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Alex Grey's "Bardo Being"
"Bardo Being", by Alex Grey (alexgrey.com)

Shades of Grey: An interview with visionary artist Alex Grey

Alex Grey is one of the most well-known visionary artists in the world. In the mid 1970s he had a series of entheogenically-induced mystical experiences which transformed his view of the world, from agnostic existentialism to a radical transcendentalism. Since that time, he has painted some of the most recognizable and inspiring sacred art of recent decades.

This interview from 2006 is republished from our now-defunct magazine Sub Rosa.


Daily Grail: Thanks for taking time out for a quick chat with us Alex. Many of our readers first became aware of your work through your well-known images on the Tool album Lateralus and the cover graphic for Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule, but may not know a lot more about you than that. Could you give us a quick history of your interest in art, your influences/heroes, and current projects?

Alex Grey: The answer to that question is a book . . . in fact it’s three books – Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey; The Mission of Art; Transfigurations. My website (www.alexgrey.com) has brief and complete bios. I’m a mystic artist, that is, spiritual experiences happened that inspired my artwork to reflect this sacred dimension. I’m influenced by Michelangelo, William Blake, and Ken Wilber. I’ve studied Buddhism for many years as well as the mystical underpinnings of the pantheon of human and divine wisdom. I never finished art school and have no degrees but have taught in some of the best art schools which gives me perverse pleasure. I teach visionary workshops with my wife and partner of thirty years, Allyson (www.allysongrey. com ), who is also the mother of our one daughter, Zena, an actor (www.zenagrey.com ). We have just recently celebrated the first anniversary of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. The Chapel is an experimental art installation that Allyson and I and many other artists created to house the art and spirit of the Sacred Mirrors. Right now I am working on a portrait of Dr. Albert Hoffman: Discoverer of LSD to commemorate his 100th birthday.

Alex Grey with Albert Hofmann

Daily Grail: While we’re talking hallucinogens – at this year’s Mind States Conference you gave a talk on “Drugs and Art”, which discussed the different themes and emotions which come through in various artists’ work and the relationship to the drugs they used (including coffee, alcohol, amphetamines and hallucinogens). If you were to stand outside yourself and analyse your own work in this context, what do you think you would see – both in terms of the drugs used and the themes and emotions that come through in your art?

Alex Grey: My impression would be that this artist is an acid-head who has pierced the veil of material world illusion and found some spiritual gold.

Daily Grail: When discussing alcohol in your Mind States lecture, you mentioned how it had the effect of ‘loosening’ the constraints of the artist. Do you feel that this ‘loosening’ – not only through alcohol but also other substances – is becoming more prevalent as a reaction to modern society, where rationalism and logic are the ‘rewarded’ traits, while creativity and freedom of the mind are not?

Alex Grey: I think you are talking about a reaction to the pressures of modern life and the use of substances to escape those pressures. Alcoholism has been around as long as alcohol, which dissolves boundaries but depresses consciousness and kills brain cells. Societies from indigenous cultures to post-modern urban dwellers have sought altered states of consciousness through many means including meditation, whirling, ecstatic dance, drumming and all kinds of deprivation including food, sleep, isolation . . .

Daily Grail: In terms of the different methods of achieving altered states of consciousness, you are seen – rightly or wrongly – as somewhat of a spokesman for hallucinogen use. You also have a loving family relationship with your wife Allyson and daughter Zena. How do you integrate use of hallucinogens with raising a child and maintaining a healthy family relationship, considering firstly that you are pursuing somewhat of an ‘apostate’ lifestyle to the social norm, and secondly your own personal feelings of responsibility towards your family as a husband and father?

Alex Grey: I had my first LSD experience in Allyson’s apartment. It was our first evening together. Allyson was already a seasoned veteran. I suppose you mean by ‘apostate’ that I may have renounced the conventional approach to family values, but some people have described my work as a kind of Norman Rockwell on acid. My imagery portrays mother and child nursing, kissing, praying, copulating – activities that are basic to all humans and many animals, as well. The art is conventional in that it celebrates simple things like love, and attempts to map the dimensions of compassion and infinite consciousness that the evolutionary stream has brought forward. So, there are conventional and post-conventional elements in my painting. Allyson and I have always told Zena the truth as we see it. We have not kept secrets about substance use, but have only answered questions that she asked us, not giving her more information that she needed or wanted. We also abstained a great deal from using substances while around her, not wanting to jeopardize her safety, or make her uncomfortable with our possibly unusual behaviour. Plus, when Allyson and I wished to partake of the sacrament we’d always prefer to be free from as much responsibility as possible, so we would put our daughter in the care of others during that time.

Daily Grail: The influence of your art and ideas is really beginning to show with the new generation of artists – and the Internet is showing the incredible amount of talent out there. What advice would you give young artists, in terms of balancing artistic endeavour and the need to survive in the modern world (i.e. pay the bills) where art rarely pays unless you are willing to pursue it within the corporate framework (eg. graphic design of advertising)?

