Visionary art aims to transcend the boundaries of the physical realm to portray a wider view of awareness through mystical and spiritual themes. Visionary artist Allyson Grey is a conceptual abstract painter whose work is inspired by these themes, and believes parallels between contemporary visionary art and ancient art can be found everywhere.
Allyson Grey has spent decades exploring her work as a visionary artist, which stems from a life changing LSD trip where she first experienced “secret writing.” Along with her husband and fellow visionary artist Alex Grey, she co-founded the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM), a transdenominational church and nonprofit organization based in New York state.
From Past to Present
Ancient art infuses psychedelic, primordial elements that trickle into the framework of contemporary art, including Allyson Grey’s work, which incorporates elements of sacred geometry, symbols, illuminated manuscripts, and what she calls “secret writing.”
Allyson Grey’s recurring motifs include images of the realms of heaven and hell, abstract visions and portrayals of inner realms, cosmograms and mandalas, and sacred geometry, which she describes as “visions of worlds inside of worlds and charts of the cosmos.”
One example of ancient art with these themes can be seen in the Tassili cave painting (c. 7,000–5,000 B.C.E.). The painting was found in a Neolithic site in modern-day Algeria and depicts an animal-human hybrid with a feathered headdress (or possibly horns or antennae) sprouting mushrooms and holding more mushrooms with a hive-like patterned surface. Allyson Grey describes this noteworthy piece as “an animal-human hybrid in contact with a mystic symbol when in contact with a psychedelic fungi.”
Visionary art also progressed through the Middle Ages, particularly with female mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, who created the “Universal Man” illustration (c. 1165 C.E.), which is cosmic and geometric in nature and shares many similarities with Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” (c. 1490 C.E.), but predates it by hundreds of years.
“Hildegard of Bingen had visions and had others paint them to her specifications and under her instruction,” Allyson Grey says. “Artworks by Hildegard are some of the most exquisite that exist from her time. Hildegard von Bingen described ‘fingers of fire’ that came from heaven, coursing through her and into her mind’s eye. Descriptions were then portrayed by monastery and convent artists.”
Allyson Grey also admires the work of Catherine of Bologna (c. 1413-1463 C.E.) who was a follower of St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226 C.E.). She was a writer, teacher, mystic, and artist who was canonized, or declared a saint, 250 years after her death. She is now known as the patron saint of artists and against temptations.
Throughout periods in history, women with mystical strengths were cast as witches and visions were declared demonic, while a double standard developed in regards to men who made similar claims. The divine feminine, on the other hand, is the idea that a celestial feminine counterpart exists to the typical patriarchal order in religion. It’s a theme that can be interpreted in Allyson Grey’s work.
“Divine feminine spirituality has only ever been demonized by men, which is, of course, abhorrent,” she says. “God is One. God is not two. God has no gender or face. God is within.”
Across the centuries, countless artists have explored the themes of psychedelic art though exploring their inner selves and depicting spiritual realms. For Allyson Grey and her art, the recurring element of “secret writing” is rooted in deep meaning.
Allyson Grey experienced her first psychedelic trip in 1969 and spent three years afterward dropping acid. In 1971, she read Be Here Now by Ram Dass, which inspired her to experience the effects of LSD while in a dark room. The experience altered the course of her life as she bore witness to a spiritual awakening.
“Lying on my bed, I witnessed secret writing washing over my body, over the surface of the bed and the spare furnishings,” Allyson Grey recalls. “Secret writing wafted through the air in ribbons and streamed over the ceiling and down the walls. Infinite letters made of light defined the material world of ‘things.’ It spoke to me in an unpronounceable language.”
She continues, “The thought that first came to me when I saw secret writing was, ‘This is what people call God.’ Until then, never having known God, I might have considered myself a Jewish agnostic. After that journey, I could not deny God. It caused an existential shift that I could not share with my Marxist revolutionary friends who would have been cynical toward this spiritual awakening. From Ram Dass’s book, I heard the recommendation to find a place to learn how to meditate and I did. Still a student, I became a vegetarian, worked in an Indian restaurant, did yoga, went to meditate with the Yogi Bhajan community on the weekends and sought out a new group of friends. Alex and I still do yoga and meditate daily.”
During psychedelic experiences—most notably LSD—some people describe how characters and words of their native language suddenly look foreign or say that they see them from an entirely new perspective.
“Secret writing has been reported by many psychonauts,” Allyson Grey says. “Of the infinite variety of symbols I witnessed, I made art and eventually selected an alphabet of 20 letters and arranged them in a chosen mantric order. Secret writing in my art is meant to be untranslatable and unpronounceable. Their meaning is ineffable. Symbols are how we perceive and interpret all things. Our minds translate meaning through our unique life experience.”
It’s difficult to explain a psychedelic experience within the limit of language.
“Words and art point to profound higher consciousness,” Allyson Grey says. “[Greek poet] Sappho and [French writer] Anaïs Nin wrote beautiful interpretations. Psychedelic experiences, however, are ineffable and both unique and relational. All polarities dissolve in a mystical spiritual episode.”
