Reflections on a Sacred Mirror
"We need transcendent vision to guide us,
and the vision of a common good to motivate and drive our creative
Alex Grey is a visual artist with such shamanic power that merely
looking at one of his paintings can trigger a mystical state of
consciousness. His paintings-- which enjoy wide popularity among the
psychedelic community-- capture semi-transparent people, revealing their
complete physical and metaphysical anatomies in exquisite, mind-boggling
detail, often while engaging in activities that make the most use of this
unique and amazing technique.
For example, in a piece entitled "Copulating", a couple makes love
in a fiery ball of passion-- exposing their nervous systems, skeletal
structures, and blood-vascular configuration-- as their bodies explode
with electrical activity, kundalinic, psychic, and other metaphysical
energies. People often have to look at each painting for awhile before
they can make sense out of the details, as there is so much complexity in
each piece. The most common response after one looks at an Alex Grey
painting for the first time is stunned silence, then a slow "oh,
Alex's artistic career displays the archetypal shamanic journey
between realms-- from the underworld to the heavens. He began his career
as a performance artist, doing live pieces that often involved dark
ritualistic elements. Although his later work with painting became much
more positive, rapturous, and even ecstatic, his early art demonstrates
that he wasn't afraid to explore the dark side of his psyche.
Alex's work is currently being exhibited in galleries throughout the
world, and a number of his paintings can be found on posters, greeting
cards, and book covers (including my own Voices from the Edge).
Many of his paintings have been collected into a single volume--
Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey (Inner Traditions,
1990)-- and a second volume is due to be released soon.
Alex currently lives in New York City. I interviewed him while he
was visiting San Francisco on March 15, 1995, at the beautiful Victorian
bed and breakfast where he was staying. He has a mid-western accent, and
his voice reminded me of Terence McKenna's. I found him to be very
focused, and clear of mind. He came across as a deeply spiritual person,
with a strong commitment to integrating his work with his own personal
evolution. We talked about the inspiration for his art, the relationship
between mysticism and creativity, and explored some of the outer-bounds of
David: What were you like as a child?
Alex: The first memories I have are of lying in bed and
seeing textures. First, I would see a pure field, white light, like bliss
- ecstatic space. Then I remember a narley snaggle-branched, brownish,
ugly dark force moving into that space from the periphery of my
perception, coming in clumps, and then taking over. This dynamic, ugly
sharp texture would terrify me, and it seemed to consume me. I guess it
was the primordial chaos. Then little islands of purity would crop up. The
pools would clear away and I'd have a white light ocean again. I was
around two years old. Very strange.
David: So your earliest memories are tactile, not really
Alex: Well, they were internally-based visions of
texture, like yin-yang energies, the constant flux of repose and motion,
or darkness and light.
David: Your unique brain's interpretation of the
Alex: As I got a little older, I became interested in
dead animals. I started a small pet cemetery in the back yard, and buried
numerous animals back there.
David: Were you dissecting any of them?
Alex: I didn't really do much dissection. I wasn't so
interested in that. It was just being aware of dead animals, and seeing
them close up.
David: Were you fascinated by the differences between a
living and a dead animal?
Alex: Yes, absolutely. They were so still. One day some
kid said, "Oh, look there's a dead bird." When I picked it up, I found out
it wasn't a dead bird. It was a rabid bat, and it bit me on the hand
(laughter). I didn't know it was rabid, but it had evidently fallen out of
a tree. So, I took it home to show my mom. She said, "Aaah, get it out of
the house!" Then I tried to hang it in a tree, because I knew that they
were supposed to hang upside down. I came back an hour later to draw a
picture of "Bobbie" the bat, but it had fallen out of the tree again. My
mom said that was probably a bad sign. So we put it in a shoe box.
The next day people in like radioactive suits came out with tongs to
pick up the poor thing. They put it in a big metal canister and took it
away. Sure enough, it was rabid, and I had to go through all these shots
in the fleshy parts of the stomach area, and in my back. The antitoxin
that they injected me with contained dead dried duck embryo and it would
leave a lump under my skin. It was very painful. I think that stopped me
from picking up dead animals for awhile.
David: Was your mother scolding you, saying things like,
"Alex, enough with the dead animals already!" ?
Alex: No, I think she was more worried about my interest
in monster magazines, or monsters in general.
David: You mean like Famous Monsters of Filmland ?
Alex: Right, and I had a lot of nightmares about
devil-dogs. There was a recurring dream of a devil-dog that would kill me
in various ways. Maybe it was some kind of a shamanic beast. One of my
first performance pieces had to do with a dog.
David: Do you think that your early childhood interest in
monsters and death led to an interest in the occult, which later led to an
interest in altered states and mystical visions?
Alex: I had a particular interest in whatever was
strange. Monstrosities, fetal abnormalities, genetic malformations, became
strong interests. They were like real monsters. The caprice of God, as a
designer in these various genetic strains, was quite an amazing and
fascinating thing-- that we could have two heads, or flippers instead of
feet. And it's really miraculous that we don't.
We live our lives within normal routines. Altered states of
consciousness are condensed experiences that provide crystallized
insights. Like dream experiences, they run counter to normal experience
and let us see our life in another context, from the vantage point of the
altered state. The monster recontextualizes reality and shows you that
life could be another way. A monster is an alternative being, rather than
an alternative state of consciousness.
