Alex Grey on His Journey to Finding God by Shelby Hartman
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For all of humanity’s accomplishments — landing on the moon, connecting people halfway across the globe with the push of a button, creating life in a laboratory — we still have yet to comprehend our own minds. This creates a fundamental barrier to understanding each other’s experiences, particularly those as multidimensional as trips. But when words fail us, art can step in—allowing us to make sense of the emotional, amorphous moments that perhaps we need to contemplate more than the ones we can clearly articulate. No one alive today has played more of a role in facilitating this for psychedelic users than artist Alex Grey. His most well-known paintings —intricate skeletal structures in moments of spiritual ecstasy — are meditations in and of themselves. For Grey, though, they’re also tools for the viewer to explore their internal landscape or to realize that they’re not alone in what they’ve already discovered through psychedelics and other mystical experiences. In this sense, sacred art isn’t just beautiful, it’s utilitarian too, playing a role in validating some of the most important awakenings of people’s lives.
Shelby Hartman: I just want to start out by asking you a bit about your life before you became the artist everyone knows as Alex Grey. You worked in a morgue at Harvard Medical School preparing bodies for dissection, right? How did that inform who you became?
Alex Grey: Being with dead people kind of reframes your awareness and also, you know, gives you a background of impermanence. That gives you respect for the fabric of the infinite majesty of the body, the beauty of it, on every level. Many sacred traditions point to that as our primary directive in life, to come into contact with supreme reality and so there’s many different impactful events that can bring you face to face with that kind of ultimate reality and death is notorious as one of those factors. Things get very clear. You try to figure out what you’re living for and to go for it. Try to have the courage, because you’re not around for very long. Psychedelics have a similar effect. They clarify things, for some people, not everyone, but for some people who make contact with that divine field, who face ultimate reality and discover a spirit of love. I think that’s what happens in the mystical experiences for many people. Like myself, I was suicidal and had my first dose of acid and it turned my life around completely. That and meeting my wife. I saw that divine love existed and I kind of forgave god for all of the misery and suffering, truly it was a divine spectacle, a sacred offering of this vast creation we live in. It reframed me.
Shelby Hartman: When was that?
Alex Grey: May 30th - 31st, it went through the evening, 1975.
Shelby Hartman: Wow, you remember the exact day.
Alex Grey: Well, it’s also the day I met my wife of 41 years.
Shelby Hartman: Did you believe in God before that?
Alex Grey: No. No. But I did dare God that morning to appear to me or to show me a sign that I should choose life, because I was getting desperate at that time. I was 21.
Shelby Hartman: If you don’t mind sharing, why was it that you were feeling so hopeless?
Alex Grey: I think I bought into the materialist, reductionist, capitalist theatre that our culture just places as the highest truth. I more or less had adopted Freud’s interpretation of religion as an opiate of the masses, because I hadn’t had contact with divine reality and I think before you do it’s wise to be skeptical, because you don’t want to just be sold a bill of goods, you want to be able to decide for yourself, but you do want a shot at it, a shot to be able to decide for yourself whether spirit is real or not and I think that meditation does that for a lot of people and they open up to it, but I was very hard-headed and I had already accepted pretty much the materialist worldview so it took spiritual dynamite to open up my doors of perception. I think that many of us are so shut down that it’s a good medicine for the times. We need to quickly understand that this is a sacred world we live in and to try to preserve it rather than destroy it. That is the message of psychedelics.
Shelby Hartman: Were you raised in a religious home?
Alex Grey: Methodist. My parents basically left the church in a huff and we never really knew what it was about.
Shelby Hartman: So you had a very, kind of, institutional introduction to religion?
Alex Grey: Yes. And at about the age of 11 we left the church so I was kind of on my own.
Shelby Hartman: Did you ever feel as a kid, before your family left the church, a connection with God?
Alex Grey: I felt something. I felt something. But then I became educated.
Shelby Hartman: When did you start doing psychedelic art?
Alex Grey: After doing psychedelics.
Shelby Hartman: So right after that first trip in ’75?
Alex Grey: Yea.
