High Times Greats: Alex Grey

The leading visionary artist shares his thoughts on the Cannabis Cup in a 2007 interview.
High Times Greats: Alex Grey
Alex Grey paints at the 2006 Burning Man festival./ Gabe Kirchiemmer

Alex Grey is the preeminent visionary artist of our time. He was selected as the artist for the Eighth Cannabis Cup and created Cannabia, a female cannabis goddess. For the 19th Cup, Alex created Cannabacchus, a male cannabis god. Alex and his beautiful wife, Allyson, were selected (along with five others) to serve as celebrity judges, which meant testing nearly 90 varieties of cannabis and hashish in one week. Their presence helped make it the most spiritually uplifting Cup to date. For this March, 2007 story, Steven Hager interviewed Grey a few days before he left for Amsterdam and again right after he returned. To celebrate Grey’s birthday on November 29, 1953, we’re republishing the whole thing below.

What did you think of the Cup?

Everybody asks, “How can you judge the Cannabis Cup? It sounds impossible.” It actually is an intense process. We all had our own personal likes and dislikes, and yet through continual focus on the strains and our common love of the herb, we reached concord. We recognized Arjan’s Ultra Haze, code-named Ruby, as the most outstanding, because no matter how high we were, we could always get, as Steve Gaskin called it, “re-banged.” If a strain had no odor, or [one that was] very faint, or had an unappealing odor, it didn’t make the cut. Cannabis can have a fruity, or spicy, or earthy, or musky, or sweet aroma, or any combination of those flavors. Some barely had any odor at all, and I probably still would have paid good money for them here in the US—but in Amsterdam, some strains distinguished themselves in terms of an alluring aroma and tactile beauty. Pot opens up the psychic ability to make one aware of their own energy and the energy of others. You feel an elevating quality, an energy flow upward. Conversely, some pot brings a feeling of body load, a heaviness. I judge pot by its visionary quality, how deeply it takes me into epiphany. The best pot effects have a philosophical radiance and lead me to reflection and writing or talking.

It’s interesting that the subject of Cannabia, your painting for the Eighth Cup, was female, and this year you decided to go with a male image.

Well, it’s interesting—I had an idea for a cannabis poster while I was working on this really intricate abstract pattern. Allyson felt like I could do a little better. While I was working with this pattern, Cannabacchus started to emerge. I thought, “Oh well, that would make sense in terms of a Tantric polarity.” We thought that it looked like Bacchus, the Roman god of inebriation and ecstasy. But it also looked like a ganja-smoking baba. And it looked strangely like Allen Ginsberg. And a little bit of Karl Marx.

There’s some Santa Claus in there, too.

A little bit of Santa Claus. As I was working on the painting, these words came to me: “Seven lights of cannabis wisdom.” The first light was the light of utility—the plant has always been very useful: hemp oil, hemp fibers, hemp paper. The second light was the light of sexuality, the aphrodisiac qualities of cannabis. The third light was the light of medicine, which is that area of study which has yielded the medical applications of cannabis. The fourth light was the light of love—it opens the heart and sensitizes you to others. The fifth light was the light of poetry—it allows poets contact with new modes of speaking. The sixth light was the light of visionary experience—that’s the opening of the third eye that allows visionary artists access to other dimensions of reality. Finally, there’s the light of God. If there is a creative force that you can be more sympathetic to, then as you open up to that creative source, you become the light.

When was the first time you tried cannabis?

On the road to a rock concert in Cincinnati when I was 16. Didn’t do much, actually. Didn’t get me high. And it was several years before I actually smoked again. I got into it more when Allyson and I got together. We had friends who supplied pot, and it was really around 1975 when I started smoking a little more seriously. And I realized it was enhancing to the aesthetic dimension. That was what I felt was the best use of it. Allyson and I would make art, and then we’d get high and look at it—especially if we’d reached a point where we weren’t sure where we should go with the piece. And, magically, solutions would come up. The visionary properties of marijuana are so perfect for an artist, because they don’t disable you—they enable a kind of opening up to higher vision. So sometimes it’s not the best for me in terms of detail work. If I’m doing really precise detail work, I don’t always do it the best high. But to bring in flowing energy forms and things like that, I can imagine them much more quickly if I’m high. Then we’d also see the usefulness of marijuana for sex. It’s a huge aphrodisiac—it just enhances the aesthetic and the sensual dimensions of perception. Your skin becomes more sensitive; you’re able to get in touch with what the Tantric masters would say is the higher dimension of sexuality, which has to do with bringing opposites together. The philosophical dimensions of sexuality and the symbolic resonance of your connection with others. I think, are enhanced. And it goes back to that ability to think and see symbolically that cannabis kind of taps you into.

What do you remember from the last time you were at the Cannabis Cup?

Well, I remember receiving a tray: It was a big, big tray filled with pot that had little names on every one of these little baggies. And I’d never seen pot presented that way. This was nine years ago. I’d never seen all the little names and all the different types—and Allyson and I, although we like to get high, we weren’t as serious, I don’t think, as we are now. I think we’ve practiced and studied. I remember seeing the tray and thinking, “Oh my God, how are we ever going to make any sense out of this?” We wound up giving a lot of it to our friends to get reports on it as we went over to the various museums. There were special ones—was it Big Bud [that] was our favorite? It had kind of visionary properties. That’s how I judge pot. I’m not as much into the body load as I am into whether it opens the neural circuits to the higher dimensions. And that did. I loved painting the cannabis goddess, Cannabia. It was really Allyson who inspired that archetype of the cannabis goddess.

