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Guilty But Insane: Autobiography Vol 2

Guilty But Insane: Autobiography Vol 2

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Guilty But Insane: Autobiography Vol 2

519 pagine
5 ore
Jun 15, 2020


Guilty But Insane is the second volume in Johannes’ autobiographical series. In Cheltenham Art College, we are plunged into 1974, the heady ‘after-flush’ of the sixties, with its extraordinary mish-mash of spirituality, politics, mind expansion, music and love. His three years of sculpture degree course (1975–78) saw him at Winchester College of Art and Design, dabbling in metaphysical constructions and flirting with punk.
Johannes unashamedly and candidly shares his psychotropic experiences, first love and first work. The book is well ‘spattered’ with colourful incidents, character vignettes, friendships and strange happenings. We are given a vision of a freer world, less constrained by fear and legislation.
Various hitch-hiking trips with his stalwart companion, Aonghus Gordon, are undertaken to Greece, Turkey, Southern Europe, Israel and Egypt. Ancient cultures and the continuity of civilisation are explored. The summer of 1979, sees them in America, travelling as the early settlers did, from east to west, revelling in the boundless diversity and splendour of the natural world and working in a Camphill Community for adults with special needs, in New York state.
In the early eighties, Johannes’ first serious commissions kick in: the pen drawings for Peter Patterson’s book, Fal, and the Rowan Tree ‘Grail’ fountain.
In the early eighties, Johannes' first serious commissions kick in: the pen drawings for Peter Patterson's book, Fal, and the Rowan Tree ‘Grail' fountain.
Jun 15, 2020

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Guilty But Insane - Johannes Steuck



The Crooks

In September of 1974 I started the Foundation Course at Cheltenham College of Art and Design. I lived with the Crooks, Matthew’s family in St George’s Road. Matthew had left home a year or so earlier and lived in a little cellar flat; I inherited his bedroom. He’d been an extraordinary and radical presence till the end of Class 10 when he’d gone to Stroud Tech to do his O and A levels. He’d then worked for a year as a pottery technician in Stroud College.

His transition from boyhood to manhood had been very rapid, but sadly his head of hair, which hung down in lank, black strands, began to vanish quickly. He was more or less bald by his early twenties. Once the awkward moulting years had finished, his head, in all its Buddhic splendour, more than compensated for any hair loss. Matthew was involved with the subculture earlier than anyone else in our class and it was through him that I first saw copies of the infamous Oz magazine.

He had a great sense of humour which was both dry and provocative. I remember once when we were in the boys’ toilet, a most unsavoury place at the best of times, strewn with sweaty T-shirts, mud and battered hockey sticks, when Christopher Lewers, the gym teacher, came in. He was obviously inspecting the place and found, to his absolute horror, a large, coiled turd in one of the cubicles. In an existential agony he was heard to ask: ‘What sort of a fellow would do this?’ To which Matthew replied matter-of-factly, ‘A dog.’ During the fuel shortages of 1972–73, lessons in the depths of winter were sometimes unbearably cold. Matthew appeared in school with a bearskin wrapped around his waist.

His attic room into which I moved was still strewn with some of his things – notably an old black and white TV (which I sometimes watched) and a record player and some records. It was through Matthew’s abandoned records that I discovered The Doors. The three girls – Jenny, Libby and Debbie – and the youngest boy Timmy, still lived at home. Debbie, a delicious fifteen-year-old, sometimes joined me in my room to watch the odd film. This was entirely innocent but Mrs Crook soon put a stop to it. The visits were disallowed and the telly (probably without a licence anyway) was put out of action. Libby and I sometimes went out to various folk clubs. This was the real finger-in-the-ear stuff, non-electric, of the people, for the people. These events, usually accompanied by half a cider, had a certain entertainment value but weren’t really quite my scene.

Timmy, probably about nine or ten at the time, burst into my bedroom every morning with a sweet cup of tea. He was always bubbling with good humour and energy, something I found hard to return at the crack of dawn. Still, I was deeply grateful for it, although much of the tea had spilt out into the saucer in his eagerness and haste as he clambered up the stairs to my loft abode; it was just the thing to start the day.

Mrs Crook cooked abundant and stodgy meals and we all ate together downstairs in the kitchen. Mr Crook (who had been in the colonial police) was a taxi driver and sometimes joined us. He was a huge man, over six feet tall, with an egg-shaped belly, benign and bald as a baby. I sometimes did my artwork downstairs in the kitchen, but usually worked alone in my garret.

Art College

The art student 1974

The Art College was situated about half an hour’s walk away, just beyond Pittville Gardens, near the racecourse. It was one of those drab glass and concrete structures of the 60s, a block of functional space with no frills.

