An Interview with Artist and Founder of the Church of Sacred Mirrors Alex Grey
Alex Grey worked in a morgue long before he became a renowned painter. An interest in the body and its applications beyond the ordinary are evident in Grey’s work, which has graced the covers of albums by Tool, Nirvana, and the Beastie Boys, as well as tabs of blotter acid. Situated between the sacred and the psychedelic, Grey’s work aims for transcendence, however subtle.
Following a 1978 performance entitled “Life Energy,” Allyson Grey, Alex’s wife, inspired and gave name to the Sacred Mirrors series, twenty-one works that aim to explore the anatomical, socio-political and spiritual dimensions of our collective selves. Like an interactive performance, viewers are invited to stand directly in front of the painting, hands in the anatomical position and imagine that the painting reflects the system inside of you. Alex’s approach to art relates to the ritual use of Tibetan Thangkas by Buddhist practitioners, who focus on the art to identify with the deities of either wrath or peace. The Sacred Mirrors were created for display at The New Museum, but have also been exhibited in places like, The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and The American Visionary Art Museum.
Grey co-founded the Church of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) with Allyson in 1996. Since then, the institution has moved from a gallery space in New York City, to a large woodsy estate in Wappinger, NY. CoSM occasionally throws large parties that aim to serve as interfaith gatherings where “expanding on one’s consciousness” is not unheard of.
Reluctantly, I attended a CoSM event in 2015, thinking it would be all psychedelics and proselytizing, as some of my more wayward acquaintances had gushed about the higher-level spirituality of events they’d attended on the compound. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the nature of the event seemed to exist beyond simple labels and pretenses. While I still don’t know what the organization ultimately aims to accomplish, I found that the people involved created a space that was simultaneously encouraging and indifferent as to whether or not visitors were on board.
Alex Grey wasn’t the towering unreachable figure one might expect him to be, but a genuinely genial guy who is well aware of how his art and legacy might be seen by the general public. In the first three minutes of chatting, Alex joked that he put the “cult” in culture, and went on to mock the reclusive sensibilities many might believe him to possess. I honestly felt a little ashamed about how smug I’d been in my own reservations and thought that if I had already relegated CoSM to the drawer labeled fringe or new-age, then others might have as well. I chatted with Alex and Allyson Grey via email as they geared up to find funding for Entheon, which will serve as the Church of Sacred Mirror’s first actual church.
I. A SACRED PICTURE
THE BELIEVER: There’s a correlation between your visual work and certain Judeo-Christian spiritual practices—do you think those just come out of how I’m seeing the work, or are those practices in the genesis of the work?
ALEX GREY: My art is visual prayer and visual philosophy that shares my psychedelic epiphanies. No specific Judeo-Christian practices are the genesis of my art. My parents were non-practicing Christians. I began studying philosophy from Socrates to Nietzsche in high school and college, then serious study and practice of Buddhism followed by a great deal of reading and study into Hindu art and the writings of Sufis such as Ibn Arabi and others. God expresses through every religion via the primary religious experience, the mystical experience. Personal contact with the Divine is reported by the founders of each faith.
BLVR: What attracts both of you to explore spirituality in a visual capacity? To me the work has always seemed estranged from more formal concepts of eastern and western art.
ALLYSON GREY: The subject of an artist’s work is her most important priority. It is her communication with the world, her artifact. Choosing a worthy message should address an artist’s most compelling concerns. For both of us, the use of LSD led to a personal experience of the Divine. The most powerful expression and context for our art was the life defining nature of realization and awakening that occurred from sacramentally induced “God contact.” Expressing inner spirit is the deepest responsibility and the greatest challenge of any artist.
ALEX GREY: The formal approaches to much contemporary art focus on materials, shapes, lines and color. Like the modern master, Frank Stella, much contemporary art has been made without concern for symbolism and meaning. My art is all about meaning. Meaning has only recently been ostracized by intellectuals. After Nietzsche’s much ballyhooed 19th century declaration of the “death of God,” in the 20th century a kind of existentialist or nihilist materialism grew like a cancer in the mind of intellectual humanity. Wittgenstein offered, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Most artists of the 20th and 21st century have been silent about God. Religions have become associated with the worst human behavior, from pedophilia to delusional fundamentalist violence and nightmares divorced from all love and kindness. A psychic fog grew so thick in the 20th century that it still obscures the always shining infinite light of cosmic creative energy in each of our hearts. Jung and Campbell helped universalize and categorize symbols that recur in myths and scriptures from around the world. In the 21st century we can start to see our history and all myths of humanity as a never-ending hero’s journey to recover our sacred origins, gain the boon of the Philosophers Stone, the wish fulfilling gem of the healing of all nations and restoration of the life web, returning to the soul’s home in love after a materialist odyssey away from God.
