Artist Brad Gray lives life to the fullest. In his forty-seven years, he has lived and worked in over ten countries, plugging himself into the culture and communities of each, searching out opportunities for himself and his family, spiritedly absorbing as much of the rich gamut of worldly happenings as possible. It is this incredible wealth of experience that fuels Gray’s art. He relishes recalling memories, diving into their evocative scenarios and the myriad of feelings they stir. While frequently allowing his creative mind free rein to roam, Gray taps into the inherent symbolism of the unconscious and renders it with painterly brushstrokes and expressive textures, all loaded with intensity of emotion and the nuances of passing time. Having looked death straight in the face on more than one occasion, Gray’s imagery, like all great art, isn’t simply full of the joys, but instead has us contemplating life’s opposites and the irony that so often lies between.
Brad Gray was born in Germany to English parents in 1971. Widely travelled, Brad has also lived in Ireland, England, Saudi Arabia, Borneo, Colorado, Sardinia, Vietnam, South Africa, and China. After two years serving in the Marines, Brad enrolled in Illustration at Bristol Technical College before studying at the Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall until 1994. The artist had a successful career as an illustrator in London until his move to Saudi Arabia in 1999, where he worked for six years as an art teacher alongside his wife. Later settling in South Africa, Brad established himself as a full-time artist, earning a reputation for his theatrical and richly symbolic scenes. After undertaking the Swatch residency in Shanghai, China, Brad has since returned to Ireland with his wife and three children. He has recently completed an artist’s residency at Cill Rialiag (West of Ireland) after a three-month residency in Bavaria, Germany.
WOW x WOW is most honoured to have Brad regularly exhibiting with us and currently participating in our Invitations to Travel exhibit with his fabulous new painting, ‘A Pulse in the Eternal Mind no Less’. In order to mark this occasion, we bring you the following exclusive in-depth interview and hope that you enjoy reading recollections from his fascinating life and learning about the inspirations that ignite his wonderful imagination.
Hi Brad, thanks very much for making the time to have a chat, we really appreciate it. You’ve led a very exciting life and have lived and worked all over the world. To kick us off, we’d love for you to reminisce about the places you’ve seen and the things you’ve done.
Hello, thanks for having me. Hmmmm that’s a big question with an answer that would stretch beyond these pages and end up somewhere else! So, I will try to be concise.
On leaving school I spent a couple of years in the Royal Marines and had 2 interesting tours to Borneo, (jungle warfare training), and then 5 months floating around the Mediterranean stopping off in nice spots doing sea to land based maneuvers. After 2 years I left the military and met my wife at art school who later became an art teacher, which enabled us to live abroad on the international teaching circuit. Her first job took us to Saudi Arabia where we lived for 6 years. We explored the Kingdom and region extensively as we had long holidays and traipsed off to places such as Tanzania, Ethiopia, Jordan and Yemen, (which is one of the most fascinating countries I’ve been). Afterwards, we moved to South Africa and settled in the Garden route near Wilderness, where we bought an old small holding overlooking a lake in a National park. We spent 2 years renovating the place before starting a family.
Whilst there we bought a Landrover which I kitted out for a 3-month trip around the southern African countries. We drifted from country to country taking in the beautiful scenery and felt very connected to the earth. We slept in roof tents and had camp fires each night under the expansive African skies with the sounds of the Bush all around us. Such a trip though, also had its risks and on the way, we got caught up in an attempted coup in Mozambique through a simple ‘lost in translation’ moment. We ended up driving through the no-go zone where two truckers were blown up in their vehicles, but we got through the ambush safely. The following day, after reaching a secure area, I swam hand in hand with my 8-year-old son and a 7-meter Whaleshark in perfect clarity. It is amazing how we had come so close to experiencing such horror, but yet the next day we experienced such bliss. Later on that day we heard that 4 more people were shot on the same dangerous stretch of road we’d driven through, luck was definitely on our side.
During the road trip my wife was offered a job teaching Art in Central China which is where we went to for the next 2 years. It was interesting living there and during the holidays we travelled to some of the spectacular Geo Parks which are characterised by unusual rock formations. Unfortunately, the pollution in the city where we lived was terrible and this propelled us to move on to Ireland where we now live…for the moment.
Many experiences were gathered along the way that feed the creative well which I then draw from at a later stage. A bit like a delayed pictorial diary, visual fragments pieced together over time which then feature in my work as sub plots under a main theme.
Talk to us about growing up. In what ways did your childhood and upbringing affect your relationship with the arts?