Three members of my class attended it: Aonghus, Kerry and myself. Kerry and her sister Naomi had joined Wynstones in 1971; their parents lived abroad in Zambia, their father a draughtsman who worked for the copper mining industry. Kerry was in our class and very soon got together with my friend Reinhard who I had grown up with. They were both in Wynstones hostel and began a relationship that was to continue for many years.

Kerry was a quiet girl, modest and unassuming. There was a sort of old-fashioned quality about her, a serene dignity. The only slightly naughty thing I ever remember her doing was the writing of the Tea Letter. In Classes 11 and 12 we had a little squalid common room in a sort of annexe of the hot lunch cellar. To get some free tea for our rather heavy intake, a certain somewhat dodgy strategy was embarked upon. We took the residue of an old packet, chucked it around the room, squished it into the corners, stomped on it and generally defiled it. We then popped it back into a fairly new packet and sent it with an accompanying letter to the company. Kerry had good handwriting, nice looped letters with a backward slant and pretended to be Dame so and so from Wynstones Manor, long-time purchaser of the aforementioned brand of tea. She was definitely not satisfied with her last purchase and was sending it back to the company in the hope that something could be done. Yours sincerely etc., etc. Some weeks later a large box of tea arrived with an accompanying letter of apology. Analysis in the laboratory had discovered foreign material.

I had not really expected anything from Art College but was endlessly amazed and challenged by the things we were expected to do. The fine art tutors ran a programme of ‘unconditioning’. In other words, any preconceptions one might have in regard to the nature of art, its function and purpose, the whole business of aesthetics, particularly concepts of beauty and ugliness, were deliberately eroded. They tried to return one to a kind of tabula rasa, a blank sheet, where the student could rebuild from scratch his understanding of art. This was in many ways an excellent thing, my Steiner school art instruction having been very much dominated by the creation of ‘beautiful products’. Here the process became all-important and the results were often meaningless; it was how the student tackled a project, and more importantly, the ‘thinking’ that he applied. Thus, there tended to be a very one-sided emphasis on ‘idea’ to the detriment of ‘skill’ or empathy with the material. Fairly early on in the year, a decision was made (with my consent) to focus more on sculpture than on painting. John Fox, our sculpture tutor, seemed to think that I had a talent for ‘making things’ and that my painting was essentially ‘rubbish’. This choice of 3D art would have far-reaching consequences for me – in fact, would influence and channel my creative energies for many years. I was very happy to involve myself with sculpture because it was an entirely new area of activity – something I had little experience in and which I could tackle afresh without any hang-ups and preconceptions. My painting was something I had been born with, it had been carried into this life and was entrenched on a very deep level, tied up with ancient art, Fra Angelico and religion. Thus I could begin anew with sculpture and was not forced to relentlessly ‘deconstruct’ my inner world but could retain it as an invisible undercurrent in my life.

Making the paper environment

In one sculpture project we filled the entire studio, a space of perhaps 50 square metres, with paper. Paper was hung in great sheets from the ceiling, draped over things, made into tunnels and little enclosures. On completion of this ‘total environment’, we spent a day or so living within it, making noises and crawling about on our stomachs. In another project we had to construct an object that moved, almost like a very basic machine. Thus, by pulling a string or manipulating a piece of wood, the construction could be made to change shape, expand or fold up.

We listened endlessly to The Who’s double LP Quadrophenia and created something on the theme of ‘Inside and Outside’. I made a sort of urinal-shaped owl out of plaster that had another figure inside it.

I worked a lot in clay and learnt to cast plaster. I enjoyed the process enormously and became quite adroit at it. Some of my efforts were rewarded with total failure. I worked for about three weeks on a clay totem pole and cast it in plaster. The cast was so tightly welded onto the clay that I soaked it overnight. It was too big to immerse, so I dripped water over it. The next day it was much eroded and the sculpture destroyed.

Making the paper environment

Our time was divided into three-week blocks in which we were given tasters of a whole host of different disciplines. We did photography, black and white with an Olympus or Praktica camera, which I enjoyed very much. We also learnt to develop the film and play about with the negatives. One project was to photograph sequences, events which told a story. A fellow student and I worked out a few little skits which we documented. The one in which I starred involved finding the Daily Mirror on a park bench, gloating over the splendidly betitted Page Three girl and collapsing in a dead faint.

We did etching on aluminium plates, learnt cross-hatching and the application of screens. There was painting and life drawing. I was never very good at drawing from life but I did improve somewhat and might have got better at it if I’d persevered. We had gorgeous models – girls in the prime of life – which of course was an added incentive.