Alex Grey: I would certainly advise young artists to put their artwork first. When looking for a way to pay the bills, stay as close as possible to your passion. I did medical illustration for twelve years, and although I hated doing it, I also got value from it and learned a great deal. Early on, I painted funhouses and later billboards, I worked in a library and spent a lot of time reading the books about altered states and the paranormal. I worked as part of a research team studying the affects of psychic healers on corn seeds and planaria. I always spent as much time as possible on my own artwork and really got quite a bit done during that time. No one sought me out for interviews then. (just kidding) I cannot tell anyone how to make money. I certainly never did any of the things that other people told me to do in order to make money with my art. When I was in art school, a professor told me, “Alex, keep doing what you are doing, my boy, and you will one day be painting covers for TV Guide.” That was when I began seriously deciding to quit art school because that is not who I was going to be. A gallery owner once told me to go with the current trend rather than doing the work I was doing. He meant well.

Daily Grail: A turning point in your life was when you had a transpersonal experience with your wife Allyson under the influence of LSD, where you both saw the same ‘mind lattice’ connecting everyone. Has this experience convinced you of some underlying ontological reality to the psychedelic experience?

Alex Grey: Of course. I’m a psycho-chemical mystic who sees an underlying unity in the timeless now shared by, and at the foundations of all world religions and visionary phenomena. We can look at Mohammed’s ride to the Seventh Heaven. That was a visionary experience. We can look at the Annunciation and the Transfiguration and perhaps even the Resurrection. There is also the Tibet Buddhist pantheon of Higher World Buddhas. The Torah is full of Jewish mystics like Ezekiel who saw fiery wheels or Moses himself who beheld the Burning Bush. Could anyone point to a non-visionary religion? Maybe, but all of the religions I can think of came out of the mystical experience, direct contact with the divine, by some charismatic leader. I do believe that some people are more inclined toward visionary experiences than others. It is our intention, and the shared intention of many, to revisit the primary religious experience and the “Beyond Within”. The visionary state is certainly what the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is all about, no matter how that state is realized.

“Oversoul”, by Alex Grey (alexgrey.com)

Daily Grail: You’ve had this life-changing experience using LSD, which is certainly a hallucinogen which lends itself time-wise to the contemplation and integration of the experience. Do you see any similar value to the smoked DMT experience, or is it better employed via the shamanic ayahuasca journey? 

Alex Grey: All three experiences have value. Smoked DMT is something like psychic bungee jumping. You bound briefly into another dimension sometimes getting very deep very fast. However prolonged immersion into the DMT influence via ayahuasca, can catalyse some of the most intensely beautiful visionary experiences, and is half the length of a typical acid experience. Acid is wonderful because it is so easy to consume and because Allyson loves it and with LSD we’ve had some of the most profound sacramental sojourns of our lives. That said, integration of the experience has become one of my artworks steady challenges – to find different methods for evoking the radiance of the visionary realms through painting, a medium with a long history for human culture. For 18,000 – 40,000 years humans have been painting images. It’s one of the defining characteristics of what differentiates human beings from animals. The integration of the entheogenic experience, in my experience, happens after the drug wears off and the work is to manifest new insights into ones creative life.

Daily Grail: I’ve heard a number of comparisons between the DMT trip and the work of another visionary artist, M.C. Escher – from the ‘impossible figures’ he is most famous for, to his tessellated patterns and even images of ‘elves’. Rick Strassman discusses endogenous DMT in his book – could there be an argument for Escher having endogenous DMT flashes? 

Alex Grey: Escher never claimed to be a mystic but he did say that he had strange and mysterious visions, as is evident in his art. I think Escher certainly could have been having endogenous DMT flashes, because there is always a psychochemical component to any mental experience, as long as you’re operating a brain. DMT lives in the brain fulltime, as we all know. Neuro-chemicals tessellate with our brain waves in the mystical experience and dance to the incomprehensible consciousness that powers the universe.

“Cycle”, by M.C. Escher

Daily Grail: You talk about art having the potential to change humanity and our future. In what way do you think visionary art is able to achieve this?

Alex Grey: We often forget that what we know of the world is entirely dependent on our view, our vision of the world, which is possible to evolve and transform into inspiring aliveness, or to stagnate and atrophy into sinkholes of cynicism. The news media and other corporate sponsored culture have an agenda that we unconsciously consume as we tune into their worldview. The shrill lies that fuel corporate advertising, like, “happiness and satisfaction in life is dependent on the products we consume,” ties us to a fear-based materialist and greed-centred worldview. There is no true spiritual liberation offered from the corporate media that we consume on a daily basis. It’s no wonder that anti-depressants are current drugs of choice in our culture. Where do we go for visions of freedom and reflections of our highest possibilities as a species – not to CNN. Today, I think visionary artworks can offer the “still small voice” of conscience, that may help people wake up from the mass media trance. It takes an engaged individual, willing to think for themselves and eager to enlarge their worldview, to spend time contemplating visionary art and embrace the divine imagination reflected there, source of creative solutions for our current growing problems. Visionary art can be a sacred mirror introducing us to our own untapped potentials, in this way it can catalyse and validate people’s path to a sustainable and saner future.

Learn more about Alex Grey and his artwork at his website AlexGrey.com.