Whitehot Magazine

The Sacred Relationship of Alex Grey & Allyson Grey

 Alex Grey & Allyson Grey, 1980, photo by Shelburne Thurber. Courtesy of the artists.


By KURT MCVEY April 25, 2024

Choose wisely and then stop choosing.

These are words to live by if a relationship is to last, so echoes the two enduring and widely cherished artists, Alex Grey & Allyson Grey, who appear to have embraced their place, always humbly, at the upper echelons of the so-called Visionary Art genre, a school of creation that seeks to render visually what, more often than not, can only be experienced subjectively.

The couple met at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the still-groovy 1970s when they were both in their early ‘20s. Together for half a century, they can now be found joyously stewarding the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM), which they founded in 1996 and is now located in Wappinger, New York. Opened in 2009, CoSM thrives 1,500 feet from the banks of the Hudson River; a brisk two-hour drive (65 miles) from Manhattan or a swift and scenic trip up the Metro-North Railroad.

Sacred Mirrors Room in Entheon, 2024, photo courtesy of CoSM and Alex Grey & Allyson Grey.

CoSM, as their website states, “is a place of contemplation and worship for community, honoring the practice of art as a spiritual path,” adding further that its “site and structure provides a living model of the ideals expressed through the inspiring artwork of the collection and exhibitions, the writings of the founders, and invited contributors.” On February 24th earlier this year, this writer attended one of CoSM
s Full Moon Celebrations, the 265th consecutive Full Moon hosted by Alex & Allyson, “honoring cosmic alignment, spirituality and creativity.” This particular 2024 Full Moon Ceremony, considering its proximity to Valentine’s Day, was in celebration of sacred relationships. A remarkable chain of these lunar-inspired events has continued unbroken since January 2003, beginning in their home and a year later at the first Manhattan CoSM location.

“We had the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors for five years in the city at 542 W. 27th St.,” Allyson says of the former space, an art-mysteries speakeasy of sorts. “It was operating more as a center, but it was also an alcohol free club. You could play music as loud as you wanted all night long and into the morning. People loved it. Cops loved it. People were doing psychedelics, but everyone was chill.” 

Allyson & Alex share an art studio in their current residence, just a short walk up from CoSM’s central campus. The location features multiple structures across forty sprawling acres on the land once belonging to the Indigenous Wappinger people (Wappinger is Algonquin for “easterner,” meaning east of the river now called the Hudson). The Greys lead events and workshops and watch over CoSM with the help of dedicated staff, many of whom are artists themselves. The main draw is Entheon, a transformed 1882 carriage house that hosts the Full Moon ceremonies and displays many of Allyson & Alex’s most celebrated works. The structure is still raising funds to ambitiously wrap its façade in three-dimensional “interconnected godheads” designed by Alex in his celebrated style. Since 2001, Alex’s artwork has provided visuals for the multiple Grammy winning rock band, Tool, in concert posters, stage sets, animations and album art. A stairwell within Entheon is dedicated to Tool concert posters by over twenty Visionary Artists, including the band’s guitarist, Adam Jones, a talented multimedia artist in his own right, who directs the band’s iconic music videos and stage art.

Entheon projections opening day - photo by David Frank. Image courtesy of Alex Grey & Allyson Grey.

Alexs painting "Net of Being," featured on the cover of Tool’s 10,000 Days album (2006), portrays towering interconnected entities that could be encountered in high-powered psychedelic, mystical or meditative experiences. “The Four-Faced Quad God” has become a signature of Mr. Grey's artwork. Alex is sometimes considered Tool’s spiritual fifth member. To celebrate their latest album, Fear Inoculum, also featuring Mr. Grey’s work, the band brought Alex out for the last song at a November, 2019 Tool concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. On the massive digital backdrop for the stage, in huge white letters over black, it read: “Thank You Alex Grey!” In this honorary moment, Mr. Grey, sitting side-stage in the lotus position, executed a meditative contour drawing of the band while they closed out the set with their ‘90s radio hit “Stinkfist.”