BLVR: The sacred mirror is clearly integral to your vision. What do you get out of these works and what do you think makes them unique enough for others to find the same inspiration or answers?
AG: No verbal explanation can fully unpack sacred symbolism. A work of art invites the viewer to contemplate and explain it for oneself. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a sacred picture is beyond words. Culture happens when art content is interpreted by others, not by the art originator.
Entheon, 2016 at CoSM, Wappinger, NY
II. THE SUBJECT OF MORTALITY
BLVR: Alex, how did your work evolve to be what it is?
AG: I have always been fascinated with the subject of mortality. The earliest work my mom kept was from when I was five. It’s a drawing/watercolor of a fairly detailed skeleton with a crow on its shoulder. At age ten I drew the Grim Reaper, the mythic persona of death. By seventeen I was in art school doing a rational rendering and labeling the bones. Soon enough I was tripping and painting transparent people with an x-ray view of bones inside the flesh, and in 1990 I did a painting called Dying, with a dying physical body, an ectoplasmic wisp of the soul exiting the head and going through a tunnel of eyes toward the white light.
The progression of my art from magic to mythic to rational and trans-rational is the typical unfolding of developing awareness. For me, drawing, painting and sculpting the anatomy is a way to reflect on the mystery of self and consciousness. What is life? Do we have a soul? Does Spirit exist?
BLVR: How did the Tool album covers happen?
AG: With Lateralus, Adam Jones asked for layers of anatomy on acetate. I came up with the flaming eye now strongly identified with Tool, years before I knew about the band. For 10,000 Days, Tool licensed art that I had already created.
BLVR: Has it ever bothered you that your work’s larger in niche circles? Or has it ever let you down that misunderstood groups with New Age or Pagan beliefs took to your work in ways that pop culture or “high art” culture didn’t?
AG: I am grateful for the love of Pagans who are some of the few who honor our sacred planet and always have. The best New Age thinkers like Ken Wilber, Jean Houston, Deepak Chopra, and Barbara Marx Hubbard bring a message of integral wisdom to our deeply cynical postmodern media. For people who have had a spiritual opening, whether through yoga, meditation, or psychedelics, it is important to have such sages to guide us.
There are millions of people around the world who have had mystical visionary psychedelic experiences and some of them connect strongly with my art. The mystical visionary experience is one of the most important events in anyone’s life who has had the privilege of encountering divine reality. I am one of the luckiest artists in the world because so many people associate their opening to God or infinite awareness with my art.
I’m really tired of the anti-spiritual bias of most art writers. Ken Johnson confided that he would not be allowed to write about my work in the New York Times unless he showed some cynicism about spiritual matters in his article. Even the hip art critical review, Hyperallergenic, so filled with politically correct sympathy for women, race, and gender issues has no problem calling hippies “bliss-ninnies.” My artwork may be little known in the corporate art marketplace, but my name appears on the Watkins list of the hundred most influential spiritual leaders. There are thousands of people who have committed their flesh to my art, tattooing my images on their bodies. Thousands come to hear us talk about Psychedelic Culture and building a temple when Allyson and I take the stage to paint side-by-side, headlining with great musical artists at venues like Radio City Music Hall, The Filmore, and Red Rocks. All over the world people stop me—in airports, in ancient public markets, in the middle of foreign streets, to show me their tattoos of my work, to tell me they love my art and that it positively changed their lives. I have no complaints about a few of the jaded 1% ignoring my art.
I wish the 1% and everyone in public service would do some honest soul searching and offer their time and money to causes that recover our sense of the sacredness of life on God’s masterpiece, Planet Earth. To uplift humanity beyond its current self-destructive adolescence and work out a sustainable relationship with the nature field—these should be our over arching concerns today. Having a show at the Gagosian Gallery, or whoever’s on the cover of an art magazine seems trivial by comparison.
Universal Mind Lattice, Sacred Mirror series, Alex Grey, 1981, acrylic on linen, 84 x 46 in.