Life drawing took me on an interesting journey: when first confronted by a delightful naked female, it was impossible to remain unmoved. Very soon, however, this eroticism vanished away entirely and I only experienced form: how things are connected to each other, what goes on under the skin, gravity, foreshortening and the way in which flesh is distorted by impact and pressure.

Clay modelling from life


I got ‘stoned’ for the first time. I acquired a little hash – probably Moroccan or Lebanese, I can’t quite remember – and rolled a joint on a bench in Pittville Park. I had invited two fellow students, Jane and Corrine, to join me. I had smoked a couple of times before but nothing very much had happened. Now, suddenly I was absolutely out of it. I drifted back to college in a disembodied state and just about made it through a tutorial with John Wiscard, the painting tutor. Tutorials are intensive, very personal one-to-one sessions with a tutor in which one is supposed to thrash out problems, talk intelligently about one’s work and respond conscientiously to advice given. I failed miserably and slithered away as soon as it was over, seeking sanctuary in the gents. Even sitting on the bog was too much and I ended up more or less curled around the toilet, crammed into one of the tiny cubicles. Every time someone flushed or a tap was turned on, I was carried away into a kind of eternal ocean of rushing water.

College Life

It is said that the 60s extended themselves into the early 70s, ending in 1974, the year I was in Cheltenham. Student life was an extraordinary mishmash of ideas, experiments and experiences. Everything was up for grabs and of course one very strong element of radicalised youth was Communism. The leader of the Student Union was one Sam Sykes; he came from somewhere up north, probably Newcastle, and was of solid, proletarian stock. He spoke to the students as if they were miners, cajoled and bullied and usually got his way. At his incitement we all went on strike, boycotting the college canteen. This was a reaction against the perceived unfair increase in prices and had its effect. The food and drink remained the same price, but proper meals were replaced by snacks.

Every now and then discos were arranged for good causes; I remember one was organised for a student who had been busted. Sam was in his element and ended his hectoring speech with the words: ‘Cum to ’et disco, ye buggers!’ Extreme feminism was also in vogue and issues such as abortion would sometimes crop up in discussions. This was a topic which was almost impossible to discuss; my arguments came from the perspective of the ‘spiritual human being’, existing prenatally and posthumously; the feminist argument centred around ‘human rights’. These invariably were the human rights of the mother to have control over her own body and destiny, and not the human rights of the unborn child.

Aonghus and I went on an anti-abortion demonstration, one of the very few demonstrations I ever went on. This involved a trip to London and a lot of shouting outside the British Medical Association building: ‘Hey, hey, BMA – how many kids have you killed today?’ White faces peered from windows, but otherwise there was only silence.

First Moon Node

In the autumn of my eighteenth year, sometime in October, I had a very strange and at the time inexplicable experience. It was late evening and I had probably spent several hours painting as usual, when suddenly out of nowhere I was filled with the absolute certainty of my imminent death. I knew that I would die shortly. This did not fill me with panic or regret; in fact, I felt completely calm and resigned. I wrote a letter saying goodbye to my family and went to bed. I reviewed my whole life and saw in it a kind of completeness; in fact, saw no necessity for it to continue. For the whole next day this sense of the nearness of death remained with me. From a perspective of aloof calm I wondered how it would happen. Would I be hit by a car? How would I die? 24 hours or so after the onset of this feeling it faded away and disappeared completely. Years later from my readings of Anthroposophical Science, I found a possible explanation for my experience. Every eighteen years, seven months and nine days, the birth constellation with respect to the ‘aspect’ of the sun, moon and earth returns: this is the so-called ‘moon node’. It’s like a gate opening and a sort of channel between the ‘higher self’ (which does not incarnate) and the incarnated self briefly re-forms. New life impulses can flow through; in my case it brought the touch of death.

Peter Gorge

One of the striking personalities I met at this time was Peter Gorge. His whole being created an incredible contrast to the glass and concrete structure of the college building and the aloof, brittle intellectuality of some of the tutors.

As a Viennese Jew, Peter had fled Austria at the onset of Nazism. He was highly educated (largely self-taught), deeply cultured with aristocratic tastes and refinements. He was of late middle age, portly, with a large, bald head, with tiny, wispy baby curls growing at the nape of his neck and slightly bulging, bloodshot eyes. He had a big, booming voice which could be heard from one end of the college to the other. His sister Marianne (whom I got to know and love much later in life) was in Camphill Ringwood – a lean, gaunt woman with beautiful large, soul-filled eyes, who hitch-hiked everywhere right into her late-seventies. There was also a brother, who at one time worked in the hostel at Wynstones and whom Peter always referred to as ‘Poor Willie’.

