Reflections on a Sacred Mirror by David Jay Brown
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, my god..."
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 inter-dimensional travel.
David Jay Brown: What were you like as a child?
Alex Grey: 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 gnarly 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 visual?
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 universal energies.
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 me.
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 fuelled the commitment to my work. I think that every artist or anyone who is trying to accomplish something before their own death has the spectre 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 morgue?
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 much.
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 hand?
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 awesome.
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 animating muscles?
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 1970-71.
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 Wilhelm Reich's 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 utilized 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 death?
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 representational art.
David: Right, that's really a good point. There's a big difference between surrealist and visionary art, and many people confuse them.
Alex: I think their intentions are different. Athough, there were artists who were motivated by surrealist and visionary intentions. Pavel Tchelitchew, 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 Schopenhauer, 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 of good.
David: Who are some of the other artists who have influenced you?
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 Tchelitchew, 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 Tchelitchew. 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 Tchelitchew 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. Tchelitchew 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 Tchelitchew’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 or more.
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 Anatomy?
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 dark?
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 lifetime. (laughter)
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 universe.
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 all.
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 North Magnetic 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 Kahlua 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 Times.
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 haven't you?
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 of consciousness.
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, then 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. Tchelitchew 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 Huichol 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 consciousness.
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 and wisdom.
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 profound work.
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 Spirit.