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Artist Julia C R Gray

Julia C R Gray was born in Los Angeles, California, and grew up in Southern California loving wildlife and making art. Gray sculpts clay using slip-casting and hand-building methods to create female torsos which reveal matters of consequence to her. Gray works in her home ceramic studio and lives with her husband Dana in Cardiff by the Sea, California. After working as a representational painter for decades, she returned to university to focus on sculpture, completing a BFA with honors from San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 2014. Studies included learning abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Gray has been awarded scholarships and art grants from SFAI and Davis Projects for Peace for art and environmental work in Bali, Indonesia. She received the Rising Arts Leaders San Diego Quick Grant, as well as numerous exhibition awards, including the Member’s Choice award at the La Jolla, California Athenaeum’s 27th Juried Biennial. Gray’s artwork is collected by private and corporate collectors across the US. Gray’s artworks have been published in magazines and academic texts, and chosen as the cover for MODIFIED Living as a Cyborg, published in 2021. She exhibits her work nationally in museums, civic galleries, and gallery exhibitions. Selected venues: California Clay Competition, Davis, CA; San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, CA; Oceanside Museum of Art, CA; Diego Rivera Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute, CA; The American Museum of Ceramics, Pomona, CA; Bristol Art Museum, Bristol, Rhode Island; Customs House Museum, Clarksville TN; JMAC, Worcester, MA and The Women’s Museum of California, San Diego, CA. Julia C R Gray enjoys working with and supporting other artists, she is a member of AWA (American Women Artists), TWA (Time For Women Artists), and Oceanside Museum of Arts Artist Alliance.

"If I could stare long enough at the perfect spiral of a seashell, I might merge with the consciousness that created that golden ratio. The Biophilia hypothesis is the idea that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. I have yearned for this experience my whole existence. This connection has always felt mysterious to me. My search to connect with nature impels me to walk on the beach at sunrise, transferring that mysterious consciousness when I return to my ceramic studio. My art practice and ocean ritual comes full circle when I bring my ceramic Coral SHE torsos to the beach to photograph with seaweed and ocean treasures. I sculpt using slip-casting and hand-building methods in my home ceramic studio. I work with the female torso to communicate matters that touch my heart. My sculpture series—Coral Reef SHE-Shell and SHE Sea Wisdom—feature glossy female torsos with deeply textured coral-inspired shapes attached to the body and base. I use Cone 5 ceramic slip to cast the female torsos and cone 5 stoneware clay to build the coral forms. Brushing slip-over lace (then removing) adds patterned texture to the sculpture. The sculptures are bisque-fired, glaze painted, and fired multiple times. I enhance small details with opalescent and real 18-karat gold luster glazes for the final firing. I feel the body’s opalescent form speaks to the mystery of being and the gold glaze, on the detailed coral patterns, symbolizes nature’s preciousness. Many years of experience with painting has informed my personal method of layering ceramic glazes. I love contrasts in sheen and hue. I am pulled by dichotomies of life, if I explore strength I also must reveal vulnerability. Working with my series of six-piece Story Torsos gives me multiple surfaces to depict sea creatures on my sculptures, communicating the importance of human connection to the Ocean. I also render images of plastic trash and tar that I find on the beach, conveying my concern for the health of our oceans. When the torso’s six columns are installed inches apart, it is difficult for the viewer to see the detailed glazed paintings hidden inside. Separating the outer columns reveals storied imagery on the inner surfaces. Exhibiting this work gives viewers the opportunity to see more, the deeper they look, much like my experience of a sunrise beach walk"

Tell us a little about yourself (where you are from) and your background in the arts.

I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Southern California. I loved the beach and camping with my family, escaping into nature influenced my art themes. I was 13 years old when my hard-working Father signed me up for oil painting lessons hoping to give me a positive direction. I loved oils but also explored many mediums. I started painting murals when I was 16. The first paintings were of album covers on my friends' bedroom walls. After decades of painting commissions and selling original oil paintings in galleries, I returned to school to complete a BFA (sculpture) at San Francisco Art Institute in 2014. I re-emerged as a ceramic sculptor and that has been my focus for the last eight years.

