Reflections on a Sacred Mirror
“We need transcendent vision to guide us, and the vision of a common good to motivate and drive our creative efforts.”
with Alex Grey
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: What were you like as a child?
Alex: 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 narley 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.