Pilgrims Are Flocking to This Psychedelic Temple
Alex Grey, the artist behind Tool's album covers, and his wife, Allyson, have built the world's trippiest museum. By Cassady Rosenblum
Upstate New York has been the birthplace of many Great Awakenings. In the 1820s, religious fervor so swept the region it became known as “the burned-over district.” In the 1960s, Timothy Leary’s commune in Millbrook became ground control for the East Coast psychedelic movement. “By the time we got to Woodstock,” sang Joni Mitchell, “we were half a million strong.”
More than five decades after Woodstock, in Wappinger Falls, Alex Grey and his wife, Allyson Grey, are trying to use art to get back to the garden. Under the full June moon earlier this month, the Greys opened the bronze, 700-pound doors of Entheon, a temple-museum hybrid dedicated to advancing visionary art, and a message of ecological unity.
“Humanity’s materialistic worldview must transition to a sacred view of oneness with the environment and cosmos,” Alex tells me after the celebration where soap heir David Bronner, who funded part of the museum, billowed about in his purple robes like a psychedelic Medici. It is a message Americans heard before — in the indigenous language of animacy, and in the prose of Alan Watts, who wrote that the individual is not, contrary to our common perception, a separate “ego inside a bag of skin,” but more like a wave coming out of the ocean.
As psychedelics return from the outlaw regions of the culture, arriving alongside the climate crisis, the gospel of interconnectedness is spreading again, this time through the mycelial tendrils of the internet. Alex Grey, demure and snowy-haired at age 69, is not entirely sure why he has become such a popular progenitor, but he nevertheless has: On Instagram, he is one of the most famous living visual artists in the country, with 1.4 million followers — more than Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama combined.
Yet despite his mass appeal, Grey’s colorful, metaphysical paintings have not always found mainstream acceptance. “We like tricksters, not prophets,” art critic Carlo McCormick told me, describing the general distrust many in the art world feel toward anything purporting to be spiritual, as Grey’s work does. “There is a sense that somehow it’s kitsch.”
This chilly reception seems to have done little to dampen Grey’s career or vision; if anything, it has given him a patina of anti-establishment integrity. Watkins Books, London’s oldest esoteric bookstore, regularly lists him on their annual list of the 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People — this year, somewhere above the Zen poet Gary Snyder and below manifesting guru Esther Hicks. At the opening of Entheon on June 3, 700 fans and spiritual seekers from Baltimore to Bali showed up to pay homage to his art, which has graced Tool albums, acid blotters, and festival stages. As they waited in line, some in their Burning Man best, others in black Lateralus hoodies, their energy was enthusiastic but mostly self-contained, more reverent than bacchanalian.
“I’m on pilgrimage along the Appalachian trail,” one dreadlocked devotee of Grey’s art, Donny Spellman, tells me. A self-described former drug and alcohol addict from Ohio, Spellman says he had an “awakening experience” five years ago that Alex Grey and Tool played a large role in. While tripping on LSD, Spellman says he suddenly saw the entire universe, “from a tiny singularity to infinite expansion and then back again,” as if the universe were breathing. “And then I saw a face that looked like every face that I had ever seen before, all at once,” Spellman continues, eyes brimming with tears. “It looked like my lover. It looked like my mother. It’s the face of everyone that you’ve ever known. And everybody that you will ever know.”
The experience was so moving that the next day, Spellman says, he got sober. In February, he took a train to Georgia, where he began the trek to Maine to celebrate his new lease on life.
The Greys understand such epiphanies — are even trying to provoke them. In 1975, Alex and Allyson were art students and mere acquaintances at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University when they shared what would be the first of many transformational experiences. At the time, Allyson was the lively host she still is, while Alex, more introverted and mild, was deeply depressed. One night, before attending a party at Allyson’s, he asked God for a sign why he shouldn’t kill himself. It arrived in a bottle of LSD-laced Kahlua, which they split on Allyson’s couch. Tripping for his first time, and traveling down an iridescent tunnel reminiscent of a conch shell, Alex said he saw the light. “This was God, this was love, this was wisdom,” he tells me in the studio he now shares with Allyson, tucked in the woods behind Entheon. “This was all the answers to all the questions I’d ever had.”
Inseparable since that encounter nearly 50 years ago and still palpably affectionate, the duo has made a career of tripping together, and documenting what they see. They estimate they have “journeyed” between 100 and 200 times, primarily using LSD, but also with psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 2CB, MDMA, MDA, ayahuasca, and ketamine. Traditionally, Alex’s visions have taken the form of luminous entities and humanistic scenes of death and rebirth; Allyson’s have tended to manifest more abstractly, sometimes as cryptic symbols she calls “secret writing.”