What kind of work are you currently making?

I am sculpting ceramic female torsos encrusted with coral forms. The details are enhanced with opalescence and gold glazes. I create two cohesive series of torsos. The SHE Coral Torsos range from 5” to 24” high. The torsos in the second series are 18” high Sea Story Torsos which have six columns. I hand-paint images of the ocean, plastic waste (that I see and photograph at the beach), and Renaissance women originally painted by Women Renaissance masters, such as Artemisia Gentileschi.

What is a day like in the studio for you?

After a sunrise beach walk and then breakfast with emails, I step into my backyard ceramic studio. I spend 6-7 days a week in the studio, as little as 2 hours and up to 8 hours. I finish most work days back at the computer, doing art business, social media, and communication. If I am in the casting and building phase of my work, I can count on it being a messy clay day in the studio. Three to five prepped torso molds are lined up on the slip bath ready to pump the slip (liquid clay) into them. While the molds are absorbing the liquid clay, I make clay coils to hand-build the coral-encrusted bases or roll balls into sculpted coral details. Coiling and building are very meditative for me, I enjoy the quiet repetitive moments. Depending on the sizes, the developing torsos can take 2 weeks to a couple of months to build and detail, then at least a week to dry. When the sculptures are bone dry they are fired in my Paragon Dragon electric kiln. It is always exciting (with a bit of trepidation) to open the kiln and see how the new work came through. Glazing days feel very different than clay-building days in the studio. I hand paint the coral details and female forms using many layers and different types of glazes that fire at three different temperatures. At the highest temperature (2168° F, cone 5) stains and glazes are painted on and fired first. I accent the textured details by wiping on and off oxide stains. Layered over the stains are the matte and glossy glazes, around 20 different colors are painted on the detailed coral forms. I paint a glossy clear on bits of texture and details on the coral to prepare for the low fire (1252° F, cone 019) gold and opal lusters that will be added later for the last kiln firing. Working on the story torsos, with hand-painted representational images, engages my brain in a very distinct way. I study collected photos I take at the beach and art books of Renaissance Women Masters to create each composition. I draw the chosen images directly onto the surface of the bisque torsos 6 columns, then wash with an umber underglaze. I hand paint the images with layers of underglaze colors, informed by techniques I used for decades as an oil painter. As much as I love this work, it takes a few months and I am really excited when I see the end in sight. After the six columns are fired at cone 05 (1886° F). If the images don't have the depth I desire, then I repaint the underglazes and fire again. When I am satisfied with the images, then they are ready for the opalescent and gold detailing. Weather permitting, I move the work to a table outside my studio and wear a respirator while painting luster glazes. The low fire luster glaze is the very last kiln firing. I love the culmination of all that energy and effort on the final kiln opening day. Opening the kiln and seeing the gold and opal sparkling on all the torsos is magical.

What are you looking at right now and/or reading?

I follow local and international artists, galleries, and museums on Instagram and Facebook. I am reading the books Breaking Ground Women in California Clay and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I love that this book ties together the science and the spiritual value of the earth. I enjoy a subscription to Ceramics Monthly Magazine. Sometimes when I am doing repetitive work, I listen to science and art podcasts including I Like Your Work, Women Mind the Water, and Darin Olien Fatal Conveniences. I watch Chasing Coral and other ocean documentaries to help inform my understanding of what is happening with the ocean. At the end of the day, my husband Dana and I enjoy watching Television series such as The Last of Us and For The Love of Kitchens.

Where can we find more of your work?

Oceanside Museum of Art Gift Shop, Oceanside, California.

Miniature Monumental Exhibition runs through March 31, 2023, at The Bristol Art Museum, Bristol, Rhode Island.

Upcoming exhibition: May 27 - June 24, 2023 - Synchronicity by TWA (Time For Women Artists) SIP Art Space, San Marcos, California

Upcoming magazine publication: Women United ART MAGAZINE Issue 3/Spring 2023.

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