David: What was your religious upbringing like?
Alex: Every week, when I was young, my family went to
Methodist church and I always respected the teachings of Jesus. But I
never got hooked into a sincere spiritual search until my parents left the
church. My parents left the church in a huff of disillusionment and became
agnostic-atheists. That's when God and spirituality started to interest
David: What age were you?
Alex: I was about twelve. The teenage existential years
had started to come on heavy. I knew there was something undiscovered, but
I had to get through a lot of depression before I could find it.
David: So the age of twelve is when you first started to
really question how we got here?
Alex: Well, a couple years earlier, my grandmother died.
I saw her get progressively yellower from jaundice, and eventually die.
When I asked my father, "When is she going to get better?", I remember him
saying, that she was not. I knew what dead animals were like, but this was
the first person who was close to me who died. It had a big impact.
David: In what way?
Alex: I felt life's impermanence, that this body is
temporary. Maybe it indirectly fueled the commitment to my work. I think
that every artist or anyone who is trying to accomplish something before
their own death has the specter of death grinning over their shoulder .
David: Meaning the sense of urgency that death gives you
because you feel the constraint of the time-limit on your life's work?
Alex: Right. You have to appreciate each day, and do what
you can while you're alive.
David: What was it like working as an embalmer in a
Alex: I worked in a morgue and a museum of anatomy. I
created displays on the history of medicine and disease. I once did an
exhibit on bladder stones.
David: What's a bladder stone?
Alex: Well, it's like mineral deposits in the bladder.
David: Like a kidney stone?
Alex: Yeah. They used to get rather large and painful,
making it difficult to pee, before the invention of ultra-sound detection.
Medical science developed ways of cutting for the stone. The museum had a
collection of bladder stones, kidney stones, and gall stones, and the
surgical tools used to operate on them. They had collections of weird
stuff, like a hairball the size of a human stomach taken from a guy who
worked in a wig factory and ate hair. There was a skeleton of a guy who
had such bad rickets that he pushed himself around in a big wooden bowl.
We had specimens of malformations that you rarely see today. Medical
science can intercede more effectively and faster now. In the museum there
were jars with siamese twins of all different kinds-- connected at the
head, connected at the thorax, connected every which way. That was the
most astonishing collection.
Then there was the morgue work. I would accept bodies when the funeral
home brought them in. It was a medical school morgue, so we prepared the
bodies for dissection. When a new body came in, if no one else was there,
I would do a simplified Tibetan Book of the Dead ritual, calling their
name, and encouraging them to go toward the light.
David: Wait, was this on your own that you did this?
Alex: It was not with the permission (laughter) of the
medical school. "Oh, he's over there reading the Bardo to the dead guy."
No, it wasn't standard operating procedure there at the morgue, but I
couldn't with full consciousness accept these bodies as pieces of meat.
Their spirit might still be hovering around the physical body.
David: You definitely felt presences around you?
Alex: Oh, I definitely felt it. Maybe it's a projection
of my fear of death. I might die today or maybe tomorrow. It's going to
happen but I don't know when. There's also a simultaneous repugnance and
fear -- terror in a way -- an awesome energy -- the Mysterium Tremendum of
one's life. Lifes limitations are confronting. Basic questions of selfhood
arise-- Who am I? What am I? If life and mind goes on after death, where
does it go? All those questions come, like a freight train, through your
mind whenever you're with dead people.
There was the work-a-day stuff that I did. I had to pump the bodies
full of phenol and formalin, a kind of embalming fluid. I didn't drain the
blood before putting in the embalming fluid, like in a commercial morgue.
Gallons and gallons of embalming fluid would saturate the body, and it
would puff up. All kinds of nauseating substances would ooze from every
orifice during that process. Then it would drain off a little bit, and
you'd wrap it up. Put a little lanolin on the hands and face, wrap them
like a mummy, and stick them in the freezer. Occasionally there would be a
request from a professor for only particular organs, or particular
appendages, like hands were needed once to train hand surgeons. I had to
hacksaw off dozens of pairs of hands.
David: I don't understand. Why did you have to do that?
Alex: Well, there was a convention of hand surgeons doing
a workshop. They needed a lot of hands to study and dissect.
David: These people had donated their bodies?
Alex: Right. But the hand surgeons, for instance, didn't
need the whole body, so somebody had to go and hacksaw off the hands, or
the head. Now the head... that was a more intense thing. They had a kind
of chainsaw-like device and you could create kind of a sculpture bust...
down the shoulders, and then across the middle. You'd have a head, which
you'd stick on a tray, and take to the place. That was wild. That was too
David: How old were you when you were doing this?
Alex: Around twenty to twenty four.
David: And how did this affect you emotionally?
Alex: It was an unforgettable experience. I felt like I
probably could have declined, but then I would never have had that
experience in this lifetime. It's doubtful, except in the case of a
psychotic murderer, that anyone would have that experience outside of a
medical school where dismemberment is part and parcel of the daily
activities. Maybe if you were a Tibetan funeral preparator doing
sky-burials, you chop up the bodies.