Peter Gorge had run, rather unsuccessfully, an antique shop. The story goes that one day when he was out, a rich customer had turned up and actually bought something. This something was a beautiful Chinese vase that had stood in the shop for years. Peter’s wife was delighted – they hadn’t made this much money for a long time. Not so, Peter; he turned pale, followed the customer and offered to buy the vase back for more money than it had been sold for.

Peter taught History of Art or, to be more precise, History of the Applied Arts. He was incredibly knowledgeable and took us through the development of Chinese bronzes, furniture and fireplaces. He had a vast collection of slides and demonstrated the development of ‘human consciousness’, emphasising particularly what he called the process of ‘secularisation’. This was essentially an ‘ideal’, usually a religious object which ended up as a merely decorative feature. The Egyptian Sphinx was such an example. It moved from being the inscrutable desert guardian of ancient times to adorning a chamber pot in the early nineteenth century.

I sometimes got a lift with Peter and became an honorary member of his Lift Club. This entitled me to attend his yearly banquet. His car always seemed too small for him, his huge presence filling it completely. He lay in his seat, elbows spread out sideways and enormous head just peering over the top of the steering wheel. He would engage the passengers in conversation and comment on the behaviour of other drivers. He was very much a free spirit and referred to certain self-important people in the Anthroposophical Society as ‘Jewish Nazis’. We passed a row of trees that had been cut down and Peter commented:

‘The poor trees – they must have dropped an acorn on the head of a councillor and now they have to suffer.’

A tour of his garden proved that he believed in minimal intervention in nature. It was like walking through a jungle: a vast, overgrown shrubbery with a patch of rough meadowland like a little clearing in the middle. In the very centre, on a square metre or so of shorter grass, stood a dilapidated and rusting lawnmower. Peter remarked:

‘Ah – you see, my wife has been trying to cut the grass.’ He commented on his marriage by saying:

‘My wife and I live in separate parts of the house. Every now and then we meet on the stairs. This arrangement has led to a long and happy marriage.’

His banquets were frugal – crackers, cheese, condiments and juice; the strict ‘diet’ that he always seemed to be on prevented him from partaking.

His sister Marianne Gorge, in her short autobiography, greatly extended my perception of Peter. In 1952, at the age of 32, he was involved in a major train collision. Coming onto the platform a few minutes after his usual time, he was unable to occupy his usual compartment; this probably saved his life. The train to London, where he was working at the time, was involved in a three-way crash.

His name appeared in all the newspapers the next day. ‘Hero works for 10’ was one headline. With superhuman strength this impractical and self-effacing man had worked tirelessly for hours to free the severely wounded and dead from the wreckage of the smashed train.


Most of my time, at the Crooks, and weekends at home, were spent drawing, painting, doing wood mosaic and carving. I was very much alone, dedicated utterly to my artwork. I became a little more sociable in the spring and summer, but if I went out at all it was to a party or to pay a call on Matthew in his little cellar flat. Prominently displayed on his wall was the anti-war poster with the legend: ‘Join the Army, visit interesting places, meet interesting people and shoot them!’ We talked and listened to records. He turned me on to Frank Zappa and I bought a few of his beautiful pots.

The wood mosaics, of which unfortunately none survives, were constructed of pieces of torn, splintered or sawn plywood, dowelling and very thin planks. They were painted and tacked onto a board. Thus the image, part painted, part constructed, moved between abstract and figurative, between 2D and 3D. I carved a bit of wood and also began stone carving. I was the only one in the college to have carved stone for some time, and the tutors brought in a mason who was involved in the continuous repair programme at Gloucester Cathedral to help me and teach me the basics!

I experimented with continuous line drawings, creating images out of overlapping lines and colouring them in. I had begun these drawings in Thornbury and interestingly (in view of future developments) they called forth the comment from Hans van der Stok (an artist and teacher) that I ‘should be doing stained glass’. I had never really thought about it and put the idea aside, on the back burner.

I developed all kinds of techniques which started with ‘process’ and then gradually defined an image. For instance, drip painting, whereby the colour is simply allowed to run quite randomly across the paper. I noticed how the pigment was stretched and the shining quality of the paint was enhanced by the reflective shine of the white paper. I painted over the top of some of these drips creating a contrast between the illuminated colours and the flatter, darker denser ones applied later. I also experimented with contrasts by combining different mediums, such as paint and crayons.