TOOL, Barclays, Brooklyn 2019

Alex & Allyson are not pounding any drums or chasing any contemporary clout, to be clear. They’re simply doing their thing and quite happily. Entheon also houses the All One Gallery, which highlights the work of other artists, some posthumously and many of them young and operating within the contemporary Visionary genre or flirting openly with it. Artists like Caledonia Curry, who operates under the artist moniker, Swoon, is featured in their latest exhibition along with twenty-one other artists. Swoon held a talk with Jeffrey Deitch back in 2020 at his downtown gallery for her show, Cicada, where she spoke to the benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy to help her find closure for childhood traumas dealing with her parents' addictions.

All One Gallery in Entheon, 2023

Though there are through-lines, there is variation between the works, at a time where the larger contemporary or “fine art” space seems to call for a certain ongoing aesthetic homogeneity; a seemingly endless Willem de Kooning purgatory. Beyond the paintings and sculptures, there’s a Psychedelic Reliquary, a small museum dedicated to all things psychedelic, including personal artifacts that once belonged to the movements heroes, like Albert Hoffman’s actual glasses, as well as one of the most interesting gift shops in any art space anywhere. There is an info-case nearby dedicated to the Visionary creators of yore, like Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake, painters now widely celebrated in the canon.

Net of Being, 2003-2021, Alex Grey. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Everybodys got a different name for this sort of art,” Alex says of the term Visionary, which first became publicly associated with his art when his first art book, Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey, was published by Inner Traditions Publishing in 1990. “Psychedelics had an era when it was super cool and then when it was fucking dangerous and then when it was outré and then on the skids and nobody but some scuzzed-out tie-dye leftover would even dare say words like that, and then, lo and behold, doctors started saying it, then scientists, then respectable grandmothers dealing with their terminal anxiety. Psychedelics have seen a lot of different cultural lenses. Psychedelics themselves didn’t change. There were many terms for the art influenced by these substances and the substances themselves. ‘Phantastica’ was one of the early labels.”

A short walk from Entheon is Grey House, a large Victorian mansion where overnight guests can stay. It features the Mushroom Cafe, a hungry hippy’s dream; living rooms lined with artifacts, countless crystals, books (many from the Greys themselves, to Huxley and Tolkien), a kitchen and dining hall that morphs into a multimedia event space on weekend evenings, and various ancillary galleries featuring the work of other Visionary luminaries, like the late Peruvian artist, Pablo Amaringo, whose vibrant works gorgeously articulate the jungle fruits (and animals) of an ayahuasca plant-brew journey. The CoSM grounds feature many sculptures and a “Wisdom Trail where visitors might happen upon several of them. Up in the woods, invited guests can follow the Greys to their lovely home/studio.

Allyson Grey, One and Many, 1987. Courtesy of the artist.

“It wasn’t easy for us to convince the previous owners to sell us this property,” Allyson says, before noting that the United Church of Christ used the site as a retreat center from 1959 until 2008, when the Grey
s purchased the land for CoSM. “To call in the property, we created a magic sigil, placed it on a Google map with a pyramid over it and surrounded it with crystals. We wrapped a crystal with copper wire and attached it to a hundred-dollar bill and then bled on it. [Laughs] Wed get up in the morning, and stand naked in front of the altar and ask, 'What can we do today to get closer to our intention, to build a temple on that site?At night, before sleeping we would pray for that commitment again. In eighteen months we convinced the sellers to let us purchase the property, which had been on the market for seven years to the day.”

Two separate afternoon interview sessions took place on Saturday (2/24) and Sunday (2/25) in the Greys' shared studio over coffee, tea and graham crackers, with all parties seated on black pleather “video-game chairs” rocking gently on the floor directly in-between their respective sides of Studio One.

 Alex Grey & Allyson Grey, image courtesy of the artists.

Before sitting that first Saturday, Allyson led the way into Studio Two, to see her black and white drawing executed in ink, a labor intensive work from 1975, the first work from one of her most recognizable subjects, Secret Writing.