I lived in Germany until I was 10 years old as my dad was working abroad during this time. Two loving relaxed parents, my sister and I made up our nuclear family. It was a very free existence of wandering for miles through forests and over hills, spending many days catching newts, frogs and lizards, building dens and tree houses, scrumping orchards and drifting about as kids did in those days, a very natural and explorative existence.
I don’t recall ever visiting galleries or exhibitions with my folks, but my Dad had an interest in drawing and I studied his sketchbook closely from his childhood days of drawings of knights, Robin Hood and later pen drawings of my mum. I subscribed to 2000AD and spent hours copying from them. Oodles of Sláine, Nemesis, ABC Warriors and the 4 Dark Judges. The first vinyl I bought was War of the Worlds and it was a great thought provoking backdrop with Richard Burton’s emotive voice narrating. The artwork inside was captivating and inspired a multitude of drawings.
We lived about two kilometers from a landfill site where we salvaged old bikes and made our own mish-mash creations, spending hours building ramps and jumping until the bikes broke. When my family relocated back to the UK I made good friends with another BMX enthusiast. He also happened to be an exceptional artist and it was through him that I was introduced to the world of oil painting. This background during my formative years, which was so free and open, feeds into whom I am and fuels the work I do today.
What gives you the impetus to sit down and pick up a pencil or a paint brush? Do you only work when you have an idea or a deadline to meet, or do you start working and let your images unfold in a more organic way? How does the creative process work for you?
Creativity is in all of us and I personally find being around others creating is infectious. It’s one of the reasons why residencies are so appealing. The sharing of ideas, the chat and general environment of a creative space with others working away is inspiring. Walking into an airy studio with the smell of turps and oil paint triggers Pavlovian responses and the urge to work away takes hold.
At the same time when working alone, which is often the case, I love the self-absorbed space that one enters when the creative process begins. The mind journeys that one goes on, the intrigue in solving the puzzle using intuition and knowledge and a bit of something else that you can’t quite grasp.
Ideas seem to come from all sorts of random directions, sources and life experience as mentioned. Lyrics from a song, playing with words to stimulate content that might tie in with current affairs or world views, recent conversations, general mood, new places and the energy that exists there. Then there are those occurrences that happen every now and then during the waking moments; in the early hours where the mind is in a semi dreamlike state and yet somehow another part of the mind can coerce, nudge and manipulate a train of creative thought. On waking, I jot the idea down and let it simmer for a few days before reviewing the sapling concept with a fresh perspective.
Before embarking on a piece, I usually make a very simple preliminary sketch with just enough information to refer to once the painting gets underway, but also vague enough to allow drawing with the brush and spontaneity. I often have a main idea, sketch out a few lines in charcoal onto the canvas and then get straight into moving paint about and establishing shapes and tones. Colour still intimidates and I’m keen to explore it more, but most of my work tends to be of an earth based palette. I usually work on a ground built up with spray paint, acrylic washes and random marks which breaks up the austerity of a white canvas. It also influences what happens in the later stages as some of these marks and colours breathe through, adding vibrancy and a history to the painting. I then work on top with thin turps based oil and later into impasto; thicker paint in a traditional sense. Some of the busy pieces take a month or more and sometimes new ideas and content pops up which may enter into the piece as a sub plot as it progresses. The method is very organic and I feel my way along; sometimes more mind based, sometimes more heart based, leaning on intuition in and out of that flow state where time just seems to zip past. On emerging I feel quite drained, but at the same time energised.
A notable thematic thread running through your art is the relationship between darkness and light, be that expressed through concepts such as life and death or peace and violence. How do you go about translating these themes into your wonderful visual cues and symbology?
Each piece is tackled in its own subtle different way and it depends on what angle I’m taking and what direction I wish to push it, what mood I want to portray, etc. There is no generic answer to this question as the process is fluid, and intangible. It’s not like there is a prescribed formula I follow. However, I can see that themes keep resurfacing and I can explain some of the experiences behind why I paint them:
The afterlife or transition state from physical to spiritual; narratives that unfold around death, love and caring. This brings me to reflect on the death of my only sister and sibling, she was just 24. As she closed her eyes for the last time while she lay in my arms, I felt some kind of energy course through my body, up my arms and legs and then manifested briefly in my chest before filling the room. This lasted for around 3 minutes before disappearing up and to the left. I have revisited that intense and delicate brief period of time many times.