David: Have you gotten to hold a human brain in your
Alex: Oh yeah, plenty of times, and to me that's the most
amazing thing, just to hold the brain. I teach anatomy now for artists at
NYU, and we go to a medical school anatomy lab. They always have brains
with the spinal cord attached. All those fine threads of neurons, it's
David: It's incredible to hold a brain in your hands, and
know that's where the person's whole life experience took place. Have you
noticed that when you look at a dead body, and compare it to them when
they were alive, it doesn't even look like them anymore without the
Alex: Yeah, I've noticed that.
David: As though the animating force, which tenses and
holds together the facial muscles, just isn't there anymore.
Alex: Right. There's complete relaxation and no tension
at all left. If a body came in that had been dead for a few days in the
Summer, there was a completely different coloration than if they came in
Winter. Bodies prepared by funeral directors are obviously fixed-up to
match the person you might have known.
David: So would you use a photograph to work from?
Alex: We never got into that. Although, I used to do
make-up work on my own, and worked with morticians wax to create make-up
effects, like Quasimodo and other monsters, but that was not part of the
job description there. The medical school diener just embalms and prepares
the bodies for dissection, or for simple burial afterwards.
David: How did you become involved in performance art?
Alex: Well, that happened when I went to art school in
David: Which was where?
Alex: Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus,
Ohio. I was there for two years. I started reading art magazines, and read
about artists like Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, and the so-called "body
artists." There were a number of Viennese actionists, who worked in
Austria. I got to meet one of those guys, a fellow named Otto Muehl. In
the Sixties they did performances that were very violent and sexual. They
used a swans head to enter a women, and then cut off the swans head in
orgiastic displays of passion, throwing the blood around. Hermann Nitsch,
one of the Viennese actionists, continues to do these kinds of
performances where they slaughter lambs, and let the entrails fall all
over nude figures strapped up underneath a sort of crucified lamb.
They're very grisly, and supposedly cathartic displays of performance
energy. This fellow Muehl started a place called Actions Analysis
Organization. It was based on LSD use, communal living and
bodywork. Muehl was a cross between Charlie Manson and a Neo-Reichian
bodyworker. He was a charismatic character, and was my introduction to
performance work. Soon after that, in '72 I started working with dead
animals myself. It seemed appropriate since I had worked with dead animals
early on, that I should get back to examining the subject of mortality.
Many artists, even well known artists today, who are working with meaning
and content (rather that formal concerns) often use performance or
installation art to express themselves, rather than painting. Painting
that is rich in meaning and narrative content has been given short shrift
during this century, since modernism.
David: Are you including people like Laurie Anderson?
Alex: She does create some content-driven work. Chris
Burden, Vito Acconci, Paul McCarthy, Rachel Rosenthal, Karen Finley, and
Diamanda Galas, are all using very strong content in their work.
David: There was a dark quality to your early performance
art pieces, unlike your contemporary paintings which have a more positive
transcendent quality to them. Can you tell me what caused the shift of
focus in your creative work?
Alex: Well, I had a dramatic series of vision states that
occurred after doing certain performances. They were performances that
were done in the morgue where I worked, using the dead bodies. Using
people's bodies in my artwork had questionable ethical ramifications. It
was trespassing and there were consequences. I experienced a vision where
I was in a courtroom being judged. I couldn't see the face of the judge,
but I knew the accuser was a woman's body who I had violated in the morgue
work. She was accusing me of this sin. I said "It was for art's sake."
This excuse didn't hold up under scrutiny for the judge. I was put on
lifetime probation and not forgiven. The content of my work and my
orientation would be watched from that point on. It made me consider the
ethical intentions of my art. The motivation that moves us to creative
work is critical.
David: In terms of the consequences?
Alex: Yeah. What does one intend for the viewer to
experience? I also had an intense experience after I shot photographs of
about thirty malformed fetuses from a collection. One night I was lying in
bed, but awake. I saw one malformed fetus hovering in front of me. It was
like a holographic projection in space which spoke with many voices, all
saying the same thing. "It's time for you to come with us. We've come to
take you." The being itself, the creature in the jar that I photographed,
was not an evil being. But somehow, in this holographic hallucination it
was a personification of malevolence. It was threatening me, seeking to
take over, take control, and I felt like I was on the precipice of sanity,
about to go over the edge.
I started calling on divine love. I said, "Divine love is the strongest
power," and I just kept reaffirming that in the face of this being who was
calling me. I made a commitment from that point on to reorient myself.
After calling that out several times the hallucination dissolved, as if it
were banished, and it was replaced by a bluish light that spoke. The light
identified itself as Mr. Lewis, an interplanetary angel, who said he was
going to watch over me for a little while. He would be helpful and guide
me. That was mind-changing and life-changing.
David: Have you any experiences with Mr. Lewis since?
Alex: I'm not sure. I think he's been working back-stage,
and manipulating things.
David: What other kinds of experiences have you had?
Alex: Well, in Tibetan Buddhist practices one projects
visions of deity and guru forms like Garab Dorje, who is one of the
earliest Dzogchen masters. Garab Dorje is a very strong spiritual
archetype and guru. Although he lived over two thousand years ago, he is
accessible as a helper-being because he attained the pinnacle of
realization known as the ja-lus or rainbow body. By following certain
secret practices, a yogi can dissolve their physical body into the essence
of the elements, hence the name rainbow body, leaving behind only their
hair, fingernails and toenails. It takes about seven days to shrink and
disappear completely. There is a continuous lineage of Tibetan masters who
have accomplished this seemingly unbelievable feat of self-liberation. The
same thing is true with the great master Padmasambhava. who wrote
theTibetan Book of the Dead. With the right mantra and visualization you
may experience these masters presence and blessing.