Both are heirs to the lineage known as visionary art, a genre that depicts the inner, often mystical, sometimes psychedelic, experience of the artist. According to Grey and several art critics I spoke with, visionary art may include shamanic art, or the surreal religious paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, or the trance-informed work of Hilma af Klint. It also includes a new generation of artists displayed in Entheon, such as the Ernst Fuchs-trained Amanda Sage, and ayahuasca-influenced Luis Tamani.
Significantly, the visionary artist neither renders what he sees in this reality nor “dreams up” some new fiction. Rather, the visionary experience is both more passive and vivid in that the artist is transported to a supernatural space he later records on the canvas. This makes the visionary artist an eyewitness to the “the divine imaginal realms,” argues Grey, “and by extension, spirit itself.”
In the West, the “divine imaginal realms” have been called many names: For Plato, they were the world of ideal forms; for Jung, they were the collective unconscious, replete with archetypes. Not everyone would agree that visionary art is proof that God exists, but philosopher Ken Wilber does, calling Grey possibly “the most significant artist alive” because his work suggests that higher states of consciousness are available to us. Grey has been there and back again.
For Adam Jones, the guitarist for Tool, Grey’s art is powerful because it works on a subconscious level — something Tool has explored by layering Fibonacci sequences into their music. “The propaganda of what we’re trying to communicate is looking past what we are and questioning what’s out there,” Jones tells me over the phone. “How does the spider know geometry? Is this evolution or is this something that was preordained?”
After meeting Grey at an art show in Santa Monica, California, in 1999, Jones invited Grey to do the artwork for Lateralus and 10,000 Days, kicking off a creative partnership that has grown to include music videos and merchandise. In 2001, Lateralus debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200 chart, selling more than half a million copies during its first week of release. In 2006, 10,000 Days repeated a similar showing, sending Grey’s art home with millions of Tool fans who, with a striking degree of intensity apparent at Entheon’s opening, transferred their emotional attachment onto Grey. Now, said Jones, “I can’t imagine not working with him.”
The path from album art to fame is one Grey is not alone in walking: Takashi Murakami, who did the album art for Kanye West’s Graduation in 2007, is one example of another artist whose career has been helped by it, too. Of course, for both artists, the story has been more complex: Grey says he first started seeing his art pirated on rave flyers and acid tabs in the early-to-mid 1990s, a decade before Lateralus came out. Yet while Murakami has found huge establishment success, Alex, along with Allyson, have pivoted by building a museum of their own.
Entheon, which means “creator within,” is the Greys’ DIY solution to the skepticism they have encountered in the art world, but it is also, they say, more than that. In 1985, after taking MDMA for the first time, the Greys say they had a shared vision that they were “temple builders,” and should construct a public sanctuary for Alex’s magnum opus — a set of 21 life-size paintings of the human body called “The Sacred Mirrors,” which invite the viewer to consider the idea that each individual is a sacred mirror of the divine.
The first iteration was a gallery in Chelsea, in New York, called the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM), but they soon began looking for a piece of land that might more permanently accommodate their art and burgeoning community. One day in 2008, after much fruitless searching, Alex says he Googled “retreat centers for sale.” On a website called “findthedivine.com,” only one was listed: a 40-acre property just two hours outside of the city that belonged to the United Church of Christ, a socially conscious Protestant denomination that once counted Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as members in Chicago. When the Greys pulled up on Earth Day and spied two turkeys doing a mating dance in the driveway, they say they knew they were home. CoSM bought the property for $1.8 million, and reopened as an “interspiritual art church” that hosts monthly full-moon ceremonies, art activities, and other celebrations that are open to the public. It is on these idyllic grounds where Entheon is now situated, inside an old carriage house, and after years of renovations and delays due to the pandemic, finally open to the public.
Taking the train from Grand Central Station to New Hamburg to visit the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors for the first time, I had the same worry as some of the critics: that it would feel hokey, or worse, hucksterish. New Age language can be maudlin, like when Grey calls their community the “Love Tribe,” and the symbolic wings and eyes that adorn Entheon are conveniently obscure. Yet later, as I watched men and women weep before the Greys’ art the way some viewers famously cry before the color field paintings of Mark Rothko — an abstract expressionist who has an art chapel of his own in Houston — I realized I was witnessing more than an excuse for a gift shop. For a not-so-small subculture, Entheon, no matter how strange-seeming, is also filling a genuine spiritual void.