Well, it sure looks like her. And 60 Minutes was there that year. They filmed you talking about Cannabia but didn’t use any of the footage. That was the first year we tried to go spiritual in a big way. We tried to get the press to talk about spirituality and cannabis, and they wouldn’t listen to us. Do you think they’ll listen this year?

Doubtful. But it is no doubt a bigger event, and continuity is on its side, and since it’s gone on for nearly 20 years, it’s understood to be a major counterculture event. There are events—like Burning Man, the Rainbow Family Gatherings and the High Times Cannabis Cup—that are bringing together a community of heads. I think it’s actually a spiritual revolution. The Woodstock generation and the Haight-Ashbury hippie movement live on in mutant form in various subcultures and facets of the cultural landscape. The real soul of America involves a tendency to independent thinking and visionary possibilities. The founders of our nation, who were hemp growers, had a vision of democracy. The watchful eye of the fascistic government is something our founding fathers would have found repellent. And so there’s a surge to the spiritual foundation of our culture, symbolized in the obverse of the Great Seal, the pyramid with the glowing eye on the top… and this vision of an unfinished pyramid. That’s the capstone—the higher vision is the capstone of a civilization or a culture. If the spiritual life and vision of a country are bankrupt, that’s a real sad statement. I see a spiritual revolution in the creative people in these countercultural movements, bringing back a higher vision of what America could be. America is supposed to be about freedom. And so cognitive liberty is one of the foundations of a free people. The right to alter your consciousness with psychoactive plants… there’s thousands of years of relationship with cannabis and various sacraments that are really vessels for our translation of a higher order of reality, a visionary order of reality. The foundation of Eastern and Western civilization, I contend, was made through a visionary plant, the soma of the Rig Veda. The Vedas sing songs of praise to soma, a plant that engenders a relationship with the gods. Then, in Western civilization, [there were] the Eleusinian Mysteries that Plato, Socrates and Aristotle participated in, this mystery religion of which very little is still known, because it was under penalty of death that you would ever write down or transmit any of the secrets of this mystery. So it was kept mysterious from everyone, except that you had to go through it. And at the height of the Eleusinian mystery cult, there was a drink that was called the kykeon that was imbibed and that allowed one to see God. And so we’ve got soma in Eastern civilization, and in the cradle of Western civilization we have the kykeon. These were ways of making contact with a higher dimension of reality. Now that’s a longstanding connection of humanity with these substances that were regarded as sacraments, and that are now regarded as sacraments by the Rainbow Family and by the Cannabis Cup and by Burning Man. Even the visionary artists have a relationship with the higher dimension of reality that one gains through the use of cannabis, and through the use of mushrooms and LSD and things like that, because that’s the return of the vision that will lead us to a sustainable relationship with nature—one that reveres all of life and is peace-oriented and love-related. That’s the higher mind emerging through these various subcultures, which will take new form as we evolve as a culture.

In a way, you seem like the most spiritually based artist working today.

My work is more explicitly spiritual. I always felt like it was kind of a problem that early modernist masters, whose intention it was to present a spiritual world—Malevich and Mondrian and Kandinsky and a lot of the early masters—were attempting: a new kind of vision of connection with a higher world. And so the intention was there, which I share. I was just attempting to overlay several different ways of looking at reality, most of which are fairly—well, they’ve been explored in art history. The physical body has been seen in many different levels. I try and bring knowledge of the anatomy and some medical accuracy to my portrayal of the human figure. And then the overlaying of subtle energetic fields from Eastern medicine: acupuncture meridian points, chakras and auras and things like that. And so we get the merging of the physical and the spiritual anatomy that our being operates in that is closer to our understanding of what a whole human might be—slightly radiant. We might be exchanging energy fields, as it were, of consciousness, and so I try to portray that as being transparent to a higher world—that the creative force is working through us. And in that way, to try and create a more universal archetype instead of just being mythically bound to one story or another. I’d like it to be a more universal human story—so that’s why the translucent skin.

When did you get the idea for the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors?

Allyson and I had this vision during our first Ecstasy trip 24 years ago. We had a kind of simultaneous vision that the Sacred Mirrors needed the context of a chapel. That came up during an Ecstasy trip when we were walking through a chapel, and I was seeing massive new sculptures and paintings to come and stuff, and we got a sense that maybe some other people would join us to create it. And so we founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and got some donations from friends. We got a lease a couple of years ago for a building on 27th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, and we created a sketch of what we’d like some of the permanent architecture of the chapel to be, including these angels that become archangels, because they’re connected with archways. So the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is something that Allyson and I founded and opened two years ago, here in Chelsea in New York City, and we hold full-moon gatherings, a sort of interfaith variety show. There are singers with sitars, Allyson talks about the Jewish Beats, and I give an art-sermon rant. There are some wonderful musical interludes, some sacred dance—it’s a wonderful thing that transforms into a drum-and-dance later in the evening. And we had an opening for our Talisman show. So we have a community gallery that also brings an influx of young artists and energy around this idea of sacred contexts for creating art. There are various other events that happen, including an Entheocentric Salon, DJs and VJs and live painters. It’s a really amazing creative playground. We ask for a $5 donation for the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, and it’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 11a.m. to 6p.m. And it’s also open at select times for full-moon and new-moon ceremonies and the Entheocentric Salon. Check cosm.org for more information.

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