David: What relationship do you see between sex and
Alex: They are both inevitable, and they are
crystallizations of our life force and our loss of vitality. Orgasms have
been described as mini-deaths. Certainly there can be an ecstatic
ego-death, a convergence with the beloved during sex. I hope that death
will be like a cosmic orgasm, where I'm released into convergence with the
infinite one. Certain tantric traditions have sexual rituals to be
performed in charnel grounds, and there are some pretty intense paintings
of Kali astride corpse Shiva.
David: Do you view yourself as a shaman?
Alex: I can't really claim that pedigree.
David: In Carlo McCormick's essay in your book, he
compares you to a shaman, and says that it was a necessary part of your
journey to go through the darkness.
Alex: Metaphorically, the path of the wounded healer, or
the journey of the shaman has very important implications for the future
of spirituality. No other metaphor sufficiently deals with the journey of
humanity. We are wounded, and whether we're going to be the wounded
victim, or the wounded healer is our choice. We have wounded the planet.
We have wounded our genes. We've wounded the coming generations. Whether
we make some remediation to the environment, and to our psyches, is
something that only time will tell.
David: To promote healing, the shamanic approach is to
reach into the higher spheres, into the invisible world, into something
more than the material universe, to gain knowledge that will help deal
with the problems here.
Alex: Right, that is critical. We need transcendent
vision to guide us, and the vision of a common good to motivate and drive
our creative efforts. Another role that is critical at this time is the
role of the Bodhisattva, because this is an archetype of ethical idealism.
In Buddhism, the Bodhisattva, one whose being is enlightenment, expresses
their compassion by working for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Bodhichitta is altruistic positive motivation in all ones actions. These
Mahayana Buddhist teachings emphasize a universal compassion and
responsibility, and are the logical consequence of realizing that we are
all connected and that we can't turn our backs on a suffering world.
I love the yogic and shamanic path as a metaphor. A lot of my work is
related to those paths. My early performance work started with an animal,
the dead dog pieces, Secret Dog and Rendered Dog. That was my power animal
that opened me up to the world of mortality and decay and led me to the
underworld of death.
After the morgue pieces and a positive reorientation, my performances
dealt with the possibilities of global death from nuclear war, and
ecotastrophy. I think that everyone with a conscious sense of
responsibility carries around a heavy sadness, fear or guilt about these
possibilities. My daughter at age five made a little book about the earth.
It started with the a happy earth from the earliest times when Adam and
Eve were around. The globe had a happy face. Then the earth was being
trashed and the trees and people were dying. The earth was dying. It
frightens everyone. Even young children know the fear.
David: How and when did you start painting?
Alex: My father was an artist, a graphic designer, and he
started teaching me how to draw. So at a young age I was drawing alot, and
in first grade I was recognized by my teacher who said to the class "Alex
is going to be a great artist someday." This made me very proud and it
probably gave me confidence early on. I think my ability to draw exceeds
my ability to paint.
David: You would say that you draw more realistically
than, say, expressionistically? Your work seems almost photographic to me.
Alex: I suppose.
David: Even when you're painting transcendental realms,
it appears anatomically accurate.
Alex: Right. I use the effect of simultaneous X-ray and
Kirlian photography in my paintings. This combination evokes the
appearance of a clairvoyant healers vision. Artists like Malevich,
Kandinsky and Mondrian intended their art to be spiritual and my motives
are not that different than theirs. After the twentieth century, these and
other early Modernists wanted to create a new spiritual image divorced
from representation. To them, Realism had been an impediment to the
development of the spiritual in art. In some ways, I suppose they were
right. The nineteenth century European Academies were filled with
competent representational art. A stiff kind of neo-classical realism
abounded which occasionally had its peaks in Jacques Louis David and
Ingres, but for the most part was simply tiresome and totally bourgeois -
portraits or still lifes, scenes from mythology or history. Art seemed
like a mirror to the white mans world without a glimpse of the individual
visionary soul, let alone a glimpse of the World Soul. The early
modernists wanted to bypass the natural world and simply invent forms from
their minds. This resulted in a great leap forward in the purely mental
and formal development of art. Art was free from the drudgery of
representational art. But, when you eliminate references to the body and
the external world, it's difficult for some people to identify with the
aesthetic object. Abstraction is seen as no more than an arrangement of
shapes. If you ask Joe Six-pack whether Kandinsky's work is spiritual,
that thought might never have occurred to him. It took weirdo renegade
symbolists like Blake, Redon and Delville to deepen the spiritual
discourse of art.
Like those symbolists, I want to make work that is obviously spiritual.
Even if a person doesn't entirely understand the work, they can tell that
it points to mystical, idealized or clairvoyant states of consciousness --
states where the mind is expanding into sacred spaces. I want to make
visible the body, mind, and spirit on a two dimensional canvas. Take a
multi-dimensional experience, and collapse it into a two-dimensional
framework. I started painting because I was having strong visions that I
wanted to represent. At first, I had no idea about spirituality. I was
just showing my raw psyche.