“It was hand drawn with a Rapidograph® pen,” Allyson clarifies, “a razor point tool that dates back to the ‘70s. Secret Writing was my MFA thesis. Before meeting Alex, my Secret Writing artwork was hidden under my bed. What folks in art school saw was my work focused on "the self," with no resemblance to Secret Writing.”

Allyson Grey, Secret Writing 2, 1975 

Allyson explained that she met Alex in a class on Performance, Mixed Media & Conceptual Art. They were both painters who also created installation art and activated sculpture. “Alex has always been brilliant,” she says, recalling that she went to all of his performances during the year they were in school together and created numerous performances together thereafter. “His work then was so raw and aggressive. I met him when he was 20. We got together at the end of that year, when he was 21 and I was 23. I was a graduate student and he was an undergrad who did his first LSD trip in my apartment. I was giving a party celebrating the end of the school year. Giving events was one of my creative acts of mixed media, events as 'containers' for community interactivity.” Alex came to The Museum School after working as a billboard painter for Columbus Outdoor Advertising. He considered his hand-painted political billboards, his 40-foot spectaculars for Coca Cola for instance, as conceptual artworks that he titled ‘Capitalist Realism.’

Allyson Grey, Complementary Planned Randomness, 2018

“Alex and I both left home to go to art school, The Museum School in Boston where we met,” Allyson says. “He left a full four-year scholarship to Columbus College of Art & Design to come to the Museum School. I think we were supposed to meet there.” Allyson’s first LSD trip was in 1969 when she was 17. She would go on to experiment for six years and in many different circumstances. “I had visions of Secret Writing when I tripped alone in my dark room. I encountered communication with the 'ultimate divine.' I recall saying to myself, 'This is what people call God.'

On the first day of school in 1974, Allyson entered the Performance Art class where she saw the whole class gathered around Alex. This pale, confident, working artist was sharing his substantial laminated portfolio, featuring fine photography of his grand scale billboards, from oil painted murals of political candidates to ice cream brands. All the fonts and imagery were hand-painted; “pre-computer.” Alex had grown out his hair at a time where that style was mostly fading. “No one had long hair at that time,” Allyson says. She had been at the school for several years at that point and was impressed by this young man with obvious gravitas and quiet power, his hair held back by a rag tied around his head.

 Alex Grey, Kissing, 1983

Soon after that first day, the Performance class was meeting in a proscenium lecture hall when Alex sat down behind Allyson with his hair half-shaved off. “I turned around and asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ He told me later that I was the only one who ever asked him that. He looked a bit crazy so people avoided him. He shared with me his motivation for shaving his head this odd way. He was interested in polarities and the new information recently discovered about the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the rational and the intuitive concepts he'd read about by the author and psychologist Robert Ornstein." Allyson sensed the earnestness behind this bold, albeit, jarring gesture. “This was Alex's performance; life is art, art is life. We rarely talked that year. I went to see his performance in which he locked himself in a room and, peeking through a hole in the door, you could only see him lying in excrement, naked, projecting his face on the plaster cast of a microcephalic idiot. I called in through the peephole in the door, ‘Alex, I love you.’ He simply looked like he needed to be loved.”

Alex Grey, Private Subway, 1974

“I think that Allyson was the person who asked the most interesting questions and who I related to artistically; her serious examination of the self,” Alex says. “I remember seeing her for the first time as well on that first day. This uncommonly beautiful person who I felt both an attraction to and an affection for because I felt a potential for conversation. I was a very insular person and she was interested. That degree of care and interest preceded the possibility of getting together.”

It was love at first date. Allyson admired Alex, the artist, but had not thought of Alex as a potential partner in the beginning. At the time, she had her own deep secrets. Anorexic and bulimic, she was interested in Alex's performance in which he vomited on camera. When they finally came together, Allyson had been taking a long break from dating, after going from one relationship to the next since high school, in a time of "free love."

