Visionary Art, Psychedelics, Tool: The Mystical Life of Alex and Allyson Grey by Chris Grosso
Chapel of Sacred Mirrors founders on how lifetime of merging spiritual experiences, art, music led to transcendent new Entheon sanctuary
"When I was 20 years old I had a nightmarish dream that initiated one of my earliest performance series. In the dream, I opened a garbage can and saw myself naked in a fetal position with half my hair shaved. I looked down into the can and connected eyes with myself. After that dream, every time I passed by a mirror, I imagined half of my hair shaved off. So I did a series of pieces for half a year based on that dream."
The dreamer speaking is artist Alex Grey, who for more than 35 years has been at the forefront of the visionary art field. Alex, however, hasn't been alone in this journey. In 1975, while attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he met his lifelong partner, artist Allyson Rymland Grey, and the two have been blazing trails in the visionary art community ever since. But their influence has reached much further into the realms of popular culture. Alex's psychedelic creations have been used by artists including Meshuggah, Nirvana, Beastie Boys and David Byrne. In 1999, Alex's work caught the attention of Tool guitarist Adam Jones. After meeting at one of Alex's art exhibitions, the two "struck up a friendship," which eventually led them to collaborate on the iconic artwork for Tool's Lateralus, 10,000 Days and more.
The seeds of the Greys' formidable body of work can be traced back to the couple's first psychoactive meeting in Boston, and their early "sacramental journeys" on LSD. As the Greys continued to deepen their spiritual connection and creative consciousness, Alex was also exploring the corporeal realms while working in Harvard Medical School's anatomy department, where he prepared cadavers for dissection. He later signed on as a research technologist with mind-body medicine pioneers Dr. Herbert Benson and Dr. Joan Borysenko to help investigate healing energies. Alex's mind/body/spirit explorations would eventually manifest in his iconic "Sacred Mirrors" series — 21 vibrant life-sized paintings that examine the interplay between the body's physical and spiritual anatomy. Alex eventually went on to instruct Artistic Anatomy and Figure Sculpture at New York University, after which, he and Allyson began teaching visionary art workshops worldwide.
Since their first meeting, the Greys have had many transformative experiences, but one particularly pivotal moment occurred in 1985, when, according to Allyson, "the vision came to both of us simultaneously of a room housing the 'Sacred Mirror' paintings. This became the quest of our life: to build the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. CoSM has been a ... nonprofit since 1996, and an interfaith church since 2008. Countless friends, artists and artisans are co-creating this spiritual center. CoSM honors the Mystical Experience portrayed in visionary artworks inspired by personal contact with Divinity."
The latest chapter in this quest is the construction of Entheon (meaning, "A place to discover the Creator within"). The three-story structure, which is currently being built on the Greys' property in New York's Hudson Valley, will be CoSM's art sanctuary. When completed, it will feature a striking, white-and-bronze sculptural exterior designed by Alex depicting spiritual motifs from his paintings as well as representations of Adam and Eve returning to the Garden of Eden.
"[We] will exhibit the 'Sacred Mirrors' in a special Chapel room. Twelve thousand square feet of exhibition space will display key works of the CoSM permanent collection and select iconic originals of the global visionary art movement," says Allyson. "Entheon's three-story visionary art environment, will include originals from the most outstanding visionary artists worldwide, art that honors the divinely inspired accomplishments of painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, performers of all kinds, art as a spiritual path to evolve consciousness."
My own personal history with Alex and Allyson began in June 2015, in a roundabout way, through philosopher and longtime friend of the Greys, Ken Wilber. Ken wrote the forward to my book, Everything Mind: What I've Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening, and the Mind-Blowing Truth of It All, and urged the Greys to read it. Alex had some very kind words to say ("Chris Grosso's tough life lessons inform his no-bullshit spirituality in Everything Mind. A holy ferocity is in the heart of awakening, Chris takes us there and shares visionary tools to deepen with.") and the Greys invited me to teach a workshop at CoSM on Awakening Your True Spirit, in which I discussed how to cultivate a spiritual awakening out of challenging life experiences through compassion and meditation.
As a musician, whenever possible I also incorporate a live ambient guitar meditation at the end of my sessions. That evening at CoSM I played for roughly 25 minutes. What I didn't know was, during that time, Alex and Allyson snuck into the back of the room to watch. Once the guitar meditation was over, Alex approached me and, in a very soft, almost modest tone of voice, said, "That was beautiful. I hope you don't mind but I did some sketches of you while you played." He then presented the five drawings he'd done. Somewhat stunned, I could only muster up a simple "thank you" in return.
