In what he describes as a completely “rural situation,” Bob Gray began to embrace his artistic talents at 12 years old. From the hills of East Tennessee, Gray grew up on his grandparents’ farm, a place that had no plumbing or running water. It was by no means an easy childhood, but it is a lifestyle that he reflects on fondly through his art, and his rustic upbringing is the thread that connects Gray’s works.
At around 14 years old, Gray recalls, he painted his great grandfather’s old log house on a saw blade. When he brought it inside to show to his grandfather, Gray was met with an extremely emotional response when his grandfather, who Gray describes as “a very hard farmer man that I had never seen cry in my life,” began openly weeping. “I was amazed at that moment by how art could affect somebody,” said Gray. “To express yourself and to touch somebody in a positive way, that was very powerful.”
Even today, Gray’s themes that seem to show up again and again relate closely to Southern culture. “I was always out exploring the countryside,” said Gray of his youth. “That really fed my imagination and freedom.”
Today, as a direct result of his connection to his Southern heritage and upbringing, Gray is typically referred to as a folk artist. Gray says that his grandfather, a carpenter, was “a bit of a folk artist himself, but he didn’t really know that he was.” In fact, the first time Gray was referred to as a folk artist by a gallery manager, he was reminded by his brother that he “had a whole family of folk artists, but no one’s been there to tell them what they are.”
Through his art, Gray tries to recall the simplicity of a lost generation, particularly of the 1930s and 1940s. Though Gray did not actually grow up in the Depression era, he feels a closeness to the period because it is almost as if his hometown in East Tennessee was stuck in time and that the culture of his youth was closer to what a person might have experienced during the 1930s.
Gray feels that, over time, the South has been slowly “dying.” Southerners have “lost a connection to the land and to family,” said Gray. “Development and technology have taken away a lot of the connection people had.”
Because Gray fears that the old South is slowly being lost, he often tries to use in his works found objects from older generations, and he rummages through old barns that are to be torn down for materials to use in his pieces as a salute to the old South. “The old stuff just has a certain feel to it,” said Gray. “It’s like an old leather chair. There’s comfort in it, and it’s been tested.”
Gray’s imagination has culminated in a comfortable marriage between his visual art and his work as a musician. And, though he cannot read music, Gray insists that he can play “whatever you got.”
As a writer, many of Gray’s own songs have inspired the subjects of his paintings, with his lyrics even written across the background. Many of Gray’s most acclaimed pieces have been pseudo-portraits of musicians, from Johnny Cash to Miles Davis. For The Complete Hank Williams Box Set, which won a Grammy for design, Gray painted the likeness of Williams directly onto a lawn chair, and the image appeared as a postcard in the package.
At a more base level, Gray’s art has always had a connection with music, even when he himself was not aware of the connection. As Gray began traveling as a musician throughout the South to cities like New Orleans and Memphis, he realized that he uses a jazz color palette that relates directly to these kinds of places.
“An artist from East Tennessee wouldn’t really paint these colors,” said Gray of his own surprise at his fondness for vivid and striking colors. “The music really led me into the color palette and how my art flows: the curves and the shapes. I think there’s a huge link between the music and the art. The two have been such a part of who I am and who I continue to be.”
In fact, Gray’s most recent ongoing project has been creating guitars. These instruments are made out of recycled gas cans and are completely playable. Eventually, Gray plans to produce an entire series of these guitars.
Gray has also found creative success by making three-dimensional works of art. The idea was brought about when Gray, in his studio, began looking at some of his works that were leaning against each other. Eventually, he began to wonder what it might look like if he were to combine two of his paintings, perhaps taking B.B. King’s head from one piece and placing it on top of the cityscape of another piece. Happy with the results, Gray has continued to make three-dimensional woodcuts.
Occasionally, Gray’s 3D style and bright color palette have led to comparisons with Tennessee native and modern artist Red Grooms. When these comparisons first began to spring up, Gray said that he was embarrassed not to be familiar with Grooms’ work. Gray finds it interesting that two artists could have completely different backgrounds and lifestyles and yet be drawn to create similar kinds of pieces. “It’s like you have a kinship with different artists that you don’t even know,” said Gray. “They’re doing a certain element of what you’re doing, and you don’t even know these people.”
When Gray finds himself unhappy with his paintings, he discovers a way to unleash his inhibitions and get back in tune with the freeing nature of his art. “I found myself getting kind of locked in and too meticulous in the execution of my painting,” said Gray. “So I did a little experiment and said, ‘I’m going to paint so many dogs, just let it go and [paint] one right after the other as an exercise.’” By the end, he had created over one hundred dogs. Gray’s grand experiment was a clear success and broke his monotonous cycle, but he laughs when he says that afterwards he was contacted by dog owners requesting portraits of their own canines.
Ultimately, Gray will continue to find new ways to challenge and inspire himself. By embracing his own liberating style and daring to see his art through different lenses, Gray’s artistic future is open and completely unpredictable.
Currently, Gray’s works can be seen at the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis and online at graygallery.net.
by Lindsey Victoria Thompson