Photographed by Ira Odessky - Courtesy of Judith Shevin

Burt Shonberg - bio

The visions Burt Shonberg painted came from places few of us are privileged to see. Technically, his work displayed a unique grasp of form, color and composition. But it was the intimation of a higher reality looming behind his paintings that gave them their rare power. Like William Blake, Shonberg filled his acts of creation with a sense of spiritual adventure and intense, almost frightening reverence. On canvas and Masonite board, on café walls and cocktail napkins, he recorded his journeys to the outer edges of human perception.

“Burt Shonberg was a prospector of consciousness,” says his friend and patron Marshall Berle. “Shonberg went where no man had gone before, and brought his discoveries to life on canvas. Some thought him to be ‘crazy,’ but in reality, no artist was able to capture the visions and philosophy as Shonberg did with his paintings.”

Born on March 30, 1933 in Revere, MA, Shonberg began his artistic studies before enlisting the U.S. Army. After his discharge in 1956, he continued his studies at the Art Center of Los Angeles and began to gain local admirers of his work. Among these fans was Forrest J. Ackerman, who served as his agent and introduced him to the city’s film community. His fascination with the esoteric led to a romantic involvement with Marjorie Cameron, widow of rocket scientist and Aleister Crowley devotee Jack Parsons. By this time, fantasy imagery, occult references and cabalistic symbols had become recurring motifs in his work.

Shonberg gained exposure by painting murals on the walls of such L.A. area coffee houses/night clubs as the Purple Onion, the Bastille, Cosmo Alley and Pandora’s Box. In 1958, he launched a place of his own when he joined forces with folk singer Doug Myres and writer George Clayton Johnson to open Café Frankenstein in Laguna Beach, CA. His fascination – some would say obsession – with the Frankenstein story was reflected in the depictions of the monster he painted on the café’s walls and front window.

On an interior wall by the Café’s front door, Shonberg painted the following message: “Every once in a while during our accepted journey through life, we encounter something ‘strange,’ something directed towards us and we do not understand it. But anyhow, daylight, a familiar sound or somebody will jolt us back to the absurd reality of how things are supposed to be and we will be safe again…perhaps!”

This statement goes to the heart of Shonberg’s creative mission. Piercing the veil between worlds became his life’s work. In 1960, he took part in a research project studying the effects of LSD-25 on human creativity under the direction of Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Janiger. His experiences with the Janiger study confirmed his earlier flashes of mystical insight and deepened the otherworldly qualities of his artwork.

Among Shonberg’s admirers during this time was filmmaker Roger Corman, who featured several of his paintings in House of Usher (1960) and The Premature Burial (1962). Burt branched out into the music world as well, creating album cover art for Love’s Out Here and Spirit’s Spirit of ’76. Celebrities like Sally Kellerman and Ringo Starr began collecting his work. Manager George Greif (who promoted the Beatles’ first American concert tour) arranged for his only one-man show, held at a Los Angeles gallery in 1968. Shonberg became a true underground legend during this time even as many of his paintings mysteriously disappeared into unknown hands.

Shonberg died on September 18, 1977 at his home in Seal Beach, CA. Marshall Berle, George Clayton Johnson, the late artist Ledru Baker and other friends have helped to keep his creative legacy alive. A documentary film about his life and work is currently in production.

Walking the thin and dangerous line between dimensions, Burt Shonberg invited those brave enough to follow him. His artwork still beckons us onward into the realms of our dreams. We may be safe again – perhaps! – after seeing his work, but we can’t help but be changed.

-- Barry Alfonso

Printed by permission - Barry Alfonso ©2012 - 2012