down in the desert, people find lower rent or live in trailers. They make-do houses and you end up with more time. It’s a different frame of mind.
In pop culture the desert is associated with apocalypse—the city has died and we have no choice but to live in desert. But, in fact, it seems to be the opposite. It’s not the end of the world, it’s more alive…
It’s incredibly alive. The first time I ever saw the desert outside Palm Springs, it was a little shocking to me coming from a verdant place with grass and trees. It’s a lot of rocks and the plant life is different. Gardening is an art; it’s not easy here. It’s quite an ordeal to put together a desert garden. It’s not like the end of the world. It’s a refuge, actually. People have always gone to the desert for their health, for peace, for time and quiet to write—to the sheer fact that there isn’t an urban atmosphere, there’s much less electricity. Moving to the desert now is an ideal situation. You get your peace and quiet and can earn your living too. You can work on a laptop. But there aren’t many radio waves, not much telephone, microwaves or electricity and since it’s quieter you have access to your own mind. This is traditional. The saints and Indians went to the desert to have visions. Also Big Bend was historically an area of refuge for outlaws and heavily pursued Indians. Actually even the conquistadors came through here. A friend of mine showed me a pictograph on a rock she found—said 1689, which is one of the earliest signs they found out here.
Do you feel the presence of spirits that have passed through?
Oh, at times, at times. The desert sort of swallows human marks after a while. If you take one of those little four-wheel drive tricycles in the desert, that will mark it, but your vibrations or being gets swallowed up and blown away in the wind. Where I lived for 22 years on the Rio Grande river had been a Humana camp that would go back 5,000 years. There were cave paintings in the hills. A little over a hundred years ago it was a Comanche camp. The Comanche camped there and raided into Mexico. When Pancho Villa was running, their people camped on the American side to get away from the pillaging of Pancho Villa. It was a Candelaria camp, it was a cavalry camp, and all those marks didn’t leave too much. It was always a happy place.
You speak of being blown away by the wind as a positive—is that what you hope your lasting presence would be? Just blown off with the dust?
Well, who knows? It’s been bulldozed over and built into a golf course! Of course there are marks any place that last in the ether—in the astral. Like I have camped in places in the hills of New Mexico where they had the massacres of the last Indian chiefs and those marks do stay because a massacre is not an everyday event. It’s a pretty tragic event. If a person can see or is psychic, he can read what’s there. It’s also been noted that many cities, like Mexico City, are built on top of ancient cities. People are drawn over and over to an area where people have built for obvious reasons—it’s a good building site, but also because marks are left in the astral. Most of us can’t see in those worlds. We just feel in this world. And in this world—in the desert—it kind of swallows it up. Everything disappears but the four-wheel drive marks.
Have you caught a glimpse into the astral plane?
In my life, I have seen that. Have you ever?
If I did, how would I recognize that it was not just a figment of my imagination?
Well, when people see ghosts, it’s kind of a leaking through from this other plane of life to this one when the conditions are right. Some dreams are like that. All planes are interwoven together and very sensitive people pick up things—some of it is emotional vibration, since everything is vibration. Some people actually leave their bodies and go traveling in the astral plane, which I can’t say I do. When an Indian goes on a hill and has a vision, sometimes things come through like that. It’s a culture that our culture has ignored, but it’s a reality of life that’s been part of cultures historically forever! It’s part of us all. It’s the electric part of us. The inner idea part. Everyone has an astral body. It’s made of energy and electricity and that’s what the physical body forms on. That’s how the baby knows how to unfold and be a human being. The electrical astral body is already formed. Every single thing in existence has an inner energy body.
What about something man-made?
Everything. You won’t have a car without somebody at least thinking of that car first and drawing it out on plans to build it. Everything has an idea body upon which the atoms collect. Whether it’s a car or piece of celery or rock or dog or human. Everyone has an energy body within your physical body. And when science recognizes that we’ll start solving all the mysteries right, left and center.
Those ideas that come to create a song to match a melody with certain words—do those things exist on an astral body?
Every song has energy. It makes an energy or mark on the inner plane. Whether it’s a harmonic one or disharmonic one or a mediocre one. It makes some kind of a mark. For instance, what inspires me is spiritual ideas. In thinking about spiritual ideas, they have beautiful forms and come into your mind and inspire you and out comes some sort of music—for me.
Do the words and music arrive together?
Yes. Sometimes the whole inspiration starts with one note and one word. Then it unfolds. I’ve talked to a lot of songwriters who say the same thing. Your song cooks in your head for a long time. It’s a feeling. It’s the flower of experience. You go through emotions or whatever happens and it cooks in your mind for a while and suddenly, the song is ready like bread rising. You sit down with a word or note and out it comes.
Have you continued writing music this whole time in the desert?
I haven’t written any new songs for a few years because most of my energy has gone into painting mandalas on hubcaps. I earn my living painting. I’ve got them all over Texas—spotted over the USA, England, Australia. I even have some in Jamaica!
Where do you get hubcaps?