Eyes. I was hitching to the first Mother Earth Festival in Colorado and we got dropped off on top of a mountain pass for the night. We set up camp under billions of stars and the chill set in. We kindled a small fire and were in need of more wood. Surrounded by Pine trees with low-lying branches I began crawling on my hands and knees feeling as I went along for sticks. I’d ventured in about 5 meters with the bristly branches brushing my back and the firelight flickering behind me. As my eyes adjusted I suddenly realized I was staring into a pair of feral, wild eyes just in front of my face; the firelight glistening on the moisture of the eyeballs. It took a moment for my senses to grasp things before I flew backwards with a strange primal noise escaping me. It must have been no more than a 3 second encounter and I don’t know what the beast was, but my imagination has taken it further onto numerous canvases.
Having seen things on my travels I have come to realise that heaven and hell often exist side by side on this earth. This was brought home to me on a trip in Ethiopia. I was on the edge of a market, it was raining lightly and a few people arrived and threw some cardboard on the ground where a writhing naked maimed figure of a man was then placed. Another piece of cardboard was put on top of him which bucked and shifted as the figure moved about uttering a low repetitive urring sound. His attendant kept putting the cardboard back over him bizarrely as if there was a little care and consideration given to the man beneath. People went about their shopping; and in shiny contrast, looming through the grey murk stood the towering and glittering Hilton Hotel where delegates for an international conference arrived from safe and secure countries via first class flights. These juxtaposed worldly existences of destitution and privilege experienced side by side.
There’s often a very fine line between light and darkness through decisions we make and situations we find ourselves in and I have tapped into this theme numerous times finding new concepts and elements of inspiration to weave into my work.
I have always been open to new experiences and I learnt much from the teacher plant-San Pedro. I’ve taken it twice and the second occasion was in some of the finest examples of fold mountains in the world. Buckled and pushed strata of ochres, oxide reds and burnt bronze. Both times have been an infinite source of reflection to pull inspiration from when painting. Communing with the 9 vibrating birds, understanding the middle wavelength of a grasshoppers chirping…too much to go into!
Your weighty themes are often interwoven with elements of humour and irony through which you channel a somewhat satirical perspective. Has this been a conscious decision or does the humour tend to manifest itself subconsciously, as part of your personality? How do you approach this aspect of your work?
I tend to look on the lighter side of a situation and see humour in things that others wouldn’t necessarily see, my wife says I am lateral and I won’t argue with that. An example of gravity versus humour was when I was in my late teens and my friend at the time was learning to drive. He was so proud of his dad’s car and always insisted that the foot mats be straightened just so, as his father would know he’d been out in the car without permission. It always amazed me why he didn’t clock that his dad could look at the odometer – excuse the pun. One fateful evening we went to a party in the precious vehicle and later that night on our way home we crashed! The car rolled once, ploughed through a cluster of street signs and a fence and we ended up in a hedge. Fortunately, neither of us was hurt but what struck me was the silence after all the noise of careering, slamming into things, skidding and the screeching of the brakes. It was quite something. I spat out some cubes of glass from the smashed windscreen and somehow, I had been thrown into the backseat and it was then that I noticed one of the foot mats lying across my lap. This triggered in me raucous and unrelenting laughter; the humour rose above the situation. The Irony, the Irony!
As we move through life we continue to grow and change. In what ways have you seen your work evolve since you started down the path of being a professional artist?
On leaving school at the age of 16, I joined the Royal Marines because believe it or not they had an Illustration branch. Not long after, I got wind that it was going to disband and I happened to be home on leave when I bumped into a mate who was off to Bristol to study technical illustration. So, I jumped at the opportunity, left the military and joined him in Bristol to become a fulltime student. I found technical illustration a tedious, precise and expressionless practice but it gave me a great grounding and understanding of how things are constructed and how things look from different angles using three point grids. After a while it becomes second nature and you can rough out scale and perspective without having to use grids and can apply it to anything.
It was this time spent in Bristol that set me on the path to study pure illustration in Cornwall at the Falmouth School of Art. Whilst there I discovered great illustrators of the time such as Brad Holland and Paola Piglia. These artists positively influenced me by the way in which they used texture, dry brush technique and the palette knife combined with innovative ideas and concepts. My work began finding its own feet and after leaving college I was taken on by ‘The Art Market’ illustration agency in London. My style changed little during that time, notably because I was restricted to following a commercial brief. I wanted to be more explorative with paint and to convey my own messages and so I moved away from illustration and did my own thing in the hope of moving into galleries instead of books. My work is still very narrative today because I am telling a story with an image, but my practice from the application of paint, exploration of colour and the texture is richer. My concepts are more layered with depth and symbolism and are often deeply personal.
