“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.” ~ Rebecca Alban 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 glosvine 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 book Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey (1990, Inner Traditions), the recently released Transfigurations and his philosophical text, The Mission of Art. Sounds True has released The Visionary Artist, an audiotape of Grev’ reilcction, on art as a spiritual practice.
“Ultimately, we are starstuff,” he 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 he a significant one.
Do you see a growing trend in art toward visionary art?
Grey: The short answer would he “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 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 coexistence, 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 tbe 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 he 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.