To say that Philip Gray is an extreme example of a visual artist is something of an understatement. The man lives for the type of adventure that would make many of us shy away. And yet, this is where Gray draws the inspiration for his art from. An adventurer and an artist at the same time, Gray’s artwork is uniquely his own. It often chronicles the travels he has been on to find the adventurous settings he so skilfully renders in paint. Whether he is putting up with the ravages of the weather and the sea or travelling to a remote part of the world to find new inspiration from the natural world and its people, Gray continues to do what he loves.
The Coming of an Adventurer to Be
Born in the western city of Cork in the Republic of Ireland in 1959, Gray recalls being drawn towards visual artistry from an early age. His parents knew Trevor Scott, the founder of the renowned College of Art and Design in Dun Laoghaire – just outside Dublin. Gray credits his early interactions with such a creative mind with steering him toward a life in painting. Gray said that one of his earliest creative memories was of generating images of his own on Scott’s living room floor. All the while, the boy received guidance and encouragement from his mentor. As a young man, Gray would go on to serve in the Irish Navy. It is perhaps from his early experiences at sea, that the artist gained his passion for travel and for discovery – even if that meant getting out of his comfort zone from time to time.
The Artist Emerges
Gray trained as a naval diver during his time in service. He developed an early lust for the adventurous side of naval life from the start. However, Gray was also a Chief Petty Officer which afforded him the time to paint as well as to continue his diving career. In 1986, he sailed on a trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City where the Irish Navy took part in the Statue of Liberty Centennial celebrations. It was here that his first public exhibition took place, on board ship. Irish dignitaries, visiting Americans and his fellow seaman noticed his undeniable talent and Gray never looked back. Despite the take-off of his career as an artist, Gray continued to serve at sea. In all, he would go on to have a career in the services that lasted for 17 years.
Life at the Extremes
When Gray finally took the plunge – excuse the pun – and left his former life as a professional diver to become an artist, many said he was mad. By his own admission, Gray’s colleagues thought it was an odd decision, one which would involve giving up many of his pension rights for not having quite reached the requisite retirement age for naval officers. Perhaps this reflects on the artist’s soul within that was yearning to be creative no matter how the consequences turned out. Perhaps it was the reckless spirit that yearned for adventures and new challenges. More likely, it was a blend of the two. Either way, Gray began a series of notable expeditions around the globe which led to some of his most respected landscape artworks.
In 2011, Gray went to Borneo and explored much of the region’s lesser-known areas in search of great landscapes to paint. However, his work of that period reflects the people of the region as much as its landscape. His pieces at this time were made under difficult conditions but they also possess something of a spiritual quality. Another expedition took place high in the Himalayas. Here, Gray chose to work on paintings in the most remarkable of circumstances. His work from this time includes pieces which were made on the slopes of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain and an area where it is difficult to do anything – let alone paint!
Further adventures followed in the same vein, such as one to Antarctica. The seascapes from Gray’s voyage to the bottom of the world are regarded by many to be among some of his best. The sub-zero temperatures would have put most artists off until one remembers that Gray is used to enduring extreme cold from his time as a diver. No wonder he paints subject matter that so few other artists choose to and from the very location he is depicting.
A Global Artist and a Globally Respected Artist
He may have travelled the world to find some of the most dramatic places to paint, but that does not mean that Gray’s work is not internationally respected. Far from it – his works have been bought up by people all over the world, including some celebrity buyers. Former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush have both bought pieces. The country artists Dolly Parton has done so, as well.
No artwork is really truly creative or groundbreaking unless the artist takes a risk to some extent. For some artists, this might be trying a new medium or working with a freer movement than usual. For others, it might be experimenting with colour or turning away from their preferred subject matter. In the remarkable case of Philip Gray, risk-taking is what it is all about. His limited edition work powerfully exudes its often precarious setting and the place where it was first created. As such, his art really is from the danger zone.
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