At one time in my late teens, I was feeling miserable and depressed
about the break-up of a relationship, and had not slept in a few days. I
was tossing and turning, and had this vision of a two-headed person. The
healthy side was trying to pull off the sick side, and the sick side was
laughing, because attempting to remove the shadow was self-destructive and
fruitless. The vision was about the tension of these forces within.
It was existentialist adolescent hubris, but it seemed significant
enough to make a painting of it. It was a visionary self-portrait. The
process of vision and working with the imagination started to interest me.
I never wanted to do surrealism or fantasy art. My work had to directly
relate to the nature of the self-- who am I , what am I. The work gets
lumped in with surrealist work because it's not traditional
David: Right, that's really a good point. There's a big
difference between surrealist and visionary art, and many people confuse
Alex: I think their intentions are different. Athough,
there were artists who were motivated by surrealist and visionary
intentions. Pavel Tchelitchev, for example.
David: And in fact, it should more aptly be termed as a
form of realism.
Alex: Well, there were artists like Ivan Albright whose
work was called magic realism.
David: Or spiritual realism.
Alex: Yeah, or metaphysical realism. I've struggled with
words that would describe it. There's never been an adequate term. Jean
Delville was a great symbolist painter and he called his work idealist. He
was an idealist in the German Romantic philosophical tradition of
Schelling and Schopenhouer, the Neo-Platonic
idealists. I'm not uncomfortable with the terms symbolism or idealism. My
work is symbolic and projects ideal archetypes. The wounded healer has to
project an image of health in order to heal, and has to fight on the side
David: Who are some of the other artists who have
Alex: There are two or three painters from this century
who I relate to strongly. There's the Belgian symbolist painter Jean
Delville. His work addresses the dualisms of body and soul, spirit and
matter. The second is Ernst Fuchs who is a much under-appreciated Viennese
"fantastic realist" painter. The third artist is Pavel Tchelitchev, who's
most famous painting, "Hide and Seek" is in the Museum of Modern Art, and
well-known to many psychedelic afficianados. It's a magnificient piece
done in 1940-41. He spent the remainder of his career, 1942-56 studying
the human anatomy, the subtle anatomy and spiritual networks of energy.
David: I like that phrase subtle anatomy, because that's
what I really feel that you're capturing. I've never seen anybody do what
you've done. Was he doing something similar?
Alex: My work relates strongly to Tchelitchev. After acid
trips, I started having visions of glowing bodies with the acupuncture
meridians and points, chakras and auras all inter-relating. I started
painting these images and a friend of mine told me that Tchelitchev was
doing this kind of thing forty years ago. He was starting to do
translucent bodies that I think were influenced by "The Visible Man" or
"Visible Woman" seen at the New York World's Fair of 1939. Also, the use
of X-rays must have influenced him to envision a translucent body.
Tchelitchev sometimes painted a glow around the body, as well. He was
well-versed in Pythagoreanism and alchemy and was deeply into the occult.
Whether he ever took mescaline, I don't know. He was dead before much
acid was available. He died in '56, and yet he was embraced by psychedelic
culture. His career has had its ups and downs in the legitimate art world.
His work is currently gaining momentum after years of neglect. In the
early Forties, he got a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. After
that, his anatomical work went out of favor because it wasn't related to
"hot" artists like Jackson Pollock. Jack the dripper was big news in Life
magazine, and there was a tidal wave of abstract expressionism that wiped
out the magic realists. I think the 21st Century will look back and see
the significance of the symbolists -- work that is content-diven, sacred
art that is idiosyncratic and personal. I think Tchelitchev's career will
be reassessed, and accorded more value. At any rate I see him as a
forefather to my artwork.
David: How long does it take you on average to complete a
painting? There's so much incredible detail.
Alex: Sometimes just a few months or it can take a year
David: Do you ever do several pieces simultaneously?
Alex: No, I focus on one piece at a time. Each piece
absorbs me. Meanwhile, there are visions circling overhead
a-mile-a-minute, wanting to land on the easel. My notebooks are filled
with extensive little scribbles of potential pieces.
David: Your painting style demonstrates extensive
knowledge of human anatomy. Have you ever given thought to the fact that
you share the last name with the man who wrote and illustrated Gray's
Alex: I changed my name to Grey at a time when I was
doing a lot of performance works about resolving and exploring polarities.
It was prior to my name change that I went to the North Magnetic Pole, and
I shaved half my head of hair, in alignment with the rational and
intuitive hemispheres of the brain.
David: So Grey represents a merging of the light and
Alex: Exactly, Grey is the middle way. I took the name
not thinking about the relationship with the Grey's Anatomy. But, it was
fortuitous, and who knows what energies a name will draw into itself. My
project has been to revision the human anatomy and include the
non-material dimensions. Medical texts don't address the soul level.
Dissecting the body cannot reveal a soul.
David: I'm curious. What do you personally think happens
to human consciousness after biological death?
Alex: I accept the near-death research and Tibetan bardo
explanations. Soon after physical death, when the senses shut down, you
enter into the realms of light and archetypal beings. You have the
potential to realize the clear light, our deepest and truest identity, if
you recognize it as the true nature of your mind and are not freaked out.
If you don't, you may contact other less appealing dimensions. No one can
know, of course until they get there. Some people have had experiences
which give them certainty, but consciousness is the ultimate mystery. I'd
like to surrender to the process on it's deepest level when death occurs,
but I will probably fail, and be back to interview you in the next
David: What's your concept of God?
