“O swiftly spinning 21st-century Human! We’ve already missed out on Rumi, Blake , Swedenborg, and Gibran, but we’ve been sent a comforter for our time flowering from the same vine. His name is Alex Grey. Transfigurations is his bible.”
– Bebecca Alnban Hoffberger, director, American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
Long acknowledged as a master of depicting the anatomically correct human body on canvas, Alex Grey has transformed before our eyes into one of the greatest of visionary artists, living or dead. In a new collection of his work, Transfigurations (2002, Inner Traditions), we are allowed to share the experience of this artist as he continues to journey more deeply into the cosmic lattice that connects us with All That Is.
He is best known for his paintings of glowing anatomical human bodies, images that “x-ray” the multiple layers of reality and reveal the complex integration of body, mind, soul and spirit. Grey’s unique series of 21 life-sized paintings, the Sacred Mirrors, present the physical and subtle anatomy of an individual in the context of cosmic, biological and technological evolution. Grey’s artworks have been exhibited and performed throughout the world and are chronicled in the bookSacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey (1990, Inner Traditions), the recently releasedTransfigurationsand his philosophical text,The Mission of Art. Sounds True has releasedThe Visionary Artist, an audiotape of Grey’s reflections on art as a spiritual practice.
“Ultimately, we are starstuff,” Grey writes in Transfigurations. “…The mystics speak of unitive and infinite awareness. If an artist is awake to the mystical experience, his or her art can evoke these potentials in the viewers.”
Grey, who frankly acknowledges that the use of psychedelic substances has allowed him to access portals of other dimensions and experience some of the images that he later put on canvas, continues to explore the evolution of consciousness — with entheogens, visionary plants and drugs, and with other forms of journeying, such as meditation. He collaborated on the recent book,Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics(Chronicle Books).
Consider his art a report from the edge…and beyond. Grey, who lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Allyson Grey, and their daughter, the actress Zena Grey, spoke with The EDGE by phone from his home and studio.
To what degree do you think visionary art plays a role in our soul’s evolution?
Alex Grey: Visionary art sure has played a vital role in my own “soul’s journey,” and I would say it’s been important for many artists and viewers throughout history. Visionary art is one of the primary ways that human contact with higher subtle dimensions gets translated into our communally shared physical dimension.
When the subtle dimensions are translated by skillful and mystically inspired artists, visionary art can provide an open portal for glimpsing one’s own spiritual potential. Think of a brilliantly glowing resurrected Christ or a many-armed Buddha or a fiery angel. A work of visionary art can shock a person out of their normal thinking patterns and help them to see the world in a new way, helping them to transfigure their perception of reality. Obviously, it’s only one of many potential catalysts to healing and transformation, but I think it can be a significant one.
Do you see a growing trend in art toward visionary art?
Grey: The short answer would be “yes.” A long answer would point to how consciousness evolution is mirrored by cultural evolution. The more people having “visionary experiences,” the more imagery in art will reflect it.
The leading edge of consciousness is expressing itself through various creative, sensitive people and teachers and a lot of young people who have become serious meditators or psychonauts. I’m in my late 40s and many in my generation had the blinders of the material world fall from their eyes briefly during psychedelic or meditative experiences that allowed perception of the visionary world. In prior centuries, it was the rare mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, St. Teresa, Jacob Boehme or William Blake who tapped into the imaginal realms while they were still awake. Now millions of people have visited these worlds.
Freudian and Jungian analysis has also taken a deep, long look at dreams and unconscious drives and has contributed to general cultural awareness of the important influence and vastness of the psyche. The early alchemical engravers, and later the Symbolists and Surrealists, the Fantastic Realists and Psychedelic artists have all been mapping these realms of the unconscious and superconscious. Every generation since the ’60s has soaked up the entheogenic sacrament that has allowed them a glimpse into these visionary realms confirming the infinite inner dimensions.
Now we have computer animation and web-based interactive media, which are very visionary technologies, allowing for greater modeling of these marvelous imaginal worlds. It will always be a great artistic challenge to discover and effectively transmit the iconography of the entheogenically inspired visionary state.
In the book Transfigurations you support the finding of an appropriate context for the legal use of entheogens in the new millennium. Why?
Grey: Because I think that entheogens can play a role in the transformation of individuals by giving them their first taste of the infinite. For most people who take entheogens in a sacramental and contemplative manner, the experience has the qualities of bliss, awe, terror and deep meaning.
I’m not saying that across the board that everyone who trips has a religious experience. That’s obviously not true. But, during an Ecstasy, LSD or mushroom experience, many people feel unbounded compassion for others and themselves. During a trip, the typical boundaries of our identity dissolve and you’re able to experience your unity with all dimensions of reality simultaneously. It can be overwhelming, but it can also be a guidepost and affirmation of the soul’s mission in life. A good trip can help us see and feel how perfect, beautiful and precious the world is, despite news reports to the contrary we get from CNN. Anything that can help people to see that is of greatest value because, Lord knows, we need individuals who become committed and responsible to healing themselves, their families, their communities and the planet.
