December 11, 2013

Art and the Human Consciousness: An Interview With Alex Grey

Photo Credit: Alex Grey


What distinguishes visionary art from other forms of psychedelic, vernacular or sacred art is ultimately a mystical experience or state of mind. Howard Finster, creator of Paradise Garden in Summerville, GA, began making sacred art after seeing a tiny human face in a blob of paint on the tip of his finger. After a fever-induced visitation by people from the future, Eddie Owens Martin, a.k.a. St. EOM, went on to create the celestial artscape Pasaquan in Buena Vista, GA. For internationally renowned artist Alex Grey, the revelation that art can lead to enlightenment arrived while under the influence of LSD. God works in curious ways.


Alex Grey

Many of Alex’s works—which include paintings, performance art, books, sculptures and installations—focus on themes of consciousness, interconnectedness and transcendence through an interfaith, multi-cultural perspective. He and his wife, Allyson, are in no way shy about the influence sacramental entheogens, or psychoactive substances like LSD, psilocybin and ayahuasca ingested to “generate the divine within,” have had on their artwork over the decades.

Inspired by an LSD-induced vision that Alex and Allyson shared in 1976, Alex developed the “Sacred Mirrors,” a series of 21 life-size paintings created over a 10-year period that explore the interplay of body, mind and spirit. Chronicling a physical-to-mental-to-transcendental pathway, the series begins with crisp, anatomically precise layers of the human body’s physical systems (muscular, skeletal, cardiovascular), moves on to images of different races, sexes and religious figures, then ends with depictions of spiritual energy manifested as cosmic white light. As viewers stand before each painting, they are encouraged to contemplate their physical and spiritual identities, representing a journey toward their own divine nature.

In order to publicly exhibit the series, Alex and Allyson co-founded The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM), a transdenominational church dedicated to spiritual renewal through transformative art, in the Chelsea area of New York City. A few years later in 2008, The Foundation for the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors secured a permanent 40-acre retreat center in Wappinger, NY, and was granted official 501(c)(3) status. The center currently offers full moon ceremonies, solstice and equinox celebrations, workshops and other cultural offerings, and is in the early stages of constructing Entheon, a 3D-printed sanctuary of visionary art slated to open in 2015.

Alex is a longtime supporter of music—having had his vibrant images incorporated into album artwork for several bands including Tool, the Beastie Boys, Nirvana and The String Cheese Incident—and considers festivals to be special environments particularly nurturing of creative thought. On Thursday, Dec. 12, Alex and Allyson will take a trip to Athens during their third annual Visionary Arts Fair, a three-city tour featuring a discussion, meet-and-greet, book signing and live paintings by the couple. The event also includes aerialists, fire performers, a laser light show and live music from Desert Dwellers, Mihkal, Ployd, Modern Measure, Gravity A and Mesca.

[Intro by Jessica Smith]

Flagpole: How and when did you first get involved with art?

Alex Grey: Allyson and I have always been artists. We met in art school in 1974 and have shared a studio for 38 years.

FP: Were you always interested in visionary-style art? Have you ever practiced any other styles of art?


Photo Credit: Alex Grey


AG: Writing about my first book, Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey [Inner Traditions, 1990], James Oroc [the author of Tryptamine Palace, 2009] writes: "The sub-title of this book is now believed to be one of the key influences in the naming of a new genre now known as visionary art."

In my second book, The Mission of Art [Shambhala, 1998] I define visionary art as: “… the creative expression of glimpses into the sacred unconsciousness… the mystical experience of spiritual illumination, unity, wisdom and love."

My art never attempts to portray a style. My art is performative and based on inner visions portrayed from observation to my best ability. Allyson and I are performance artists and social sculptors. CoSM is our artistic co-creation with our global community.

FP: What are some key differences between visionary art and other styles?

AG: Walter Hopps, an imminent art curator and writer, said that there are three broad categories of art: realist, abstract and imaginal. Realistic art attempts to represent the natural world. Abstract art is non-representational and can also come from visions. Sacred geometry, patterning and all forms not referential or literal to the natural world would fit into this category. Imaginal art has been referred to as visionary art, images seen in the creative imagination. Cave paintings of human/animal hybrids [or] a shamanic figure with stag antlers and tail all show the ancient lineage of Visionary Art.

Religious art is related to a sacred tradition. Since visionary experiences of enlightenment and stories of God-contact are the foundation of all world religions, much of sacred art refers to these transcendent moments, such as Moses and the burning bush or Buddha dispelling Mara's demons. 

Another feature of visionary art is ornate geometric patterns of interconnectedness, and you will find unique expressions of these interweaving latticeworks in many temples throughout the world.

Psychedelic art often reflects the bright intense light, rainbow hues, iridescence, patterns of infinite interconnectedness, forms metamorphosing, one being becoming another, infinite vistas [and] interpenetrating dimensions—art inspired by the psychedelic visionary experience.  

Outsider art may refer to art that is created outside the boundaries of an official culture. Every outsider artist has [his] own story. Some made art in prisons or mental institutions or worked as a janitor by day and created a silver foil throne room in their garage at night. All artists must practice and are ultimately self-taught, although some are influenced by their personal history and environment more than the history of art. Most outsider artists are compelled by a spirit or vision to create. It can be raw and expressive because it's innocent from the business of art. My work has been placed in each of these categories. 

My work is currently included in exhibitions at both the extraordinary American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and at Halle de St. Pierre, the Paris home of outsider art.

FP: Can you give us a taste of what you'll be bringing or discussing when you come to Athens?


Photo Credit: Alex Grey


AG: In Athens, I will offer an illustrated overview of sacramental culture and the entheogeneration, sometimes called the Love Tribe. Festivals all over the world attract visionary artists from many disciplines, including dance, music, costume and jewelry design, as well as painting and sculpture. Burning Man is well-known for celebrating what we also call the Tribal Revival that is springing up all over the world.

FP: You often speak about the connection between art and the evolution of human consciousness. Could you briefly explain for readers not familiar with your works?

AG: The evolution of human consciousness is etched into the history of art. Shifts throughout art history appear in phases that are magical to mythic to rational to transcendental. Works of art can literalize states of being and provide a new view in order to transcend it. A depressed person who [pictures] their despair can externalize their inner world and can get a new perspective on their state of being, possibly facilitating a resolution to their depression.


Photo Credit: Alex Grey

Jewel Being

FP: What would you say is your greatest achievement so far?

AG: My body of work. Co-founding the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors with Allyson. Thirty-eight years of a truly great marriage. Our exquisite daughter. When I hear that my artwork resonates with the personal peak experiences of others.

FP: What advice would you have for an aspiring local artist?

AG: Keep a journal and draw every day. The Mission of Art and my other books [and] the classes Allyson and I teach together at Omega Institute and at CoSM are filled with information useful to aspiring artists. Be inspired by your life in order to create the most uplifting and thought-provoking artworks. Be uncompromising in your study of technique that will support your art, and study philosophy and great thinkers to make your work come from a deep place. 

WHAT: Visionary Arts Fair

WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12

WHERE: New Earth Athens

HOW MUCH: $20 advance/$25 door