“I was struggling with serious depression,” Alex admits. A study of "polarities" encouraged him to make a trip to the north magnetic pole, the only point on the Northern Hemisphere’s surface where compass needles just spin around, the place where all the geomagnetic lines of force are drawn down to the earth. When he returned, school was ending and he had spent all his money on Polar Wandering, the name of his performance journey. “At that time, I didn’t believe in any spiritual ‘bullshit.’ These poor people, these poor saps, taken in by the whole crazy huckster church thing. I had denied the existence of anything more than my own mental straight jacket. I was suffering a lot, reading existential texts, like Nietzsche and Camus. In an existential crisis, I meditated on death and considered a suicide performance piece. The day I was invited to Allyson's party, I woke up and prayed to a God I did not believe in: 'If you're out there, show me a sign I shouldn’t kill myself.'

Alex Grey, Copulating, 1984

Our professor was a mentor to both of us, she recalled, bringing the narrative back to that fateful last day of school. “He carried a box of books in the trunk of his car and gave one to Alex and one to me. It was Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. That book influenced both of our lives.

“When Allyson invited me to her party that day, she drove around the corner in her yellow VW bug and I often think of what would have happened if I had not been standing on that corner at that moment talking to our professor? In another couple of minutes, a little earlier or later, she would have gone around the corner and I wouldn’t have been there. Something so random can be totally life-changing. That evening, I was handed a bottle of Kahlua and LSD. I always shied away from psychedelics because I thought they would only exacerbate my already depressed state. But now I was at that precipice already, so I thought, ‘What the fuck.’ I had nothing to lose. I drank half the bottle, and when Allyson answered the door, I gave her the half-full bottle to drink. She was hosting the party and had tripped many times. I just sat on her couch that had a large self-portrait doll on it. She had created both the couch and the doll for an installation she called Prairie Junction, a peaceful scene of aloneness. It was me and the doll on her couch.”

“So, at my party,” Allyson says, picking up the thread without missing a beat, “We hardly talked at all. He was very quiet. Alex called me the next day telling me he had an incredible experience and that he wanted to talk with me about it. I had never thought of going out with him, but on that first real date, I fell totally in love with him.” They went to see Robert Downey Sr.’s “short subjects” at Off the Wall Cinema in Cambridge. Being originally from Baltimore, a city rich with independent film in the '60s, Allyson loved John Waters and other experimental films, being a dedicated fan since high school. “We drank rum and watched these crazy movies. We went back to my apartment next door. I had a beautiful place of my own that I paid for myself, working in restaurants while going to art school full-time. We sat and talked on my couch late into that first night and never left.”

Allyson Grey, Secret Walls 1, 1976 

Much of Visionary Art, especially over the last century, has had a direct connection and correlation to psychedelics or entheogens, a neologism often used when a deeper intention is implied. Alex and Allyson have continued to enjoy cannabis and journey with psychedelics. Part of the culture around psychedelics concerns personal sovereignty, which is often misaligned with established religious dogmas and other rigid institutional belief systems. So many of these, especially in relation to cannabis, have proven to be arcane, irrational, if not outright pernicious and Machiavellian. Those who have "come out" about the use of psychedelics "for the betterment of well people," folks like Alex & Allyson, have played a massive role in easing false stigmas, paving the way for greater, more responsible integration in the mainstream, without selling out.

Allyson considers CoSM, their creative/spiritual center, to be a sacred gift offered to a global community. Alex's art provides a major attraction to CoSM, while Allyson had developed an inherent talent for hosting events and art happenings, tracing all the way back to her high school prom in 1969; theme: Psychedelic. They took over the deed on the CoSM property, September 12th, 2008, avoiding the anniversary of 9/11. The Monday after that signing, the American economy imploded. “We want to be a spiritual organization, serving the local community, the town of Wappinger as well as the global community,” Allyson says. “An arts council has started here now. Alex & I and several staff artists now have our art displayed on light posts through the Main Street of the town. Town planners want more culture and we are all in. Sixty-five miles from Manhattan, all mandated regulations have to be implemented 100%.”