That kind of “inner soldier” who is committed to peaceful co-existence, respect and reverence for life is just what I think our civilization needs. That’s why I will always support legalization of the entheogens, which are, without a doubt, the most important and the most grossly misunderstood medicines on earth.
Do you have a sense of how they can become better understood by the mass population?
Grey: I think it will happen gradually over many generations. Many of the parents of the current teen generation have had experiences smoking pot or doing some kind of substance, some entheogen perhaps, and they may not be quite as shocked if their kids become involved. These parents may still be seriously concerned for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, they’ve heard of it and it won’t be a complete and total shock. Our culture has at least heard of it. There’s a lot of information out there.
By the way, I’m not advocating that young people should try this stuff. They should wait till their ego gels before attempting to transcend it. People can start reading and find out the diversity of opinions about entheogens. The laws will change when enough people understand the benefits of the medicine and demand change. Supporting medical marijuana referendums is one step forward. Voting for candidates who aren’t afraid of the issue would be another step. Joining and supporting organizations like NORML and MAPS and subscribing to the Journal of Cognitive Liberties are another positive step.
The proper spiritual and ceremonial context for these sacraments already exists and is creatively evolving. Legalization has already happened in Brazil and Holland and other parts of Europe as governments understand that people deserve cognitive liberty and church groups deserve to practice their religion without interference by governments seizing their sacraments and disturbing their ceremonies. This is in the face of stiff opposition led by the United States. The U.S. has wanted every government in the world to have uniformly strict drug laws that prevent the use and abuse of non-corporate drugs. But how the entheogens came into that mix is a strange and sad tale. People will eventually begin to realize that there are churches using these sacraments and that the congregants have actual mystical experiences, as opposed to just sitting through church services. People on LSD or ayahuasca can have a direct, face-to-face encounter with their own spiritually meaningful archetypes. Many native people in the Peyote Church of America and the Santo Daime ayahuasca Church have overcome alcohol abuse and addiction to dangerous substances like cocaine and speed in the context of their church services.
Our government happens to subsidize and support some of the most dangerous and addictive drugs: tobacco and alcohol. I found it amusing that Time Magazine’s scare article on Ecstasy hauls out statistics like “three people died on Ecstasy last year” and they don’t talk about the thousands who died or were maimed and crippled due to use of alcohol and how many other innocent people they kill on the highways and all the rest.
In the book Transfigurations, it’s stated that since you completed “Sacred Mirrors,” your work has increasingly focused on the evolution of the human soul. Can you describe that evolution? Where you see that it’s going?
Grey: It’s funny, this whole idea of an evolving human soul. On the one hand, there is movement in our lives. We are getting older and hopefully wiser, but what most of the mystical teachings tell us about enlightenment is that it is the discovery of something that has always been so. We realize our unchanging true nature, which has never been absent. It’s just been covered by layers of ignorance and unconsciousness, like clouds covering the sun.
Enlightenment is not so much a hard-won achievement, much less a “creation,” but instead is deep relaxation and recovery of our natural condition. You come to see the evolution of the soul, the soul’s journey, as a realization of what has always been there in the first place. Perhaps we feel a quickening these days because of the vulnerability and the mortality that people understand to be part of life. Here in New York we experienced it last fall, 9/11, where we saw two of our magnificent buildings crumble and take with them thousands of lives. It affected everyone in New York and I think it affected everyone in the nation, with repercussions throughout the world. So, I would hope that instead of disintegrating and regressing into only fear-based and aggressive responses, we would also see our fears and our concerns as opportunities to turn toward God and to find our faith and celebrate the love and the time that we have here with each other. Finding creative ways to resolve our conflicts is life’s challenge.
The journey of the soul is a vast, interconnected web, a meshwork of beings that are all working out their individual karmas in a collective gumbo, retaining the special flavor in each bite of life. But, the mystery of where we’re going, in terms of whether we’re going to have a planet that’s worth living on after we finish abusing it, whether we’ll wake up in time and stop ruining the water, land and skies is a big question mark.
I think there’s a lot riding on this generation. Folks who are alive today need to wake up and do what they can to stop abusing the planet, and find ways to preserve the web of life. That’s where the soul is headed. It is time for us to become wounded healers. The soul’s journey could be likened to the shaman who journeys to the underworld and becomes dismembered and gets in contact with all disease and destruction, is shattered, is opened up, and sensitized and made to see both the value to life and the way to heal through their vulnerability and breakdown. The shattered person can either go toward nihilism or can go toward compassion and healing and, so that’s my metaphor for the third millennial human soul.