III. THE CHURCH OF SACRED MIRRORS
BLVR: Is it strange to have so many people identifying you as the creators of their own haven and sanctuary, where they can be and practice as they really are?
AG: We are honored and really astonished at the profound impact CoSM has played in the lives of our community. Building a Temple is a righteous task accomplished by a group soul. An angel once told me, “The inevitable consequence of love is the building of Temples.” Because true love is from the highest source, it is creative and continually evolving.
BLVR: Take me through that process. Was the impetus to create a church clear, or did it come about somewhat surprisingly through other things you were doing?
AG: Allyson and I met in 1975 at the Boston Museum School. I took my first acid trip and met God at her art school end-of-year party. Sitting on the couch in Allyson’s apartment I saw her as divine love in the flesh and we realized we were meant to always be together. About a year later, we were lying in bed taking a profound LSD journey, and had a simultaneous experience of the Universal Mind Lattice. Each of us became a toroidal fountain of light connected with an infinite web of pulsating luminous beings. The light forming and connecting everyone was love energy. It was soul’s home in Heaven, beyond Time’s body and gender, beyond race or religion. This vision, existent in every moment, is the universal light guiding us.
On July 4th, 1985, a collector named Marshall Frankel offered to purchase the Sacred Mirrors. He also offered us our first tablets of MDMA, which changed our lives forever. On our journey, lying in bed in silence, a simultaneous vision of the Chapel crystallized. I also envisioned elaborate philosophical frames for the art, pictorializing the evolution of consciousness. On this inner journey, a voice and vision told us both that the Sacred Mirrors and other precious works should not be sold and that a Chapel of Sacred Mirrors must be built to share the collection. This insight gave our lives a shared creative mission.
The art developed a growing audience through the books Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey, The Mission of Art, and Transfigurations. A steady stream of admirers from all over the world appeared on our doorstep requesting admittance to see the original paintings. In 1996, Bex, the daughter of Marshall Frankel, helped us found a non-profit organization, the Foundation for the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. We continued to tell our friends about the vision of the Chapel.
In 2001 we met the young designer, Eli Morgan at a lecture I gave in New York City. He informed us that many young people used my art during their psychedelic journeys and that the underground rave scene had been using my artwork on fliers. He suggested that CoSM should hold dance gatherings to raise funds and consciousness toward building the Chapel. The first public fundraising event, produced by Eli, was in December of 2001.
On our 25th wedding anniversary, December 4, 2002, we held a dinner for fifty friends at Tibet House in New York City, surrounded by an exhibition of my art. The New York Times described the show as “psychedelic realism.” At our private event we led a discussion on the future of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors project. That night a Prayer Committee was formed by friends committed to helping us build the Chapel. A shaman geomancer architect named Alex Stark, created a “despacho” prayer bundle with us at CoSM’s first private Full Moon ceremony, intended to weave the highest spiritual energies and intentions for calling together the tribe. Following the first ceremony, our shaman offered this empowered prayer bundle to the higher powers. The prayer committee continued to meet on the Full Moon and, within a few months, with no Facebook, we posted on my website an open house invitation for supporters of the artwork to gather and pray on the Full Moon with us in our Brooklyn studio. The first public Full Moon gathering, April 16, 2003 attracted around 35 people. Soon there were hundreds. Within months we were offered a rent-free raw loft space in the Chelsea art district of New York City. Allyson and I raised substantial funds to completely renovate 12,000 sq. ft. for the first CoSM, Chapel of Sacred Mirrors that opened to the public on the Autumnal Equinox 2004. Over five years, CoSM thrived, building up a congregation and attracting an ever-growing international community.
CoSM’s mission is to build an enduring sanctuary of visionary art to uplift a global community. It was clear that this first sanctuary was temporary—we could not build a temple inside of a rented loft in Chelsea. A successful store and events allowed CoSM to save enough money for a downpayment on a 40 acre retreat center sixty-five miles north of New York City, in the town of Wappinger. CoSM moved to a tranquil setting and became a church in 2008. Church activities re-unite the practices of creativity and spirituality. An unbroken chain of Full Moon ceremonies continue to this day, where the Love Tribe gathers to build sacred space together. The CoSM community has evolved from a vision and a prayer to a cultural force.