The thing is, that's Alex and Allyson. They are two of the most present, humble and transparent people I have ever met. Their work has influenced so many facets of life, from art to music, film to spirituality, and much, much more — yet, when they are talking to you, none of that matters. All that matters is the three of you sharing your exchange in the ethereal here and now — the undeniable Oneness that we all share with one another. It's a Oneness that — when we're still enough, if even just for a brief moment — we can see reflected back in glaring clarity through the Greys' eyes, and their visionary art as well.
Chris Grosso: With the United States in such a divisive place right now, what are your thoughts on creative expression and how it relates to unity and healing?
Alex Grey: Creative expression presents a moral choice to the artist. Should I project my ego's fear and hate or transcend my small self and inspire people to realize their higher deeper unity through the spirit of universal love? A lover of life would seek for our earth the most positive outcome for the greatest number of living beings. The most urgent priority must go to the environmental matters of stabilizing and healing the web of life. We're grateful for the many ecological initiatives now underway by so many intelligent people.
Any subject can be the seed of art. Artists often mirror the chaos of their lives or the madness of the times with symbolic reflections of humanity's darkest hours. The expression of shadow offers catharsis and acknowledges the truth of misery. Look at the origins of jazz and the blues. Suffering can give birth to new art forms. When we feel our soul is lost, an appreciation of art and music restores us because we see a sacred reflection of where we are at and/or where we need to go. Symbols that bring opposites together, icons that unite polarities, can offer healing in a time of cultural fragmentation.
Chris Grosso: Music is clearly an integral part of your vision and mission. Do you have any influences from the Punk / Hardcore / Metal or Hip-Hop scene? If so, do you experience a different form of creative expression while listening to them?
Alex Grey: When the second Led Zeppelin album dropped in 1969, I was president of my high school art club and scheduled a listening session for the group followed by a discussion. In 1970, at age 16, I bought the Black Sabbath album and loved it, but it scared the shit out of me. I was always attracted to artists that engage the shadow in their craft. How do we deal creatively with the emotions of fear, hatred and evil?
Allyson Grey: I also had a copy of Led Zeppelin II in 1969. Didn't everybody? When the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash hit, Alex and I were together and we loved them. As tripping hippies who had found God, it became increasingly harder for either of us to buy into mindless chaos, senseless violence and misogynistic lyrics. Alex's art was included on the Ill Communication album and we experienced the mosh pit at a Beastie Boys concert before escaping stage-side to the VIP box. Our most profound interest in the metal scene has surely been the music and culture of Tool.
Chris Grosso: Often those who reject the idea of God listen to what’s referred to as “dark” music. It was analytical psychologist Carl Jung who said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” So what are your thoughts on the polarities of light and dark when it comes to music? And how can “dark” music play into one’s spiritual development?
Allyson Grey: In the crucible of the soul of the artist, dark powers can be harnessed for creative expression. Inwardly held trauma and angst can emerge from the subjective state and enter an artifact. The power of rage and despair is endless and ultimately self-destructive if unacknowledged. Jung understood that the shadow must be integrated for the self to transform and evolve.
The supreme Godhead is beyond all concepts. All words fail to grasp the Great Mystery of the transcendental cause of existence. Yet, the unknowable God must also yearn to be known, for why else would the Infinite One reveal itself to us through the mystical experience of communion with the visionary realms? This is why the mystical experience is the most healing event in a person's life. The unknowable reveals itself in theophanies of the divine imagination.
Without a cosmos, God cannot be known and loved by creatures. Every moment, God creates a staggering masterwork to astonish and inspire us if we could but see it. So it is that a temple or any work of sacred art first appears in the mind of the mystic as a theophany to be shared, that God may be revealed, that the unknown may be known. Artists labor to translate the vision into tangible form as an offering to spirit and to uplift people. Those who know not God carry the sadness of the unrevealed.
Chris Grosso: Tool is a band that has led many listeners toward an interest in spirituality. Alex, many people became familiar with your art through their music. Can you walk readers through what a collaboration with Tool looks like?
Alex Grey: The process on each album has been unique. For Lateralus, Adam had an idea of the anatomical overlays and then with a bit of feedback, he let me do my thing. I came up with the flaming eye as a way to light up the creative centers of a person. After the success of the Lateralus album, Adam invited me to share some design ideas for the stage and later asked me to work on the "Parabola" music video with him. I offered the 90-second ending with the Kundalini ascent and meltdown to the Universal Mind Lattice.