Alex Grey, Cosmic Mother, 2021, 84 x 40 in., polychromed aluminum

CoSM is both a radically welcoming interspiritual art church since 2008, as well as a foundation. The Foundation for the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization formed in 1996 with the mission, "To build an enduring sanctuary of Visionary Art to uplift a global community." The aforementioned Entheon offers a permanent public exhibition of the Sacred Mirrors, perhaps Alex’s greatest painterly achievement. Alex says that Allyson both suggested the series and then named it. The nineteen paintings and two etched mirrors inside of richly sculpted frames were created by the Greys together. Allyson describes these frames especially as a kind of "Cartoon History of the Universe," visually articulating in exquisite detail the biological and technological evolution, the Big Bang, symbols of world wisdom traditions and more. The paintings in the frames outline the systems of the human body and the multi-dimensional, non-corporeal, metaphysical systems that are also embodied.

The Church of Sacred Mirrors, CoSM, moved into its permanent home in 2008. Anyone with an eye on the present world understands how crucial spaces like this are now. The universal, the cosmic, the sacred, have been relegated to the back-burner, while the flesh and the profane become commodified in a contentious, tribal, post-modern marketplace, an extension of a global capitalistic industrial complex that fuels and feeds off our basest instincts. We are all “foreigners” they tell us; exoticized, fetishized, but crucially not and maybe never brothers and sisters; planetary neighbors who could be loved, cherished and cared for reciprocally. This could be called “Capitalist Frontism,” to build on this notion of creative and cultural misappropriation.

Allyson Grey, Complementary Mandala 1, 2016 

“Alex had a God-contact experience on my couch,” Allyson says, laying out that crucial set and setting so long ago. “Three years before I met Alex, after reading Be Here Now by Ram Dass, I was encouraged to take LSD in a dark room by myself. That is when I saw secret writing washing over all surfaces and wafting through the air, defining the material world. It washed over my body. In the entrance hall outside of Allyson's Chaos, Order and Secret Writing zone in Entheon, silk tapestries display images of the artist naked with secret writing over her face, her body and the wall behind her. Secret Writing is projected onto visitors ascending the stairs to the galleries. The works in this installation were part of my master’s thesis, but I couldn’t really tell people at Tufts that my work was about acid. You could put your safety and freedom in danger. We never thought we'd live to see the day that we could speak openly about these things.”


Alex Grey, Painting, 1998, 30 x 40" oil on linen

“Sitting on Allyson's couch with her four-foot self-portrait doll,” Alex recalls, I didn’t get up the entire evening. My eyes were closed and inside my head I was going through a dynamic rotating tunnel. I was in the dark, spiraling towards this incredible light inside a curving, conch-like, iridescent mother of pearl surface inside my brain. I could see that right around the corner was a brilliant radiance. This was “God” answering my prayer through a spiritual rebirth canal. All of the most positive emotions, infinite wisdom and love, were in that brightness. Symbolically, I saw that I was in the dark, but going toward the light. Now I had a path. I could see that all the shades of grey are what bring the opposites together. I thought, ‘Grey...maybe that’s who I am.’ This rebirth experience gave me a new name. I had received the knowledge of Polar Unity, on my first trip. Suicidal ideation ended there. I wanted to live to see what was ahead.”

“Alex really came out to the public about the overwhelming breakthrough that LSD had had for him, when others would not discuss it openly,” says Allyson. “It inspired me to share my transformative experiences. LSD may well have saved his life. He changed his name and, in a performance we did soon after, called Meditations on Mortality, I changed my name to Grey also. Alex encouraged me to make Secret Writing an essential element in my artwork. We continue to inspire each other.”

Allyson is willing to admit that many have read Alex’s books and many know his work from Tool. Although Allyson's work has been widely exhibited and collected, including permanent public installations as well as numerous galleries and solo shows, this writer admits to a certain ignorance concerning Allyson's ouvré. From a painterly perspective, beyond her own personal window into the divine matrix and various unpronounceable realms, there exists a passionate yet confidently steady painterly hand. Allyson has two bodies of work: her paintings and the "social sculpture" called CoSM. Allyson holds unfathomable space across multiple dimensional planes for Mr. Grey and thousands of his fans, from those who make it to Wappinger, to hundreds of thousands of diverse individuals devoted to his artwork around the world.

