High Times Greats: Interview With Alex Grey

In the June, 2002 issue of High Times, America’s foremost psychedelic artist takes us on a historical tour of visionary art and explains how LSD influenced his work.
High Times Greats: Interview With Alex Grey
Alex Grey, “Empowerment” (detail), 1985

In the June, 2002 edition of High Times, Thomas Lyttle interviews iconic visionary artist Alex Grey, who was born on this day in 1953.

Alex Grey is one of the mast widely recognized psychedelic artists of our time. His paintings—they’ve graced Nirvana’s In Utero and the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication albums, as well as the covers of High Times—peel back reality, showing the human body in ways both spiritual and startling. To see his work is to get a crash course in human anatomy, higher consciousness and magic. While the book Sacred Mirrors, an ’80s collection of Grey’s art, continues to be an international bestseller, he recently celebrated the release of his most recent book, Transfigurations (Inner Traditions), which showcases his work from the ’90s to the present. Grey took a break in his Brooklyn, NY apartment for this interview. By Thomas Lyttle

HIGH TIMES: Tell me about your childhood. What led you to art?

Alex Grey: Most every child that’s given the chance enjoys making pictures. My father was a graphic designer and artist. He encouraged my early drawing and guided my development until I became a rebellious teenager. He was probably my most important teacher. I can still remember the thrill I had while watching him draw. Now I get that same rush from doing it myself. The difference between me and most kids is that I just kept at it.

A few years ago, my mother gave me a box of drawings and school materials that she had kept from my childhood. In it I found some surprising items. One was a fairly detailed drawing of a skeleton from when I was five years old. This amazed me because anatomy plays an important role in my art, namely the subject of identity, mortality and consciousness. Another memorable item from that box was a photograph and write-up from my hometown newspaper in Colombus, Ohio showing me with my science project on LSD. I was 12 or 13 at the time. LSD wasn’t illegal at that point, and the media presented a much more balanced view prior to 1966.

You started your career as a medical illustrator, working with corpses, studying anatomy and the design of the body. What was that like?

I worked as a medical illustrator for about ten years. It was not my career ambition; it was a way to finance my addiction to art and support my family. Medical illustration gave me the opportunity to investigate and portray the bodily systems in dramatic ways. Prior to my work as a medical illustrator, I prepared bodies at a medical-school morgue, which provided important training for understanding the fleeting nature of life. It also provided unforgettable studies into the iridescent, fibrous architecture that forms our physical body.

Alex Grey isn’t your birth name. Why did you change your name?

Around the age of 20, I was doing unusual performance pieces focused on the exploration of polarities. This was a somewhat naive and intuitive venture based on my dreams and visions. I hadn’t yet encountered Taoism or other mystical teachings related to duality and the union of opposites. The paintings I had done as an 18-year-old focused on splitting heads and bodies; it was identity-crisis imagery. For instance, I painted a two-headed self-portrait, tearing myself in half, one side in the shadow, one side in the light. In later performance works, I kept half my head shaved for half a year. The other side of my hair was very long. I discovered that there was some scientific basis to the splitting of cerebral activity. The right hemisphere of the brain is primarily intuitive and the left hemisphere is primarily logical. Obviously, a well-functioning brain and mind will be a balance of both these forces.

One of my more dramatic polarity performances was to journey up to the North Magnetic Pole. After returning from the Pole, having spent all my money, two life-changing events occurred: At a party, I took LSD for the first time. Sitting with my physical eyes closed, my inner eye moved through a beautiful spiral tunnel. The walls of the tunnel seemed like living mother-of-pearl; it felt like a spiritual rebirth canal. I was in the darkness, spiraling toward the light. The curling space going from black to gray to white suggested to me the resolution of all polarities. My artistic rendering of this event was titled “The Polar Unity Spiral.” Soon after this, I changed my name to Grey as a way of bringing the opposites together.

The other life-changing event was meeting my wife, Allyson, that same evening. She was the only other person at the party who had taken LSD. We made a profound connection at that time, and have been together ever since. It’s been twenty-five years.

Are you left-handed or right-handed? What’s your sign?

I am right-handed. I was bom on November 29, 1953, which makes me a Sagittarius. I’m no astrologer, but I am interested in its symbols. The Sagittarian is a centaur archer aiming for the stars. You could say this is the sign of a philosophical idealist, someone who aims high. The horse/human hybrid aiming higher unites the animal body, the human mind and the flaming-arrow spirit. Sagittarius is also a fire sign; fire shows up strongly as a motif in my work.

Your book The Mission of Art describes the visionary artist as spiritual seeker and his art as a spiritual tool. Do you see your art in this light, as part of a spiritual teaching?