Sometimes I’m out traveling, I find them. I have a friend who brings some. I trade him a hubcap for the hubcaps he finds traveling. Many people know I paint them. I have a bit of fame in this small section of the world. They’ll bring them to Big Bend and leave them at certain places for me.
How did hubcaps become your chosen medium?
I had been working with little mandalas and sketching them a lot. Then I started looking for something round to paint on. This was many years ago. I found pizza plates. I wasn’t in the Big Bend then. You could find pizza plates and tacky trays at a second-hand store. Then one day I was down in the Big Bend and wanted to paint some and didn’t have any pizza plates, so I looked around and found a hubcap and that’s how it started.
How many have you done?
Well over a thousand. I’ve been painting them for more than twenty years. For the center picture I use scenes like border pictures or cowboy pictures or scenery of the river or many people send me orders—like they want a picture of their dog or various symbols or ideas, or this bird—and then I use simple geometrics in the circles around it.
The circle is such an ultimate concept. No matter where you begin in a circle, it eventually leads to the center.
A circle encompasses everything in existence. You take a dot, that implies a circle. A circle can have a given radius or it can spin into infinity. The circle also implicates—you put the cross in the middle and you have the four seasons. Everything fits in the mandala. I think every culture that ever existed used that symbol as a representation of eternity or existence or God. It can be divided in fives or eights or fours or threes or sixes. Basically, it’s divided in four. Your clock is a mandala. The seasons are a mandala. If you cut an orange, you’re looking at a mandala. If you look at that picture Leonardo DaVinci did with his arms and legs extended, you’re looking at a mandala. The center of it is in his belly button. In a drawing of the brain, there is a mandala. Life unfolds from the center-outwards. It’s a magical design. I’ve learned a great deal painting them.
Do you look at your future as something planned or find it a voyage of discovery or neither?
It will be what it will be. The future will grow out of what I do today. What you do today and how you take care of it completely with good attention right in the present, that’s your foundation of the future. There are some people, though, who do predict a future over time and come to accomplish it. That’s another way of doing things. The way I do it, I do each day completely, one day at a time.
People struggle with what defines living a good life or doing what they should do. What advice do you have on that?
Gosh. I always went and did what my heart told me to do. I never got off too far. One does during a long lifetime. You find out what your heart really wants to do. You find your true predilection and go from there. A lot of us are involved with earning a living and raising kids but still in that time you start to find your predilection and as the years go by, and even though you’re really busy, you gradually pull your life in line to what your true duty is—what you were born to do. Each person should do that. Otherwise, if you’re living someone else’s life, yours is wasted. Then you get older and life’s not much fun at all if you haven’t been living your own real life. Unless you set out on that discovery and figure out what you really want to do—then life is exciting and rewarding amid all the troubles that come naturally.
Did you choose the songs put on the new compilation of your recorded music?
I helped choose them. Most of the songs that were chosen for this album were ones that I have chosen myself to keep alive over the years.
There’s something rather peaceful about them.
They come from a peaceful, very natural place. It’s a different kind of music. It’s the kind of music to listen to and go within. There’s music to serve every purpose. There’s marching music, there’s dancing music. A lot of music is to take you out. This music is to take you within. Over-passing the nightmares and personal nonsense into your true center. I am glad if they can help. The more you listen to them, the more secrets—the more depths—you’re going to hear in them. They have been teaching me for many years. They come from perhaps my wiser nature. They will teach you how to think in the circle. How to think from the center of you—how to feel from the center of you—which we all need help to do.
The vibrations in your voice are really prominent.
Back when I recorded those I had a three-octave voice. I think I’m down to being a moderate second soprano now. I don’t have the voice I used to have. But I still sing and I keep all those songs going. It’s very exciting that people are finally getting to enjoy them because I certainly have for many years.
Is music a language?
Everything is vibration. Everything boils down to vibration: good, bad, high, low, everything translates into vibration. Everything is a song. Everything has its song. So music is a language. It’s a language that we understand and need very much now because if you think about it, because of the technology we have, there are many more than thousands—millions—of people pouring their material out in some form for the world to hear. And each piece reaches its own little audience. Music is talking now. Music, whichever kind you like to hear, raises your spirits. You can call music a lot of things but it certainly is a language. Music that doesn’t have words speaks to your soul. I started learning Spanish because years ago I met a woman from Argentina, Amanda Miguel, and she sang so incredibly beautifully. It moved me to tears and put me through all kinds of changes and I didn’t understand a word. Just the pure vibration she was causing.
COLLIE RYAN WITH MIA DOI TODD AND ERICA HYSKA ON SUN., JULY 12, AT THE PHILOSOPHICAL RESEARCH SOCIETY, 3910 LOS FELIZ BLVD., LOS FELIZ. 8 PM / ADMISSION $10 / ALL AGES. PRS.ORG. COLLIE RYAN’S THE HOUR IS NOW IS OUT NOW ON YOGA RECORDS. VISIT COLLIE RYAN AT YOGARECORDS.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/COLLIERYAN.