Kissing, Alex & Allyson Grey, 2019, bronze, life-size. Photo by the author

Visitors who tour Entheon, attend CoSM events onsite and online (the Greys' global colloquial congregation) wear their hearts on their sleeves, right next to their hopefully well done Alex Grey tattoo, none of which are ever licensed. These folks, less stylish but more earnest than many of Manhattan's junkie materialist scenesters who have no qualms pimping out the flesh via oil paint to hock Gucci loafers and Burberry slacks that may or may not make it into the furnace or the polluted shores of Accra, Ghana, instead humbly turn in, on, and up for the Full Moons, or for Sunday “Art Church” sessions, where the couple generously comment on artwork by participants. These range from surprisingly moving paintings to seriously “unskilled” doodles.

Every work is received with true love, little judgment, and often some shared giggles. During Art Church, humans of all races, nationalities and genders, many of whom are carrying their own obvious traumas, from addiction to LGBTQ alienation, dropped in via Zoom from Chattanooga, TN; Anchorage, Alaska; to Istanbul, Turkey, and this was a very small percentage of the whole.

During the Art Church session, Alex and Allyson openly shared their poetry between windows of silent art making, as well as a warm, benevolent avalanche of the wisdom they’ve accrued over many decades. One young man, an upstate local who read an endearing poem about his love of Soundcloud, the digital music platform, was treated to astute allusions to Wassily Kandinsky by Alex, who noted the Russian painter’s enjoyment of Wagner and later in life, and perhaps not so far across the musical spectrum, a passionate love of Jazz. This generosity is the magic of CoSM. As a “hospital for the hungry soul,” it combines the pilgrimage-style intrigue of the Rothko Chapel with Joseph Beuys' 7000 Oaks, mixed with a dreamy, figurative dash of the Bo Bartlett Center in Columbus, GA. But it’s this relentless, direct, hands-on, good faith connection with human beings where CoSM earns its interfaith stripes. If a conversation would drift too far, or an air of loitering sycophantry or untenable kookiness would develop, Allyson would get things right back on track, making sure the train leaves the station on time.

 Allyson Grey, New Order, 2019, oil on wood

Allyson Grey’s work, though intriguing when viewed digitally, whether that’s in JPEG format, printed on a maddening and impossible-to-complete puzzle, or projection-mapped in massive multimedia installations around the world, her application and hand, especially her expertise in color theory as it aligns with a wildly sensuous and intuitive impasto technique, was the true and surprising critical secret to discover. There is an element of secret writing in every stroke, which are prayers or sigils unto themselves. Her work is an invitation to look deeper, beyond the mere epidermal.

“I think there are secrets in and under every painting,” Allyson says. “I was secretive about my obsession - my eating disorder - for such a long time. I’m so outgoing and appear to 'tell all,' but there are always secrets, stuff we don’t share and even keep from ourselves. I think I called it Secret Writing because of the secrets we all live with. Our thoughts are secret until they become things in the world through symbols.”

“How I interpret Allyson's viscous, juicy, and almost frosting-like paint surface,” Alex begins, pausing a moment to gather the right words. “The gooey color is happening in a geometric confinement; inside a grid, a cell or brick of minimalism. Reminds me of the earliest [Russian artist, Kazimir] Malevich works. Beyond Josef Albers’ homage to the Square or the minimalist works of Robert Ryman, Allyson's expressive paint application animates this sometimes cerebral form. A pile of unique paint strokes fill each square. The rules she follows for each piece are like 'algorithms’ and recall the instruction drawings of Sol LeWitt. Emotional expression favors the stroke; the impasto is representative of passion and organicity. Each swirly mound of pigment is both defined by and subverting the square. They are the polarity, the chaos and the order, the roiling ocean just up to the shoreline of the graphic grid work. If it were flat, it would have a completely different emotional resonance and wouldn’t seem so nearly alive.” WM


Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.


photo by Monet Lucki


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