Art can be a spiritual practice. Not all artists consider this to be true for them, but with the proper motivation and focus, it can be. A spiritual practice is an activity that enables you to develop the qualities of mental clarity, mindfulness of the moment, wisdom, compassion and access to revelations of higher mystic states of awareness. A contemplative method, such as yoga or meditation, will stabilize and assist in the progress of spiritual awareness. An artist’s craft can become a contemplative method, and the creations may provide outward signs of an inner spiritual journey.

So a tradition exists?

A complete historical account of the global visionary-art tradition would fill volumes. The 16,000-year-old cave paintings of human/animal hybrids, such as the “Sorcerer of Trois Freres,” are a good starting point. Much ancient shamanic art, such as African ritual masks or Aboriginal rock and bark painting, clearly depict visionary dream-time wanderings and encounters in the lower and upper spirit worlds. A visionary-art lesson would include representations of mythic deities and demons: the Mayan feathered serpent, Egyptian and Greek sphinxes, and Indian, Balinese and Thai portrayals of many-limbed, many-headed beings housed in complex mandalas.

What about Western mystical and visionary artists?

One of the earliest known Western mystic visionary artists was Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German nun. While enveloped in a fiery inner light, she was told to “speak and write not according to human speech or human inventiveness, but to the extent that you see and hear those things in the heavens above, in the marvelousness of God.” The icons created from her visions are direct and authentic gifts of spirit.

Perhaps one of the most famous visionary artists was the 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch, who portrayed an extraordinary array of grotesque beings, tortured souls in hell and angels guiding the saved to the light of Heaven. His “Garden of Earthly Delights” is one of the strangest paintings in the world—an encyclopedia of metamorphic plant/animal/human symbolism. Pieter Brueghel was touched with the same visionary madness when he created “Fall of the Rebel Angels and Triumph of Death,” an amazing landscape featuring a coffin go-kart and armies of skeletons herding the struggling masses. Renaissance artists like Grunewald, Dürer and Michelangelo delineated the revelations of Christian mysticism and Gothic realism.

Our historical sketch of visionary art would have to include the 17th-century alchemical engravings of Johann Mylius and mystics like Jacob Boehme and Robert Fludd, who detailed complex mandalic, philosophical maps pointing to union with the divine. William Blake, the 18th-century mystic artist and poet, conversed with angels and received painting instructions from discarnate entities. Blake published his own books of art and poetry, which revealed an idiosyncratic mysticism arising from his inner perception of religion. Blake’s artwork exalts an ideal realm of inspiration that he termed “the divine imagination.” His work laid the foundations for the 19th-century symbolist movement in art, which included Gustav Moreau, Odilon Redon, Jean Delville, Frantisek Kupka and others.

Is surrealist art spiritual?

The twentieth-century Surrealists operated in a territory without clear moral order: a dreamship adrift in the ocean of the unconscious. Artists like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Hans Bellmer, Stanislav Szukalski, Joan Miró, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Frida Kahlo mixed images from childhood memories, adult desires and fears, sex and violence—wherever the creative currents led them. The visions of the Surrealists help to define a dream realm where any bizarre juxtaposition is possible. A profound truth resides in such strangeness, for these visions can shock us into deepening our acknowledgement and appreciation of the Great Mystery.

Who’s the most important visionary painter of the twentieth century?

Perhaps the most widely respected visionary painter of the twentieth century is Ernst Fuchs, whose highly detailed and symbolic works are often based on Biblical or mythological subjects. Fuchs combines the technical mastery of Dürer and Van Eyck with the imagination of Bosch and Blake in a completely personal, fantastic realism. Fuchs has had a widespread and profound influence on many great contemporary visionary artists: the masterful Mati Klarwein, who did the famous Santana Abraxas cover; Robert Venosa, who designed the sets for the movie Dune; De Es Schwertberger, Olga Spiegel, Phillip Rubinov-Jacobson and many others.

How did the psychedelic ’60s fit into all this? Ideas of the “fantastic” and “visionary” certainly took new directions after LSD appeared.

The psychedelic ’60s spawned a new kind of poster art, leading many painters in a visionary direction. In the ’60s and ’70s, a loosely associated group of California visionary painters arose and were published widely by Pomegranate Art Books. Pomegranate also featured the shamanically inspired works of Susan Seddon Boulet. A more visually aggressive psychedelic-pop surrealism energized the works of Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Robert Williams, among many others. Paul Laffoley, a painter and architect, is one of the most encyclopedic of visionary geniuses. Dystopic visions of contemporary hell-worlds are stunningly portrayed in the works of H.R. Giger, famous for his work on the movie Alien; Joe Coleman, Manuel Ocampo and Odd Nerdrum. Visionary abstraction is articulated in beautiful infinities in the works of Bernie Maisner, Suzanne Williams and my wife, Allyson Grey.