Church of the Sacred Mirrors
CoSM has grown over the past several decades. On June 3, 1976, the Greys shared an LSD experience that they perceived as a simultaneous shared vision seen from two separate perspectives.
“It changed our art, which became devoted to portraying that vision and subsequent journeys,” Allyson Grey says.
In 1978, the Greys arranged a public performance event called Life Energy. As a part of the performance Alex Grey drew two life-sized charts with black ink on heavy paper. One represented the nervous system of a man, the other portrayed the metaphysical systems of the body—including acupuncture points, meridian lines, auras, and chakras. Those attending the performance were then invited to stand before these drawings and mirror their life energy system in those two ways, to feel the resonance of the invisible forces within.
“On our walk home from the performance, we evaluated the overall success of the evening and I said to Alex, ‘People really loved the charts. You should make a series of oil paintings of the body, mind and spirit of an individual,’” Allyson Grey says. “Alex concluded that he should embark on the project and include the systems of the body, the races, and the spiritual archetypes of world religions. The name ‘Sacred Mirrors,’ Alex has often said, was what I named them.”
In 1985, a Chicago collector offered them money, “more money than we’d ever conceived of,” Allyson Grey remembers, to purchase the series which, at that time, included about 17 to 18 paintings. The Greys agreed to sell them, and they signed a contract.
“The collector also offered us our first dose of MDMA—pharmaceutical grade,” Allyson Grey says. “MDMA was legal and he had gotten the doses from his psychiatrist. Three days later, we took the medicine and had a vision of a Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, realizing that we couldn’t sell the series and broke our agreement with the collector. In our Brooklyn basement, we immediately embarked on sculpting the 21 10-and-a-half-foot-tall frames.”
The series was first exhibited at The New Museum in Manhattan in February 1986. In 1996, the Chicago collector’s daughter funded the legal work for CoSM to become a nonprofit with the mission to “build an enduring sanctuary of visionary art to uplift a global community.”
In December 2003, a shaman told the Greys they should start full moon ceremonies to pray for the CoSM to be manifested. In April 2004, the club owner of Spirit New York gifted them a floor in his building on 27th street, which was filled with debris and was home to nothing but scrap metal and cars in disrepair. There, they rented a 12,000-square-foot floor, and built the first CoSM NYC. After five years of success, their block became crowded with clubs, cafes, and galleries.
“When the five-year lease ended, our rent would quintuple,” Allyson Grey says.
To build a sanctuary that would last, they had to purchase land. Through searching findthedivine.com, Alex Grey identified the only retreat center for sale at the time on the East Coast—65 miles north of Manhattan, 1,500 feet from the Hudson River, and walking distance from a MetroNorth station. It came with six rundown buildings and a barn, and they managed to get a mortgage and began rebuilding.
“After sur-thriving for 13 years, COVID blessed us with the time to finally complete all that was required to receive a certificate of occupancy on transforming the 1882 carriage house into a 12,000-square-foot exhibition space we called Entheon, the CoSM and three floors of visionary art,” Allyson Grey says.
During the pandemic, CoSM continued an unbroken chain of full moon ceremonies by broadcasting online and on the full moon, June 3, 2023, CoSM reopened after three years of having had no visitors. Over 130 online programs later, with CoSM memberships increasing worldwide fivefold the size prior to COVID, CoSM is now celebrating in person CoSM full moon ceremonies in Entheon.
Both Allyson and Alex Grey teach a course on sacred geometry (the study of the spiritual meaning of shapes) at CoSM covering the golden proportion and other facets of sacred geometry, sometimes shared via a virtual stream. It’s also a common element in many of their paintings.
“There must be perceptual mechanics that plot the fabric of space,” says Allyson Grey, speaking of sacred geometry. “In our deepest states of bliss, we intuit cosmic structures. That is how Pythagoras and Plato, who both had psychedelic experiences in the Eleusinian mysteries because they saw them in visionary worlds.”
The Power of Psychedelics
Allyson Grey believes that LSD changed the course of American history and relishes the fact that psychedelics are now becoming more socially acceptable.
“When Alex and I were in college there was barely a college or university that offered a course in ecology, in women’s studies, Black American history, and Native American history,” she says. “Now, the majority of schools and even public schools in many states offer these courses of study and more forward thinking, open-minded subjects. We all wish transformation moved faster, but we are grateful to have been able to live long enough to see psychedelic science becoming more acceptable, treatments offered for many of the mental and emotional ills that we always knew would be benefitted by these substances.”
Cannabis is also a recurring theme in Allyson Grey’s curriculum. On her blog, she reports that she sees cannabis as a sacrament that is best used to increase spirituality, and to a lesser extent, creativity. She welcomes the changes in world policy surrounding cannabis.
“To see cannabis legalized in so many states and countries is very heartening,” Allyson Grey says. “Many of us have been outlaws for most of our lives. Relief is in sight to end the War on Drugs.”
This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.