Shelby Hartman: You’ve said to me before that “science can’t point a camera into our mental flow.” Do you think that’s why psychedelics have had such a hard time gaining legitimacy? Because it’s really hard to know what’s going on when someone is tripping and we still can’t explain it neurologically?
Alex Grey: Absolutely. How could you reduce God to a neuron? The foundation of our consciousness and our experience of life is a complete mystery to everyone. There isn’t anyone that understands the nature of the mind. No one. This oughta be the primary subject of investigation, what’s the nature of consciousness? We’re operating as though we already know. We shouldn’t throw the world away based on a materialist presumption. We should look through that telescope, look through that microscope, see for ourselves that spirit, infinite consciousness is real, and we can gain contact with the source of creation. Now, that is newsworthy. That has always been the great story, our own divinity. That you don’t find on the cover of The New York Times. I wish we could.
Shelby Hartman: Why don’t we find it on the cover?
Alex Grey: Because neither the editors nor the writers have had the experience or are capable of shifting the contextual framework of the reception of the information to allow for a proper vertical in our society that isn’t weighed down by the burden of religion and misbeliefs. Religion stands for the sacred, but at this point, it’s been obscured through political and social improprieties to make religion seem like a bad neighborhood, intellectuals won’t go near it.
Shelby Hartman: You’ve said that your emphasis on the religious aspect of psychedelics has concerned a number of your colleagues. Will you tell me about that?
Alex Grey: I mean my scientific colleagues. The last time I spoke at a MAPS conference I talked about better religion through science and art…that was the last time I spoke at a MAPS conference, because I think the scientists are trying to present that psychedelics could come back into society in a way that would serve to relieve trauma, certainly in the PTSD studies and all the rest of that. The more association they had with a volatile subject like religion, and people like me, it wouldn’t help and I agree. Society is not ready. For them to in any way compromise the scientific integrity of what they’re doing with this idea of the mystical artist and somebody who is boundary-pushing and stuff like that, that reminds everybody too much of things that went wrong in the ’60s. I’m not allowed to take psychedelics so my art is basically evidence of my having broken the law and they’re trying to do everything they can to abide by the law and to do it in a respectable and very difficult way. So I respect my colleagues and that attitude may have to prevail for a while and maybe always will. Meanwhile, I can culturally pave the way for the visionary state and for people to not be frightened of the visionary state with my art and that validates people. When they see my art they say ‘oh my god, okay, I’m not crazy.’
Shelby Hartman: Of course, every trip and every journey is different. But do you think there is some kind of unifying quality to all these experiences that’s being legitimized by your art?
Alex Grey: I’ve been contacted by thousands and thousands of people over the years who have said ‘yea, this work is my reference point for that dimension of consciousness.’ Whether it exactly correlated or it was something like that, I think that visionary artists have begun to map a domain or the multi-dimensional qualities of these different altered states of consciousness, some of them mapping legitimate visionary, mystical experiences. Now, if you can map visually a glimpse of the visionary mystical experience perhaps you have a little bit of the grace that has helped people to heal and this is why I call it a new kind of sacred art.
Shelby Hartman: You’ve been involved in the psychedelic community for so long. Do you see perspectives on psychedelics shifting?
Alex Grey: I think they’re just growing more refined. For me, this has always been the biggest story of our time, the return of sacrament and the legitimizing of the mystical state through science.
Shelby Hartman: Do you mind telling me a little bit about, if it’s not too personal, that first acid trip? You called to God and then what? Was it a vision, a feeling, what was the proof of divinity?
Alex Grey: Oh, it was totally a vision. Inside of my head there was a tunnel and there was a spiral-like living mother of pearl. And right around the corner, a conk shell was kind of curving around the corner. It was casting light through this tunnel, rippling through and I was in the dark of the tunnel and spiraling toward the light. I was in absolute dark, but I could see that the light was good. This total love, infinite love. And all of my questions about the nature of reality were suddenly made clear and it was every shade of grey that brought the opposites together as well. So at that moment, I decided to change my name to Grey and in my work try to bring the opposites together.
Featured Photo from Performance 'Alex and Allyson Ritual'