Alex: My daughter said the other day, "God must think it
smells down in the sewer.". I thought that was an interesting statement.
She said that because God is everywhere, and God is everything, God would
be in the stinky places, too. God is the infinite oneness. Oneness, but
also infinite. That is the meaning of non-dual. God is love. While we were
tripping we thought, "Love is the part of the all that's all of the all."
Divine love is infinite and omnipresent, but our experience of it is
partial and incomplete from day-to-day. If you have a loved one you have
access to the infinitude of divine love.
Even though Buddhists would not use the word God, the non-dual nature
of mind, voidness, clarity, and infinite compassion, as described in the
Buddhist teachings, is not different than the experience that I call God.
Ken Wilber uses the ladder metaphor. There are different rungs, the
material realm, the emotional, the mental, then the psychical, and
progressively more spiritual hierarchies of states of consciousness and
awareness. The highest rungs of the ladder give one the highest context,
wherein the entire ladder is seen. The experience of God is the highest
rung, and also the entire ladder. That's the transcendent and the immanent
aspects of God. God is the beyond and also the manifest world - "the
entire field of events and meanings" as Manjushrimitra puts it. One
without the other is not the full picture.
David: You're describing God simply as a state of
consciousness. Do you see there being an intelligent design in the
Alex: Absolutely. Wilber says that the materialists can't
offer more than a "whoops!" theory for the universe manifesting. Whoops,
it occurred by some chance. That's an infantile orientation to the
complexity and beauty of the evolutionary design of the earth and cosmos.
I think we can come up with something deeper. Spirit, God, Primordial
Nature of the Mind, whatever you call it, is the source and goal of it
David: How have your experiences with psychedelics
influenced both your work and your perspective?
Alex: When I came back from the North Magnetic Pole, I
knew I was looking for something.
David: How old you were?
Alex: I was 21, and I was searching for God. I didn't
know what that was. I was an existentialist. Within twenty four hours of
returning from the Pole, I was invited to a party by an acquaintance who
would become my wife. She invited me along with our professor, so the
professor took me there. On the way, he offered me a bottle of Kalua laced
with a high dose of LSD. It was the end of school, and I decided to
celebrate. I drank a good deal of it. Allyson drank the rest. That was my
first LSD experience.
Tripping that night I experienced going through a spiritual rebirth
canal inside of my head. I was in the dark, going towards the light,
spinning in this tunnel, a kind of an opalescent living mother-of-pearl
tube. All paradoxes were resolved in this tunnel -- dark and light, male
and female, life and death. It was a very strong archetypal experience.
The next day, because it had been my first trip, I called Allyson up, to
talk to her about it. I asked her out that night, and we never left each
other. It's been over twenty years.
Within twenty-four hours of announcing that I'm looking for God, an LSD
experience opened me up on a spiritual, evolutionary path, and I had met
my wife. It was miraculous. My prayers were answered. Allyson and I have
maintained an ongoing psychedelic sacramental relationship. We have often
tripped laying in bed, blindfolded or in a beautiful environment. Then,
coming out of blindfolds, we write and draw.
David: Oh wait, you were the person who put together
those isolation masks.
Alex: The Mindfold.
David: Yeah, right. I've see them advertised in High
Alex: (Laughter) Yeah.
David: That's a brilliant idea, putting ear plugs and eye
shades together. Sort of a portable isolation tank. I made my own pair
actually. So you'd wear those when you were tripping?
Alex: We used it as a blank screen to project our
imagination on to. I saw it as an art object, as well. We made a limited
edition of twenty-five hundred, and sold them all over the world. Then we
sold the business.
David: You've tried one of John Lilly's isolation tanks
Alex: Oh yeah, isolation tanks are great. You do get a
different sense with immersion.
David: Have you ever actually tried to do any work while
you were tripping?
Alex: A little -- The results are interesting and remind
me of the trip, but it's not my most successful work. My work takes a
steady mind, eye and hand to accomplish. The psychedelic helps me to
access the infinitude of the imagination, allowing me to see countless
interpenetrating dimensions. William James says that no model of reality
can be complete without taking these alternative dimensions of
consciousness into account. Since I want to make art dealing with the
nature of consciousness and spirit, I have to experience higher dimensions
During a trip I will have visions that are crystallizations of my life
experience, or something completely surprising. You may enter a dimension
that you've never known before, and it seems very real, more real than
this phenomenal world. That "other" reality seems to be tinkering with
this one, or acting like a puppet-master to this one. I want to reveal the
inter-relationships between the different dimensions in my work.
David: To act as a bridge between dimensions?
Alex: Consciousness is that bridge. Making
interdimensionality visible validates it for people who have had that
experience. They can see a picture outside of their own heads, and say,
"It was something like this. I'm not crazy." There's plenty of people
who've had those experiences. Perhaps the work can be useful in that way.
I've talked to people who use my paintings as a tool to access the
dimensions that are represented. Some people trip and look at the book, or
look at the art, and key into the states that are symbolized there. That
is a psychedelic or entheogenic full circle. I glimpsed the visions while
tripping, come back and made the work. Then people trip and access the
higher state that produced the vision. The painting acts a portal to the
mystical dimension. That is the real usefulness of the work, and it is the
great thing about any sacred art.