You sound like you’re describing your personal path through art. Is that where you were?
Grey: I guess it’s kind of hard get outside of your own frame of reference. To one degree or another, we all go through our breakdowns and we can recognize our lives as a path to awakening or not. We can take our breakdowns as a way to sensitize us or as an excuse to blind and dull ourselves. Humanity has to start noticing that we are One. We are connected with the net of beings who are the life of this planet — and before we take them all down, we ought to see what we can do to preserve this unique and extraordinary family. That’s what I think the wounded healer would do. We’re all wounded in one way or another. The question is, can we heal?
When I first started seeing it in visions, I wasn’t sure what it meant. But, here’s my interpretation: The eye is the lens through which we see and through which we recognize others to be aware of us. We’ve all heard that “the eye is the window to the soul,” so the eye can symbolize awareness in a deep sense. If you multiply the eye symbol, then you have a symbol of expanded or increased awareness, and you’ve got a symbol of infinite awareness if you have an infinite field of eyes. What is it that could see out of infinite eyes? Sets your mind to thinking.
The flame is something similar to the eye. With my art I’m portraying symbols of consciousness, awareness, life, energy, and so the flame becomes the fire of life, life juice, life energy. To have the eye linked together by an infinite grid of fire points to infinite consciousness and infinite life. By contemplating the symbol, our identity is expanded beyond the boundaries of what we normally consider to be “us.”
The Oversoul image uses a human face made of a grid of fire and eyes linking together earth and cosmos. Sometimes it’s years before I understand or make up some meaning for the images. But, I paint them because I feel there is some meaning.
And there is meaning that probably comes to you in the physical process of painting?
Grey: Oh, yeah. That’s a lot of the times when the door is unlocked to the meaning of the work. That’s one of the great thrills in painting something. Along the way, you come to an understanding about what it is you’re doing.
Why did you use the word “transfigurations” for this book?
Grey: The most famous transfiguration in the West was the story in the Gospels, where Christ becomes light and is so exceedingly radiant that it freaks out a couple of disciples who were with Him. Jesus is conversing with spectral ancestral beings and the disciples hear the voice of God telling how pleased he is with his son. Now this experience has been one of the favorites of artists throughout time to portray — the radiance or aura that surrounds Christ at this holy moment. The transfiguration story points to the capacity for certain moments of our lives to reveal a transparency to the Godhead.
I would like my art to be about the possibility that each of us has to realize our connectedness with this great Spirit, whatever you want to name it, our inherent Buddha nature, Christ consciousness, primordial reality, the ground of being, God. Whether you want to go for a personal or impersonal perception of Spirit, is up to the individual.
I’ve always been fond of the idea expressed in Buddhist art, that there are certain objects that, just by seeing them, can plant a seed for liberation in the individual. And, I thought, “Wow, what a potent ideal; that a work of art can plant a seed in your stream of awareness that acts as a catalyst for your own realization.” That class of objects is called “liberation through seeing.” Certain Buddha images are like that, but if it were possible, I would like to find contemporary non-traditional sacred images. Maybe it sounds pretentious, but most spiritual paths point to the possibility that we all can access the deep, absolute dimensions of reality.
If we can access a glimpse of those eternal and infinite expanses of being and bring that into our work, what a great intention to work with, “to plant a seed of liberation” for your audience by making and displaying sacred art. That’s why I want to build a chapel, and have the Sacred Mirrors there. Art can be a medium for people to discover universal spirit, with imagery not isolated to one particular wisdom path, but pointing to the underlying truth that they all transmit.
Do you have a timeframe for this creation of a chapel?
Grey: Well, I’d like it to happen sooner than later. We’d like to break ground within the next five years. But it comes down to that other interesting force that rocks our world, money. We’re in the process of raising money through our non-profit organization to build it. Estimates are approximately $3 million and we’re not close yet. Are there any angels reading this? I urge people to check out the progress of the project at www.sacredmirrors.org and to help us out, if you feel moved to do so. You can also e-mail me at email@example.com .
What would you call the chapel?
Grey: The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors has been our working title for the project. The building will contain a Chapel for that series of paintings. However, I’ve also been considering a name for the overall complex called “Entheon.” Pantheon meant a place for “all the gods.” “Entheon” would be a place to discover the spirit or God within.
As an explorer who maps uncharted waters through sacred art, can you explain where you’ve gone up to this point and where you’re headed, or maybe you can’t put it in words.
Grey: I think it’s best explained through the artwork. I try to communicate my path through publishing the books, Sacred Mirrors, Mission of Art and Transfigurations. Those books do give people a pretty clear idea of where I’ve come from. Where I’m going is continuing to paint images of humanity in relationship with transcendent light and manifesting the Chapel project.
To learn more about this artist and purchase autographed books and posters check out his websites, www.alexgrey.com and www.sacredmirrors.org