“We need temples,” says Dago Driggs, a climate activist from western Massachusetts who wore black eyeliner and a wampum-shell earring at the opening. As mainstream religiosity “plummets,” he points out, “there is a resurgence in the spiritual, in the connection to the divine.” During the opening prayer for Entheon, Driggs says he was struck by how many people “unreservedly” said amen. “For me, that’s meeting a need that is unmet in mainstream society and by the dominant religion that a lot of us grew up with,” he says.
The numbers bear out Driggs’ observation: According to Gallup, less than half of Americans belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Meanwhile, in recent years, the number of Americans identifying as “spiritual but not religious” has spiked, leading some seekers to astrology, others to the eons-old practice of ingesting hallucinogens, and still others, it would seem, to Entheon. Ross Douthat, a New York Times Catholic columnist, has commented on these trends of experimentation with cautious optimism, writing that “The future of humanity depends on people opening doors to the transcendent, rather than sealing themselves into materialism and despair. But when the door is open, be very, very careful about what you invite in.”
Josh and Jason Brown, two ruddy brothers from Rhode Island, say they flung their doors open with a cocktail of LSD, ketamine, Tool music, and Alex Grey art. That combination, they said, catapulted them into eternity, where they said they met their creator. “Infinite, undeniable beauty and love,” is how Josh articulated the experience, although he admits it was really beyond words. “Immediately, you realize that everything is alive.”
That takeaway, “that we are part of nature; we are not separate from nature,” as Driggs phrases it, is essential if humanity is to transition from an “Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization” as defined by Joanna Macy, an ecological activist and scholar who Driggs says has influenced his work with Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental group. Macy argues that humanity is in the midst of a “Great Turning,” or mass awakening to this idea of interconnectedness. Like Wilber, the philosopher, she takes her cues from Buddhism, which champions meditation rather than LSD as a method for breaking through. But as Entheon stands as testament, there are many paths to the divine. Chris Dyer, one of the featured artists, told the crowd later, the “the art is just the bubble gum wrapper.”
If the art is just the bubble-gum wrapper, it is worth asking what role drugs play in catalyzing such insights. The Greys do not offer psychedelics to the public, or permit their use on their grounds. Repeatedly, they emphasized that visionary states can be accessed through many sober methods, such as breath work or drumming. There is also some precedent for art alone shifting consciousness: In Tibetan Buddhism, some statues of the goddess Tara are thought to accelerate enlightenment through the act of mere contemplation, while in Christianity, certain statues of the Madonna are thought to similarly induce healing. Rothko, influenced more by Jung than psychedelia, said in a 1957 interview, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
Nevertheless, there would be no Entheon if it weren’t for psychedelics. In a room in the back, visitors can learn about the indigenous history of psychedelics, and gaze upon “relics” such as a dusting of ashes from Timothy Leary — gifted to the Greys by Leary’s son, Zach. According to Alex, the chief proselytizer of LSD once told him, “You’re seeing through my eyes.”
Ultimately, predicts McCormick, the art critic, this is how Alex and Allyson Grey will be remembered: as a key link between the past and future. During an era when psychedelics were illegal and “passé,” says McCormick, the Greys “kept this weird, esoteric, mystical flame” alive. They nurtured it, he says, “until our culture was ready to reembrace its mystery.”
As scientists and theologians reassess psychedelics’ value, the task now, says Allyson Grey, is to follow the example of Harvey Milk, one of the first elected officials in the U.S. to come out as gay, and normalize psychedelics even further. “He got killed for it, but he changed the culture,” she tells me matter of factly over peppermint tea a few days before Entheon’s opening.
As a Tibetan nun from a neighboring monastery blessed the space, and the inky night came to a close, the scene was reminiscent of a Merry Prankster Acid Test minus the frenzied debauchery. The Greys may be hip, but they’re also wise and experienced — a Mother Goose and Father Gander whose protective wings the first generation of flower children might have done well to shelter under. Inside Entheon, Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess played the keys, the music piping through all three floors, while on the walls outside, psytrance artists projected rippling animations of the Greys’ imagery, turning the temple into a technicolor cube. As pyro performers twirled beside a bonfire nearby, their shadows leaping like those in Plato’s cave, the newly awakened gasped at the spectacle, and howled at the moon.
Photographs by Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone