Richard Sharpe Shaver...
Master Surrealist

by Brian Tucker

Inside the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University, Orange, California

Richard Sharpe Shaver stands at the center of several art exhibits that I've put together, beginning in 1989. Longtime Shavertron aficionados might recall "Richard Shaver, Darling of the Art World," which I wrote for the print edition of Shavertron, issue 29, on the occasion of the first presentation of Shaver's work in a New York art gallery back in 1991.

Shaver has been featured in more art shows in the years since that article, and I'm delighted to bring readers of the online Shavertron up to date.

My first Shaver-related show was "The Hidden World," an exposition of the life and work of Richard Shaver and his publisher Ray Palmer. Taped audio narration guided viewers through an array of historical photos, maps, magazines and rocks in display cases. These artifacts were mixed with other elements that I fabricated myself, including paintings, drawings, diagrams and texts.

Click for Brian Tucker's Dero Art

The show's narration describes key episodes in Shaver's career: Shaver claimed to have discovered the mother of all human languages, the "Mantong" alphabet, which Palmer published in a 1944 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. Palmer went on to edit and publish a series of stories by Shaver, labeling them "The Shaver Mystery," and characterizing Shaver's tales as fact-presented-as-fiction. These stories told of the great Elder Races who occupied the earth in pre-historic times. Those ancient races, who were far more sophisticated than modern humans, built tremendous cities inside the earth. Shaver wrote that the degenerate descendants of those races - the sadistic inner-earth-dwellers known as Dero - are still alive and spreading confusion and misery among us today. Thousands of readers wrote letters to verify Shaver's claims that these malevolent creatures use the Elder Race's ancient "ray" machines to project tormenting voices and anti-social impulses into the minds of helpless surface dwellers.

The show's narration also described the controversy that surrounded the Shaver Mystery within the science fiction community, and arguments between Shaver and Palmer over the reality of the Dero and their cavern world. Palmer suggested that the Dero existed on a spiritual or astral plane; Shaver, a strict materialist, insisted they physically reside inside the earth. The show continued with an exploration of Shaver's "rock books" - stones that Shaver believed were manufactured by the Elder Races in order to store information. Rock books were the only available record of the true history of intelligent life on earth. The show concluded with a display of drawings, photos, and paintings that Shaver created as visual aids to make the images in the rock books accessible to modern man.

While viewers unfamiliar with the saga of Shaver and Palmer often wonder about the mix of fact and fiction in the exhibit (some conclude I made the whole thing up), the facts of Shaver's biography and his beliefs are presented as accurately as possible. The first version, at California Institute of the Arts in 1989, culminated with two framed paintings and a pastel drawing by Richard Shaver.

An expanded version of "The Hidden World" was presented in 1994 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in connection with a show called "Altered Egos." This remains the most extensive Shaver-themed exhibit yet mounted. It included more original Shaver paintings, photos, and manuscripts than before, plus an audio interview with Shaver, and a Long John Nebel radio broadcast featuring Shaver and Palmer. Additional historical items included an original copy of the seventeenth century book Mundus Subterraneus by the legendary Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. The book features engravings depicting inner-earth dwellers and images that Kircher found embedded in rocks, much as Shaver did centuries later.

Shaver's works appeared in a different context in the latest show that I assembled, in 2002 - "A Little Application of Our Much-Touted Know-How," at the Guggenheim Gallery of Chapman University, Orange, California. In this show, Shaver was placed among a group of people who have used artistic means to demonstrate unusual theories.

In addition to pieces by Shaver, the show featured drawings made in the process of clairvoyant "Remote Viewing," including a likeness of the World Trade Center attack that professional remote viewer Prudence Calabrese claims to have drawn in 1997.

The show also featured examples of recorded speech played forward and backward to illustrate the "Reverse Speech" phenomenon discovered by Australian researcher David John Oates. Oates believes that people unconsciously communicate by speaking backwards, and that reverse speech always reveals the speaker's true state.

Ghostly photographs by the Veilleux family of Maine rounded out the show. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, the Veilleux took mysterious Polaroids based on instructions received via Ouija board. They believe these photos prove the existence of spiritual life after physical death.

In "The Hidden World," Shaver's writing, painting, and photography were folded into my own telling of his story. In "Much-Touted Know-How," most of the supplementary information in the gallery consisted of recordings or direct quotations from those who produced the works on display. Shaver's "voice" was present through a group of his annotated photos.

Click for Annotated Photo by R. Shaver

These are standard sheets of typing paper on which Shaver pasted a photographic print, usually a detail of a surface or cross-section of rock. Sometimes he'd paste more than one photo on a sheet, and sometimes he used colored inks or watercolors on the photos to accentuate latent figures he discovered in the rock books.

Beneath the photos he typed an interpretation of the image he saw, or offered instruction in his photographic method, or a lament about his frustration trying to get the press or the scientific community to take his insights seriously. The show's title was a quote from one of those pieces.

