Sounds True: Alex, people refer to your paintings as “visionary art.” I'm curious, how do you respond to that term? Do you think it fits you?
Alex Grey: Well, I was initially put off by the term because it seemed like a way to categorize and dismiss certain work, like “cowboy art” or “dolphin art.” But I've come to accept its use because it's true that my artwork comes directly out of my visions, and there's a tradition of similarly inspired artists throughout world culture.
Sounds True: You've worked for many years in a variety of media, but are known best for your intricate “x-ray” paintings of the human body. What is the story behind your first x-ray type of painting?
Alex Grey: The first time that I received an x-ray image of a human was about twenty years ago. I'd been working in an anatomy lab dissecting the physical systems of the body. Around the same time, I'd been studying about the subtle energy phenomena associated with the human body—the acupuncture meridians and points, the chakras and auras. These things were simmering in my subconscious.
While visiting my wife's parents one day, and standing in front of a long mirror, I had a vision of my body as translucent, immersed in an oceanic field of energy—an x-ray of my physical anatomy interlaced with all the various subtle energy systems. I wasn't taking any drugs. I made a drawing of it right away. This vision seemed like a gift assigned to me to translate into a painting. It felt like a new vision of body, mind, and spirit as one totality of being.
Sounds True: What kind of spiritual insight are you hoping people might have when they look at your paintings?
Alex Grey: I would like my work to remind people that there is more to life than just the surface of material reality. We can see deeply into life and notice how God's peculiar light suffuses both inner and outer worlds. The hidden light of the soul is the grail of meaning and blessing that we all seek. Visualizing the transparency of the body to the light of Godhead, or to the light of the soul, can assist us in tapping into our own spiritual template.
Sounds True: What is your advice for somebody who is seeking training as an artist? What do you think of art school? Do you think it helps? Hurts?
Alex Grey: I think it can do both. You can learn certain techniques that may come in handy. If you find one or two professors in art school who you relate to, you can learn a great deal from those relationships. But it helps to have a direction before you begin your studies. If you enter art school with no direction, you can get blown around from one teacher's sensibility to another.
Sounds True: What do you mean, “have a direction”?
Alex Grey: Each of us has some sense of purpose in life. The primary subject of an artist's work, their vision and the ideas that motivate or stimulate them, is determined by this mission.
My “subject” involves the difficult challenge of visualizing the body/mind/spirit. One's subject is like the grit trapped inside of an oyster that eventually grows into a pearl. You need to find the source of your own personal vision. It may come out of your use of materials, from your feelings or ideas, from your devotion, or from psychic and subtle visions.
My recommendation for artists who are unsure about their vision or their direction is to draw as much as possible. Always carry a sketch book. Jot down your ideas as they occur to you. Draw anything you see. If you're on the bus, draw the people sitting across from you. While taking a walk, sit down and work for a half an hour drawing a flower, or a piece of dog crap, anything that interests you. Certain themes or ideas will begin to emerge. Dig a bit and you will discover what subjects magnetize you. These magnetic stars all make up the constellation of your vision as an artist.
Sounds True: You mentioned the body/mind/spirit problem as one of the issues that you are obsessed with. What else obsesses your artistic vision?
Alex Grey: I want to bring sacred reality into works of art in such a compelling way that it can be appreciated by people from any walk of life. I'd like to create a universal spiritual art, that can be an open portal to mystic reality and help people transform themselves, to transfigure their understanding of who they are, and to bring them back to their own center.
Sounds True: Someone reading this might be feeling very inspired by your ideas, but may also feel a sense of inadequacy about themselves. What would you say to the people who perhaps are not feeling gifted, or who are struggling with their art?
Alex Grey: No matter what you've accomplished, you will always have days when you feel like nothing is working, that everything is an uphill Sisyphean struggle. Even in the middle of some of my most beloved paintings, I've had breakdowns and questioned whether it's all worth it. The inner critics are hovering near you no matter who you are. You live with them, but it's no excuse to throw in the towel…they will always be there yammering, tearing your work apart.
Even if you don't become the next T. S. Eliot, that's no reason to deny your own poetic nature. Even if you're not going to be an Olympic athlete you should still exercise. Even if you are not a Buddha, that doesn't mean that you should not meditate. Even if you are not Picasso, that doesn't mean you shouldn't paint and draw.
Creative expression is of vital importance. Artists must do what's in their heart, to dream and create outrageously. You may have to turn down the volume on your internal and external critics. Only listen to the productive voices that challenge you to do your best and encourage you to improve the quality of your work. Never be satisfied with less than your best and never give up. It takes guts and a bit of arrogance to create.
Great ideas and works come when artists defy conventions, enter their own inner worlds, and return with something fresh and exciting. It reinvigorates everybody when artists come up with something new.