From the UK, we moved to the Middle East where I worked as an art technician in an international school with my wife. I used this experience to draw from my surroundings which influenced the work I created. This phase in my career consisted of a very earthy palette primarily of golds, reds and browns. Then fast forward over ten years in South Africa to living in China where I secured an international residency with Swatch in Shanghai. This experience hugely impacted on my work due to the sharing of skills and knowledge that is generated when artists from all over the world convene to live and work together. The environment also informed my paintings which became softer and diffused with more greys as a result of viewing daily life through air pollution. It was during this creative hub that I met a Spanish Painter who is very skilled in textural applications and building up surfaces with different techniques. He was very open in sharing his knowledge and we became good friends.
Before the China experience, I lived in South Africa where I gained traction in the South African art market. It was there that I began working on a much larger scale and it was only possible as I had a purpose-built studio to work in and large South African homes to house the works. This was my happiest time creating and I miss that airy flood lit studio, earthy home and African lifestyle. There was a buoyant market for larger works over there and now that I am in Ireland the work has become smaller and darker as it is surprisingly so much tougher to get by here!
Please tell us about a favourite creative experience and how it earned that status.
I was trying something new, after spraying paint and building up the ground of the piece, I then placed the canvas on top of gravel and rubbed it gently with a rag. The knuckles of the stones pushed up from underneath and the ragging action took off the paint in random ways. It gave the finished piece a certain worn, stony look and lo and behold a German geologist bought the final work!
Where does your sense of community stem from as an artist? Do you feel part of a close-knit scene in your home town, or do you connect more with other creatives online? Is community something that is important to you and your creativity?
Having moved around the world so much, it’s a case of connecting, disconnecting, connecting and repeat. The sense of community here in rural Ireland is strong and very warm, but gravitates around the church, school and the Gaelic football club, which unfortunately don’t hold so much interest for me. Keeping in touch through social media sites and connecting to like-minded souls is important to me. I like the chat, the banter, learning new things and keeping abreast of what’s going on in the art world and world at large. But I much prefer meeting people face to face and developing a rapport, and being sat in front of a screen is a poor substitute (I still don’t have a cell phone). I’d love to live in an arty community and would find much stimulation in that, but at the moment my wife and three children all have a say in the matter and as a father I am realistic about meeting their needs first. Some of this compromise finds itself into my work, the outsider looking in, longing and dreaming of what might be, the wanting of a simpler care free life that existed before the constraints of family requirements.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, possibly one who’s memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
I was camping alone in the south west corner of Saudi Arabia close to the border with Yemen, up in the mountains around 9000 ft. I pitched my tent on the edge of a large cliff overlooking a spectacular vista. The tent was such that I could stand up and look out through the air vent at the apex. It was a full moon and a beautiful clear night. I lay there reading by torch light when I heard a huge fracas outside. I nervously peered out through the vent at what turned out to be roughly forty baboons gathered around a rock 7 meters away from the tent. The big male sat on top of the rock, master of the troop before him and as he communicated, they all sat respectfully listening quietly. They would respond and then all would go quiet again as he ‘spoke’. It was like they were discussing what this thing was on their turf and what to do about it.
After a few minutes they broke away and circled my tent, with me peering down at them. ”Hello” I said softly, which sounds really daft but I didn’t want to panic or scare them into a frightened rampage! I felt a little on edge and calm at the same time which I can’t really explain, and after a few minutes and numerous grunts to each other they shuffled off. They say that certain animals are highly sentient, so it doesn’t surprise me that some of our nearest genetic relatives can sense fear or calm in human beings. The whole episode was unusual as baboons are normally tucked up high in a safe place for the night, but being such a bright moonlit night they ventured out to investigate the intruder. This is one experience which ignited my intrigue between man and beast which is now often evident in my work.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
This really gave me pause for thought, so I have to say it is ‘Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron’ (1880) by Sargent. It’s a portrait of two kids; how exciting is that? But it’s such a beautiful powerful painting which is essentially a monochrome set against a deep warm red. The stark contrast in tone between the children’s Victorian clothing creates drama. The casual sideways gaze from the lad compared to the direct gaze of the girl whose beautifully shoed feet just touch the ground, which is covered by large patterned rugs, exquisite in their simplicity and subtle tertiary colours. The strange play and positioning of the hands which weave through the central line like quirky lyrical poetry. I have looked at this painting again and again over the years. It is truly magnificent!
What’s next for Brad Gray?
I am working to get a stronger footing within Europe and the US. For now, I’ll keep exploring, pondering and painting, one foot in front of the other.