CANNABIS AMERICANA

Updated: Apr 14

Penning a portrait of the high priest of underground cannabis art, Pat Ryan.

Cannabis Americanna: The Greatest Hits of Pat Ryan

Counterculture artist Pat Ryan.
Counterculture artist Pat Ryan.

Throughout modern history, a great many artists and musicians have used marijuana to help enhance their creativity. But while creating art under the influence of cannabis has been fairly common, featuring it as the subject matter of art is far less so. When weed did begin to overtly manifest in works of art, it mostly did so in what was considered underground, even "degenerate" art forms of the time: jazz songs in the 1920s and 30s, beatnik poetry and novels in the 1950s, and comic books and rock concert posters in the 1960s and 70s. Naturally, many of the artists who created these bold, brilliant new genres of art would eventually be regarded as counterculture icons. One such artist is Pat Ryan.

EARLY LIFE

Mad Magazine - April 1968 [M021]
Mad Magazine - Apr 68 [M021]

Raised in suburban Long Island, Ryan found his calling early— beginning to paint and draw cartoons by the age of eight. A born rebel, he was heavily influenced by Mad Magazine [1], whose irreverent satire exposed "the shortcomings of the Leave it to Beaver generation."


“I just didn't buy the shit,” Ryan recalls. “I grew up in a very conformist society, and I wanted more out of life than that.”


His teenage years were spent in Greenwich Village, where he hung out in jazz clubs and coffeehouses and got into Dylan, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. Apparently though, even NYC’s happening beatnik scene wasn't enough to satisfy Ryan’s yearnings. As soon as he was old enough, he left for the Left Coast.


“I actually left home on a two-week vacation and I just never came back,” he chuckles.

CALIFORNIA DREAMING

In 1962, Ryan moved to Hermosa Beach, where he discovered the SoCal surfer party scene, as well as weed and psychedelics. In the ensuing years, he married an African-American singer named Cyretta, moved to South Central, and started a family. He landed a well-paying gig as an art director at an ad agency on Sunset Boulevard (just across the street from the Whiskey a Go-Go), started “hanging out with lots of Hollywood weirdos from Laurel Canyon,” and doing tons of acid. Despite these fun times, however, he soon grew tired of city life: afraid for his family’s safety amidst the 1965 Watts Riots, and disillusioned by phony Hollywood types and corporate execs at his job, he decided he wanted out.

“Ad agencies are total bullshit,” Ryan complains. “I was making money, but I was spending all of my time taking clients to lunch and looking at portfolios, and I thought, ‘this is not being an artist—this is being a flunky.’ I had to leave.”

BEST BUDS

So in 1971, Ryan packed up his family and moved up to the small town of Fairfax in Marin County, where he opened up a tiny studio and jumped into the area’s vibrant art scene. Within the first couple of months, he met a kindred soul that would become his best friend and partner—comic artist Dave Sheridan.


Mother's Oats Comix - Issue #1 by Dave Sheridan.
Mother's Oats Comix #1

“I got a copy of a comic he was doing called Mother's Oats,” Ryan recounts. “Inside the front cover was a fake ad that said, ‘Would you like to get fucked by a famous artist?’ and he’d put his home address at the bottom! Well, the address was mere blocks from where I was living, so I packed a few joints and a six-pack of beer, walked over to his house, and knocked on his door. I introduced myself, and we became best friends right away. I had met somebody who had the exact same mindset as I did. It was amazing.”