David: To act as something like an access code, or a
doorway to a particular dimension, reality, or vibration.
David: How has your wife influenced your work? You say
that you met her on that night you did psychedelics together. Has she
remained as powerful of an influence?
Alex: Totally. Together we are a third mind that neither
one of us alone could ever be. We guide each other's art. We did a
performance together called "Life Energy" in 1978, and I made these
life-sized charts of the body -- one of the Eastern model of Life Energy,
and the other was the Western anatomical model of the nervous system. I
demarcated an area in front of the image, so that a person could stand in
that zone and try to mirror the system on the chart within their own body.
We led several exercises during the Life Energy performance. As we were
walking away afterwards, Allyson said, "It would really be great if you
did fully detailed oil paintings of these different systems that people
could stand in front of." The charts had been the most successful thing
about that performance. At that moment I was doomed to doing the "Sacred
Mirrors". Allyson was really the inspiration behind it. She's inspired me
to do numerous paintings -- some of my best work. She's a great designer
in her own work and I collaborate with her on her paintings, too.
David: And you've worked on paintings together as well.
Alex: Yes. Allyson did the "secret writing" in the halo
of the "Sophia" painting. My most recent works, "Transfiguration" and
"Prostration", use Allyson's geometric grid systems. They relate to the
kaleidoscopic DMT complexities and to sacred geometries. Her own work is
very strong, and I'm influenced by being around it.
David: In the preface to the book Sacred Mirrors , you
say that you and your wife actually shared the same vision of the energy
fountains and drains.
Alex: Right. The Universal Mind Lattice. That was an
extraordinary trip that really convinced me of the reality of the
transpersonal dimensions. We experienced the same transpersonal space at
the same time. That space of connectedness with all beings and things
through love energy seemed more real to both of us, than the phenomenal
world. It changed our work. From that point on we had to make art about
that vision. There was nothing more important than that.
David: Have your dreams inspired you? If so, how have
they influenced your work?
Alex: Sure. I had a dream that I was painting the
"Transfiguration" painting before I actually did it. I did DMT a few weeks
later, and I was immediately thrust into the space of that painting I had
dreamed of. I was experiencing what it would be like inside of the
painting, and what state of being I would try to project. Having seen it
in a dream, I could clarify certain elements. It became clearer, although
not all questions were solved. Shaving half of my hair off was an image
that came in a dream, as well. In the dream, I opened up a garbage can and
saw myself with this haircut.
David: Are there any other avenues that you use to access
the unconscious, and what else has inspired you?
Alex: Oh sure. Creative visualization is surprisingly
effective. Also shamanic drumming can be a pathway to expanded,
imaginative territories. Sometimes doing nothing at all you can receive
powerful visions. Once I was waiting for the subway, tired after a day of
teaching, and I saw the "World Soul" piece which I then worked on for two
years. I was in no altered state and was not anticipating anything in
particular. I like to keep the "door open" and be permeable to these
transdimensional blow-darts of vision. I believe that I am being used by
the Logos. The images are sent to me.
David: So you feel like sometimes you're not really doing
it, like it's just happening though you? Alex: No, I know
that I'm physically creating the work. But the vision is being given as a
gift. Other creative and receptive people are receiving other visions, but
these are my gifts, and I'm supposed to manifest them.
David: Was there anything else in particular that
inspired you beside psychedelics, your relationship, and dreams?
Alex: Art of different cultures... There's shamanic art
from various world cultures. Tchelitchev was not the only artist painting
translucent bodies. Shamanic artists from all over the world have made
X-ray art, where they see into the body and the interpenetrating energies.
Some artists have a clairvoyant perception of the body. The
Indians of Mexico base their culture and spiritual life on their
ritual and ceremonial peyote use. Huichol artists see through the body and
see energies surrounding it and show great jets of light around the bodies
in their yarn paintings. There are numerous cultures with a tradition of
subtle body art.
David: Like Pablo Amaringo's work.
Alex: Ayahuasca visions. Yeah, terrific stuff. I'm
inspired by psychedelic art of all kinds. Ernst Fuchs and Mati Klairwein,
are European painters still painting today, who are inspired similarly.
Thangka painting, the sacred art of the Tibetan Buddhists, has been an
influence. I feel like we now have access to the spiritual traditions and
visual cultures of most of the world's great civilizations. Artists have
never had that before. It's like the seals of the Apocalypse are opening
and during the Twentieth Century we get to see humanities past life
review. Cave art was recently discovered in France. Art done tens of
thousands of years ago, inspired by the Goddess and Shamanic magic is now
available. Artists are in a unique position at the end of the Twentieth
Century to access all visual traditions, and synthesize them in an
evolving universal spiritual tradition.
David: I'm curious about your views on the evolution of
Alex: It seems to me the universe is like a
self-awareness machine. I think the world was created for each individual
to manifest the boundless experiences of identity with the entire
universe, and with the pregnant void that gives birth to the phenomenal
universe. That's the Logos. That's the point of a universe, to increase
complexity and self-awareness. The evolution of consciousness is the
counter-force to the entropic laws of thermodynamics that end in stasis,
heat death, and the loss of order. The evolution of consciousness appears
to gain complexity, mastery, and wisdom.