What unites all these various groups of artists is their unconventionally intense imaginations. Their gift to the world is to reveal “in minute particulars,” as Blake would say, the full spectrum of the vast visionary dimensions of the mind.

Where can one go to view such visionary art?

The most current information regarding the field of visionary art can be found on the Internet. The most amazing and comprehensive resource for visionary artists and their admirers is Christian De Boeck’s huge Website (fantasticart.tripod.com) that hosts the largest, most up-to-date and historically accurate lists and links to artists. De Boeck is compiling this resource as research for his book on the subject of fantastic, surrealist or visionary art.

Do you actually go into a mystical trance, see and experience the visions you show in your art?

Every artist who’s really into their work disappears into the creative flow. This is akin to some of the concentration-oriented meditations of the various sacred traditions. Images come in all different ways. You can get visions when you’re tripping on drugs, when you’re dreaming or in a hypnogogic state before dropping off to sleep, while listening to music or even waiting for the subway.

Your art combines several maps of the body, mind and spirit seen from overlapping perspectives. It reminds us of psychedelics and tripping. Is this something you’re comfortable with?

People generally begin to understand my work after they’ve had some experience with the subtle visionary inner-worlds. These altered states can occur in many ways, from meditation to psychedelics to near-death experiences. A fellow in Japan came to my exhibit and showed me a five-inch elliptical scar over his heart where he had been struck nearly dead by lightning. He claimed that he had entered the “universal mind lattice,” one of the “sacred mirrors” I’ve painted, during his near-death experience. What these various experiences or altered states have in common is the person who experiences them is profoundly transformed. They now know there are dimensions beyond the physical that are deeply mysterious and equally infinite to the outer worlds.

Most people have seen only small reproductions of your art and paintings. Can you describe the actual physical appearance of some of your works—the size, what sorts of paints, canvas and tools you like to use?

The paintings are often large in scale. Sometimes the figures are life-sized or larger, but I also do smaller paintings and drawings. I often use oil paint on linen or wood surfaces, but some of my works are also done with acrylic, occasionally using airbrush. In recent years I have used the computer to work out problems with patterns, images and colors. I’m primarily a painter, but I have done sculpture cast in bronze as well. I have a history of being a performance artist; Allyson and I have done many multimedia installations. I work in our loft, where we live with our daughter, and do not have a separate space. I like to have my family around me and my library nearby. I have giant piles of books and papers around my work area that form a kind of fortress of reference material and source of inspiration.

In The Mission of Art you mention that in the future artists will have the opportunity to create a “universal spiritual art.” Can you describe this?

A universal spiritual art would be art that any person would recognize as having a spiritual intention. It could speak to the heart and soul of the individual and orient them toward the greater aspect of their own being, their interconnectedness with all life and the cosmos. A universal spiritual art would return the viewer to their own ultimate identity, which lies beyond representation, but can be pointed to when our inspired visions are brilliantly transmitted. The challenge to artists today is to integrate the vast history of art from as many cultures as possible, to reach deep inside themselves for their own personal insights into the transcendental and allow this to coalesce into the most powerful imagery possible.

Tell us a little about your new book, Transfigurations.

Transfigurations presents many major new works of mine, including “Mind,” a seven-paneled altarpiece showing the sequence of a person discovering the path, and “World Soul,” a bronze sculpture of a four-faced hermaphroditic self-copulating dwarf with wings, claws and a fish’s tail that took me over two years to complete. There’s a foreword by Dr. Albert Hofmann, the philosopher-chemist and inventor of LSD, an essay by the eminent art critic Donald Kusbit and a biographical portrait of my creative process by renowned author and transpersonal psychologist Stephen Larson.

What’s your next project?

Many people have urged Allyson and me to build the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, where my entire “Sacred Mirrors” series and a number of related pieces could be permanently exhibited. The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors would be a space for contemplation, meditation, events and ceremonies—a vital cultural institution. Supporters of this Chapel project have decided to make this dream a reality by establishing an organization to actively seek a building site. In this initial, exploratory stage we are approaching prospective donors and influential people who might have ideas about potential sites and/or funding. Whether this permanent home will be under the auspices of an existing museum or cultural organization, or be an entirely new structure and institution, is still an open question.

The Sacred Mirrors speak to our highest aspirations as a species: universal compassion, respect for all life, a deep appreciation of all cultures and wisdom traditions, awakened consciousness and a full flowering of our human potential. In a “chapel of beauty,” they could contribute to the radical raising of awareness we so desperately need if we are to successfully navigate our way to a saner, more loving and life-affirming civilization.

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