The biggest single influence on my work, and indeed my life, occurred in the summer of 1975: I took LSD for the first time. I’d had long conversations with various people and read some Carlos Castaneda. The books of Carlos Castaneda were appearing annually and created enormous ripples of excitement. Finally, it seemed, a cohesive and comprehensive ‘Western Path’ had made its appearance. Bookshops were stuffed with Eastern esoterica; The Teachings of Don Juan and its six sequels, gave a practical if somewhat terrifying insight into Native American sorcery.

Some of my student friends in later years dismissed the books entirely, I suppose deriding the naïveté that had led them into being ‘conned’. Carlos Castaneda had simply ‘dropped’ too much acid. I took a somewhat different view. It is true that the books become weirder and weirder, more and more fantastical, yet I felt that they enshrined certain truths around which Carlos had ‘constructed’ his teachings.

The first few probably adhere quite closely to his actual experiences and his encounter with the shaman Don Juan. They describe very vividly his experiences with various psychotropic substances – mescaline, datura, psilocybin – and various mental exercises that blur the boundaries between the physical and the spirit worlds. The final ones are more problematic and can probably be best judged by their effect on the reader. They project one into a strange state of dislocated reality – between knowing and not knowing, a kind of open door of the mind.

Impossible as it is to unscramble fact from fiction, the books stand as absolute classics, the best of their kind. What in The Third Eye by Lobsang Rampa had been a simple hoax, perhaps triggered off by actual memories of a former life, in Carlos Castaneda becomes an entire genre. The spiritual autobiography: boldly straddling fact and fantasy, leading the gullible into delusion, the cynical into rejection and the discerning into an enjoyment of exceedingly well-written books.

Be that as it may, Carlos Castaneda was certainly a major factor in my decision to take LSD. I also read a rather depressing book called Go Ask Alice, which was the purported diary of a sweet, middle-class American girl who descended into drug abuse and eventual death. However, this diary contained a very beautiful description of Alice’s first ‘trip’ which, despite the tragic ending of the story, fired my imagination. Interestingly, the authorship of the anonymous diary that appeared in 1971 is controversial. It is now thought to have been written by its editor Beatrice Sparks, to warn young people off drugs; it had the very opposite effect on me.

It was still possible (just) to get hold of really pure acid. It was being manufactured in a hidden laboratory in Wales that would soon be smashed by an undercover police operation known as Operation Julie. Like Odin, the wise All-father of Norse mythology, the older student who got me the acid had only one eye. I bought three tiny, black microdots folded in a piece of paper.

After college, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, I went to the park, sat down on a bench and took one microdot. I was calm, had very few expectations and incredibly little knowledge about the possible effects of this most powerful hallucinogen. I waited and waited and nothing seemed to happen. I began to walk back to college and it was only then that I began to experience very profound changes in my perception. I went to the toilet and looked at my face in the mirror. It seemed to be quivering as if under water. Patterns played across it, sometimes it appeared dripping with blood, sometimes skull-like.

I went upstairs: space formed itself into the most vivid, mandala-like, complex geometric forms. Everywhere I looked the spaces between things took on form, ever shifting in perpetual movement.

After a short (somewhat hysterical) burst of TV viewing in which the colours and sounds radiated out of the screen like flames, I left and retreated to the park. I felt absolutely fine: this was entirely different from both alcohol and dope: I felt conscious and present and was filled with a sense of ‘knowledge’ that was almost a physical sensation of bliss. If I had put it into words I might have said: ‘Ah yes, I know,’ or: ‘Ah yes, I knew all along.’ I lit a cigarette and blew rainbows into the air.

I wandered about in the park and found a magnificent tree to sit under. Every bit of lawn was alive and bursting with energy. Each little circle of grass pulsated in and out of a centre as if each blade was a tiny creature obeying subtle laws of expansion and contraction in some highly organised colony. Each blade shimmered with its own iridescent rainbow light, sending a spear of light upwards.

The tree was covered in crenulated bark which rippled up and down the trunk. Its heavy, downward-sweeping limbs were like the paws of some gigantic dragon, conscious and breathing. In fact, not only was the tree breathing, but also everything, the whole universe, seemed to be breathing in and out, in and out.

In a kind of replay of a time long ago, when we had ‘mobbed’ an older boy in Thornbury and I had seen the shoulder in the tree, three children appeared who perhaps realised instinctively that I was not in a normal state of mind. They hung about and took the Mickey. One part of me was distantly aware of this and felt slightly uneasy I did not want to get entangled with others at this point. I began to move away, heading for a concert that I knew was happening in the Victoria Gardens.

Every single movement I made created ‘trails’ – shimmering after-images of light, rather

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