Kelsey Brookes traded in his life in the microbiological world — chasing West Nile virus and testing blood transfusions for HIV — for art. The scientific concepts fascinated him while he worked in labs at the Centers for Disease Control in Colorado, and at Gen-Probe here in San Diego. But he was mostly performing grunt work. He’d draw on test tube sealing cards while he waited for processes to finish, and his friends in the lab would collect them.

He faced two options, he said: Go to graduate school or find something else he loved to do.

“I imagined myself as an old scientist, you know, 50 years old, and I imagined myself as an old artist,” Brookes said. “I guess I decided I’d rather be the artist.”

But the 34-year-old painter can’t help but keep exploring how and why things work. Brookes’ latest projects take the simple molecular line diagrams you remember from high school — the ones scientists use to relate a molecule in a simple, visual way — and corresponds them to what those molecules do to our visual perception.

It layers the outcome of the molecule, or at least, how Brookes perceives the outcome, on top of the diagram itself. Take serotonin, below. Each of those bursts represents an atom in the serotonin molecule, corresponding to the diagram Brookes is showing us.

Some of Brookes’ work caught the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ attention this year: a series of nine 7-inch records being released this year features Brookes’ artwork. You can see his new work in a show at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla opening Nov. 10.

Brookes had me and photographer Sam Hodgson up to his second-floor studio in North Park this week for a conversation about molecules, hallucinating and his pursuit of well-being.

How do you choose your color for this work?

It’s unlimited. Anytime I can find a color that I haven’t made yet, I will mix and make it. I’m limited by the pigments I can see in the human visual spectrum.

I’ll be walking down the street and see a flower and take a photo of it. And then I just take its components apart and reassemble them.

Why serotonin?

Serotonin’s an interesting molecule because it’s in your brain all the time. It’s what they call endogenous, meaning your brain manufactures it, and it’s used inside your brain. And so there’s a bunch of other molecules that look really, really similar structurally to it, but they produce visual and mental hallucination.

They do it by triggering the same pathway that serotonin uses. Those four that I decided to focus on are LSD; psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms; mescaline, which is the active ingredient in peyote; and DMT, the active ingredient in ayahusca and a few other shamanistic preparations.

They all produce these crazy visual hallucinations. I decided to depict the molecules based on that hallucination. The molecule makes your brain feel a certain way, and I just take that way that it makes your brain feel and focus it back on the molecule.

So were you under the influence to make these?

I wasn’t tripping when I made them, no. But I’ve had plenty of experience with that stuff. Just, you know, from college and partying and taking drugs, as you do, just for the experience.

Those are the five molecules that I’ve depicted, and the rest of the work is what you feel — things you might see during a trip, the different hallucinations in the visual system.

Serotonin is interesting because it regulates some pathways in your brain — not only hallucination, but your feeling of well-being, general happiness. But it also touches on something I thought was a little more interesting, worth checking out, which is the sense of something spiritual. It somehow regulates that system as well.

You’ve made work that references, even in some of the shapes of your current work, religious traditions. A lot of that whole world is a community coming around an icon and trying to interpret together. Is it important to you that people look at your work with other people?

It’s something I haven’t really directed thought toward, artistically. I can see why you’d ask that because I’m using images that are meant to bring people together in communion. We’ll see at the show, I guess. (Laughs.)

Let’s say you have an image. There’d be a priest there, usually, interpreting that image of Jesus on the cross or these stained glass windows or whatever it is. This is iconography devoid of all of that. Irreverent, in a sense.

Does this work make you process your own happiness differently?

I guess maybe my sense of what happiness is is a little bit more subtle. For me, it’s a feeling of general, overall stability and wellness that I would interpret as happiness.

Do you have that right now?

I think that’s kind of the great work of life, is trying to get that. I don’t know if it’s perfectly achievable. I think it’s something that can be understood in the sense that I’ll never have that, so just be OK with what you have.

Can you tell me more about what you’ve been learning about meditation?

It’s so new for me. I’ve been meditating for maybe two-and-a-half, three years. And it’s still brand new. It’s definitely work that, kind of like surfing or like painting, can extend through the rest of my life. Instead of being these huge moments where everything makes sense, I feel like it’s just a slow unfolding. It’s something I do every single day for 45 minutes when I wake up.

I just wake up and I either lay there on a yoga mat or I’ll sit up and do the whole sitting-there-and-waiting-for-something-to-happen. Following my breath. It’s a calming thing, but I think there’s something deeper. Outwardly, I feel more calm and more accepting of general bullshit that happens throughout the day. But I think there’s greater work being done.

We’ll see. Ask me in 50 years.

When you’re meditating, are you thinking of color combinations?

No. The way I like to visualize it is meditation is something I do in one particular little sphere. And it’s generating a state of well-being and calm and acceptance in that little sphere. When I open my eyes and move forward from that little sphere, hopefully it comes with me. I can take that concerted effort of concentration and put it into the art.

Whereas I feel like if I just woke up and said, “Fuck it, let’s do this,” slammed a bunch of coffee and then got here, my art would look like it, you know? But to make something that looks like this, you have to sit in one place for weeks on end.

Why do you live in San Diego?

My friends do not do art; they’re not Hollywood actors. They’re just normal people. When we go out to dinner we’re having normal conversations about general life struggles. To me, that is real. That’s how I grew up. When I go to L.A. or London or New York, and I end up in these weird places with these weird people, it’s great and surreal and fun, but it just doesn’t feel real to me. San Diego feels real, and it feels right here.

— Interview conducted and edited by Kelly Bennett, who is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach her directly at or 619.325.0531.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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