Another Annotated Photo

Although "The Hidden World" provided more information about Shaver's career, "Much-Touted Know-How" may have offered the best selection of Shaver's paintings and photos thusfar presented to the public. This was largely due to the cooperation of Shaver fans Richard Toronto and Jim Pobst, who were crucial contributors to the earlier shows as well.

None of these works had, to my knowledge, ever been exhibited before. In addition to the annotated and hand-colored photos by Shaver, the show included two of the best known of Shaver's creations. Shaver chose the painting "Amazons Defending Against the Attack of the Ape Bats" to introduce his paintings to the world in the book The Ancient Earth-Its Story in Stone, which is included as part of Ray Palmer's The Secret World.

Click for Shaver's "Attack of the Ape Bats"

Shaver frequently posed for pictures with the "Ape Bats" painting - it was clearly a proud achievement - and I was thrilled to be able to include it in the show.

Another remarkable piece is the large-scale drawing "After the Big Flood" (aka "Adam and Eve in Space"). Shaver published an article interpreting this drawing (Shaver called it a painting, but it seems to have been rendered in pastel and felt pen) in an issue of The Hidden World, a magazine devoted to Shaver's theories, published by Palmer in the 1960s. The "Adam and Eve" drawing was featured on the cover. With written phrases, such as "this is writing," embedded among its images, it is an unusual example - unique, as far as I know - of Shaver's transition from earlier drawings of life in the caves to his larger-scale paintings based on rock books.

Click for Adam and Eve in Space

Two other paintings were included in the show, both vivid examples of the dense agglomeration of overlapping faces, body parts and animal heads that Shaver often found in rock books. These two paintings are reproduced elsewhere on the Shavertron website, with an article by Doug Skinner.

A copy of The Secret World and several photocopied articles by or about Shaver, including his essay on "Adam and Eve in Space," were available at a reading area in the center of the Guggenheim gallery. The show also included an internet connection with a direct link to Shavertron.

We kicked off "Much-Touted Know-How" with a panel discussion featuring Reverse Speech Practitioner Terese Johnson, Skeptic magazine's publisher Dr. Michael Shermer, and me. I gave an introductory talk about Shaver and the others in the show.

Ms. Johnson, a close associate of David John Oates and one of only two or three Reverse Speech professionals in the U.S., gave an impassioned presentation of her history with Reverse Speech and the reasons she was convinced of its validity as a therapeutic tool. Her talk ran longer than scheduled, so Dr. Shermer jumped in and started to challenge her claims for Reverse Speech, which his magazine had printed an article debunking.

Shermer eventually debunked the entire exhibit, diagnosing Shaver's work as a "classic" example of the human tendency to seek and find patterns, even where there are none. Prudence Calabrese, the remote viewer whose precognitive image of the World Trade Center attack was in the show, described the panel talk in her review of the show for a Remote Viewing Newsletter (see the web links below).

Press reaction to "Much-Touted Know-How" focused heavily on Shaver. The widely-read LA Weekly usually limits its coverage to cultural events in Los Angeles County, so I was pleasantly surprised when art critic Doug Harvey traveled south to see the show and write a full-page review.

Harvey was especially taken with the presentation of Shaver's work, which he called "the most impressive portion of the exhibit, both formally and conceptually." He went on to compare Shaver to some of the best-known painters of the twentieth century, and to wonder "why this fascinating work-which on visual terms alone ranks with the Surrealist paintings of Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet-hasn't been afforded a more complete retrospective."

Praise for Shaver arrived in somewhat less respectful terms in a review that appeared in the LA Weekly's sister publication, Orange County Weekly. Rebecca Schoenkopf saw the show as a meditation on the stereotype of the crazy artist, describing the exhibit as "brilliantly insane. It's fruity and cuckoo and downright bananas." Pegging Shaver as "a great nut," and "the looniest of them all," she found that his work "revealed an evocative vision," exclaiming "he sure made nice paintings out of what he saw in those rock sections!"

The year 2002 also saw the first show of Shaver's work that I had nothing to do with: "Richard Sharpe Shaver: Weird and Wonderful Art," appeared at Christine Burgin Gallery in New York City. Burgin is working with author and Shaver art collector Norman Brosterman, and I understand that Doug Skinner, who has delivered a number of well-researched lectures on Shaver over the years, spoke at the show's opening. I was unable to see that show, but I heard good things about it, and it was favorably reviewed in the New York Times.

After decades of obscurity, there are signs of a renewed public interest in Richard Shaver. I've heard rumblings about Shaver being included in a New York museum exhibit, talk of a book about Shaver, and I expect to present one or another of my Shaver-related shows again at some point in the future, when I'll have more news for the Shavertron faithful.


Text and images copyright Brian Tucker. Used here by permission.