With 10,000 Days, I tried a number of ideas and then I just showed Adam what I was working on in the studio, the "Net of Being" painting. He recognized the image from a sketch I had shown him years before, and he loved it immediately. He was creating top secret 3D photos and got me to work with 3D modelers to make faster anatomical figures. Adam is always pushing artists to explore new territory. I love Adam and all the men of Tool.
Tool continually challenges and pushes their creative edge with each new album, summoning the zeitgeist into a disturbing and truthful sonic mirror. Their record, 10,000 Days, is symphonic. Both pain and transcendence are palpable in their work. Thanks to Adam Jones' inventive genius, the historic packaging of the 10,000 Days CD won a Grammy. With my painting "Net of Being" as a cover image, the 10,000 Days album, full of mind-blowing music and lyrics, within the first week of release, became the No. 1 selling album.
When Maynard [James Keenan's] biography, A Perfect Union of Contrary Things, was released in 2016 he went on a book tour and included CoSM as a destination. We had an enlightening conversation on his creative process in the presence of a living room full of lucky fans. There is certainly no more hardworking person in music and winemaking than Maynard.
Tool is tirelessly inventive industrial-strength psychedelic rock & roll. Everyone is a tool for something. I have been a lucky tool for the branding of the band with my images. We use a tool to accomplish a task or purpose. Music and art are the most profound tools humanity has for plumbing and expressing the heights and depths of the soul.
Working with one of the greatest rock bands of all time has been a rare privilege, the thrill of a lifetime — twice already! I will always be grateful for how Tool introduced my work to so many people throughout the world.
Chris Grosso: While on the topic of Tool, They’ve had fans on an emotional rollercoaster these past few years with varying updates on their forthcoming album. Will we be seeing new Alex Grey artwork accompanying its release?
Alex Grey: I haven't heard any of the new music yet, and I can't answer this question, but it is looking positive. As far as other collaborations, there are still a few older things that have never been publicly shared and I can't say whether they ever will, but if I get a chance to work with Tool again, it will be an honor.
Chris Grosso: What are your thoughts on exploring dream states through art? What roles can nightmares have in our spiritual awakening?
Alex Grey: The first compositional elements of the painting "Transfigurations" came to me in a dream in 1993. Later, in a DMT experience, I became the figure in the dream painting. My body was made of a grid of light with jewels suspended throughout. This crystalized the image in preparation for making the actual painting.
Allyson Grey: Alex says, "The subject of an artist's work is their most important consideration." If an artist remembers dreams and nightmares, surely, exploring that imagery through art can be a rich treasure. I've been an artist all my life and have kept many volumes of my dream journal. At age 12, I began painting seriously in my attic, studied art through graduate school and have been practicing art almost every day since. I do not recall basing a painting or drawing on a dream or nightmare. For over 40 years, the source of my imagery has always sprung from a conscious inner voice that guides the evolution of my painting and social sculpture, inspired by psychedelic visions.
Chris Grosso: Painter, sculptor, teacher, mother, muse to artists worldwide: 60 something years later, who is Allyson Grey?
Allyson Grey: I am an artist with two bodies of work: my paintings, including oils, acrylics and watercolors, and my collaborative social sculpture, Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, CoSM, a transdenominational, radically welcoming interfaith art church in the Hudson Valley of New York. My life is a work of art. My ancestry makes me a Jew, and I love being Jewish even though I do not love all the things Jews say or do. I am the wife of the accomplished and talented artist, Alex Grey. I am the mother of the talented and accomplished artist/performer, Zena Grey. I am a friend to many who join us in the sacred work of building an enduring temple to uplift a global community.
Chris Grosso: Visionary artist, author, teacher, father, Vajrayana Practitioner: 60 something years later, who is Alex Grey?
Alex Grey: I am a mystic visionary artist, co-founder of CoSM, Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, partner and best friend to my beloved, the artist, Allyson Grey. I am the father of the outstanding artist and actor, Zena Grey. Thousands of people around the world are tattooed with my art. My work has literally left an impression on them. A porn star named herself after me. My art frequently winds up on blotter acid. I'm a student of psychedelic history, mysticism, anatomy and sacred art traditions. For a string of years, I made it to the top of Watkins Review's 100 Most Spiritually Influential People. I have learned that thousands of kindred souls have seen similar mindscapes to those I have depicted in my paintings. My art and I have become identified with altered and higher states of consciousness. The Visionary Art Tribe honors me as a spiritual friend. I am a spokesperson for the good that psychedelics can do. I stand for cognitive liberty and advocate for creativity as a spiritual path.