CoSM, Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is a church where the ecstatic power of music, visionary art, and the creative imagination connects all wisdom traditions with the cosmic evolutionary force moving through us all. When the Full Moon illuminates our consciousness, we encounter the perfect symbol of the Soul, a bright sphere and sacred mirror reflecting a greater light. When like-hearted souls gather and align with the infinite light of love, people are inspired to accomplish a sacred purpose, like building a Temple. Great spiritual communities create a legacy of their inner life in devotional art and architecture.
Humanity hungers for a righteous task. To reimagine sacred space is CoSM’s righteous task. The power of the shared intent of a community was well articulated in CoSM’s last Kickstarter success. Thousands of people have invested in manifesting the building of Entheon, CoSM’s sanctuary of visionary art, now in construction.
BLVR: Do you have organizations or churches that you’re looking to as examples of positive spiritual outreach?
AG: Allyson and I have been studying sacred spaces and visited many. Each sacred path offers unique gifts to spiritual life. The Federation of Damanhur in Italy began digging into a mountain over thirty years ago to build an underground temple. Damanhur thrives with 800 or so members, all helping to create this gigantic exquisite Temple complex in Italy. The Bahai have created a temple on each continent, every one a unique architectural masterpiece. Swami Satchitananda’s interfaith LOTUS temple in Virginia is magical and simply stunning. Annually, magnificent temples are built and burnt at Burning Man. The gold tiles in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice took 500 years to accomplish and the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral can be walked on Friday afternoons. Wherever we are, we look for sacred spaces.
BLVR: Do you have your own sort of ideas about what you want the church to be and what would make it successful?
AG: The spiritual principles of CoSM are based on Creativity. Rather than dogma, art is evolution in our hands. CoSM is an Art Church—Art for God’s sake, not for ego’s sake. How can our creations serve the divine? Can art help us become better people? We want to build a temple that honors the diversity and transcendental unity of the human Spirit. How can we each become a Sacred Mirror and help heal our environment?
Each of us is an utterly unique reflection of the divine. Every moment we can choose to see ourselves and every other as Sacred Mirrors, opportunities to recognize God’s presence. This transformative view relies on the fundamental mystic insight of unity across all dimensions of the immanent and transcendental order. How each of us see ourselves and our world sets our path in life. Our worldview determines how we treat each other and the environment, so it is crucial that we awaken to our highest possibility. What we think and believe are the boundaries, limits, and possibilities of who we are and what we can create and become. Our consciousness evolves through phases from a primal to a more elevated worldview. To catalyze self-identification as a Sacred Mirror is the function of spiritual teachings and practice. Our responsibility and the focus of CoSM’s approach is to establish this view.
BLVR: Being able to interview you has been a very controlled and specific process. When I met you at CoSM, Alex, and originally pitched you on a conversation, you mentioned that you were a bit wary about doing press due to the fear of having CoSM be misconstrued as something deeply fringe or, I suppose, illegitimate. Why do you think that would be the case, people labeling it in a harmful way?
AG: Irresponsible media can ruin people and organizations with little accountability. People are crucified in the media. Cultural critics or writers who understand what we are doing are rare. I would like to share this passage from one of my favorite philosophers, Friedrich Schelling, about how best to wrap your mind around a subject, an ideal framework for approaching Visionary Art or CoSM:
First, and above all, an explanation must do justice to the thing that is to be explained, must not devalue it, interpret it away, belittle it, or garble it, in order to make it easier to understand. The question is not “At what view of the phenomenon must we arrive in order to explain it in accordance with one or another philosophy?” but precisely the reverse: “What philosophy is requisite if we are to live up to the subject, be on a level with it?” The question is not how the phenomenon must be turned, twisted, narrowed, crippled, so as to be explicable, at all costs, upon principles that we have once and for all resolved not to go beyond. The question is: “To what point must we enlarge our thought so that it shall be in proportion to the phenomenon?”
BLVR: At this point in your career, do you have a sense of what sort of legacy, if any, you’d like to leave behind? Is it more something in line with your art or with CoSM?
AG: My work has touched and inspired many people because it validates their own visionary experiences. I’ve been doing it long enough that it has become a meme or context for positive psychedelic states of consciousness. Artists’ character and their works become stepping stones for aesthetic evolution. My work offers new ways of envisioning our holy reality. New ways of seeing can lead to new ways of being. My creative life with Allyson, our church, transcends and includes painting. CoSM is a co-creation with our community. In Art Church, creation is redemption.