Lessons are learned over a lifetime-- maybe many lifetimes. And the
soul grows and hopefully attains a state of spiritual awakenedness. Buddha
was the "Awakened One". To be able to access all the simultaneous parallel
dimensions, and come from a ground of love and infinite compassion like
the awakenedness of the Buddha, is a good goal for the evolution of
consciousness. The spiritual "fruit" in many spiritual paths is compassion
David: So as a result are you optimistic about the future
evolution of humanity?
Alex: That's a big leap. (laughter) I have some optimism
about the potential for human beings to manifest Buddhic qualities of
compassion, spiritual heroism, and reverance for all life. There's always
problems in this phenomenal world, but if we maintain ideal ethical views
we can cause less harm. There's hope for a future to hand our children,
and their children. There is also despair over the deludedness and the
catastrophic disasters that human beings have created.
I don't like vacillating between fear and hope. The Buddhist teachings
caution against entrapment in those emotions. But we're in samsara, and
subject to emotions. Ultimately, I'm optimistic because the primordial
nature of mind will never change no matter what happens. Our consciousness
may appear in another universe, or in another dimension, but in some form
the energy will be around. Consciousness just recycles.
David: Has raising a family at all interfered with your
creative work? Maybe I should ask that differently. How has raising a
family affected you creatively?
Alex: (Laughter) I have a wonderful daughter. Spending
time with your family takes alot of time away from painting, but it's my
opportunity during her youth to be with her. She's going to be our only
child during this lifetime. If I don't spend time with her now, I will
have missed out. So, we take advantage of it and enjoy seeing her stages
of growth. Her art development is wonderful. She teaches us and is a great
teacher. You need to spend time with your teachers in order to learn new
things, and these things find their way into my work.
All of my life experiences influence and deepen my work. Having a
family, and profound, loving relationships, gives me tremendous joy. The
world needs this positive energy. I accomplish less because I spend more
time with my family, but I use the experiences we've had to make more
David: Can you tell me a little bit about the projects
that you're currently at work on?
Alex: I'm working on my next book-- Transfigurations. It
will include the work about the World Soul sculpture that I worked on for
two years. It will have recent paintings, and probably a chapter on
self-portrait work. From the time I was fifteen years old I have done a
serious series of self-portraits. The book will contain some writing about
the nature of the self.
I'm working on a painting called "Nature of Mind". I've been thinking
about it for a long time. It's an altar piece, a seven paneled work that
portrays the Dzogchen teachings of the sky-like nature of mind.
David: You spoke a little bit about what inspired the
"Sacred Mirrors" project before. Did you want to say a little bit more
about what the concept was behind it?
Alex: The "Sacred Mirrors," are a series of twenty one
panels that examine in fine detail the human physical and metaphysical
anatomy -- the body, mind, and spirit. Each Sacred Mirror presents a
life-sized figure directly facing the viewer, arms to the side and palms
forward (the "anatomical position"). This format allows the viewer to
stand before the painted figure and "mirror" the image. People have
reported that by using the paintings in this way, a resonance takes place
between one's own body and the painted image, creating a sense of "seeing
into" oneself. The last time they were exhibited all together, I had the
opportunity to trip with them. I felt like I was experiencing a new kind
of subtle body work. When I was standing in front of the "Psychic Energy
System" my "vital essence" was pulled out through my eyes, and into the
painting, like a magnet. My vitality went into this glowing body, and like
electrons zipping around a hard drive, I was being reformatted by the
painted image of a perfect template. My vital essence was unkinked,
purified and intensified. Then this essence oozed out of the painting and
back into my body. The painting acted like a tool that catalyzed the
evolution of my consciousness.
The "Sacred Mirrors" were a job I was given to do. They were a gift
from the future, projected into my mind stream to bring benefit to others
through healing art -- a life-preserver tossed back into the time stream
to be yanked towards the evolutionary future.
David: The Omega Point.
Alex: Right. The Sacred Mirrors have periodically been
exhibited at various museums and galleries around the world. Allyson and I
are committed to making them accessible to people in the form of a chapel,
a permanent public space for the Sacred Mirrors. A Chapel of the Sacred
Mirrors would bring together all twenty-one paintings in a domed circular
room with guardian sculptures between each piece.
I think of the Chapel surrounding the Sacred Mirror room as a pyramidal
structure containing a Sacred World Globe. The Globe symbolizes the
collective spiritual consciousness of the planet, the noosphere, to use de
Chardin's term. The pyramidal architecture of the Chapel will symbolically
draw in and focus healing and spiritual energies on planetary and personal
awareness. The Chapel will act as a catalyst or an accelerator for the
evolution of consciousness by displaying visionary and sacred art which
evokes higher mind states. The spiritual legacy of humanity, East and
West, from indigenous shamans to the world's major religions would be
acknowledged and honored there.
I'm creating an architectural model of the Chapel and working with a
software company to make a virtual Chapel on CD-ROM, or possibly a
Web-site which will make the space more accessible. This is a step towards
the development of an actual chapel.
We need support to create this chapel. The site has not yet been
chosen. It will be a space for personal transformation, for ritual and
ceremony, for gatherings and cultural events. At this critical time in
human history, we need places where all spiritual paths are honored. The
Chapel of the Sacred Mirrors will celebrate the co-existence of religious
diversity and fulfill the desire to enter into a unitive vision of World