Irish artist Kevin Francis Gray is renowned for his textural marble sculptures which, taking the human figure as a point of departure, address the intricate relationship between figuration and abstraction. The artist spends his time between his studios in East London and Pietrasanta, the Tuscan town noted for its connection to the great Renaissance Master Michelangelo, where he works with a small team of highly-skilled marble artisans.
For our exclusive Art Conversations Series, he discusses his working practice, upcoming projects and what it means to be an artist in today’s climate.
Are you strategic in your approach or does inspiration come organically?
The myth of the lone artist and his erratic scheduling and wild ways is still a common stereotype, so people are often surprised to hear that my studio runs a fairly rigorous and disciplined schedule. Generally, at the inception of a new body of work, I bring in life models to the studio to do drawing and sketching sessions. This allows me to work with diverse people and collect a series of poses. From there, I transition quite quickly to the clay and the plaster models, letting the forms from my drawing sessions find their way into the clay.
A key factor for my London studio is being on street level with windowed doors. The visibility to the outside world allows me to be distracted by the movement of passers-by. Inspiration is a difficult feeling to lock down; it can come in the oddest of moments, but if harnessed can produce work that makes a difference.
Tell us about your background and how your practice has evolved throughout the years?
I focused on painting in both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Fine Art. It was only when I finished school that I faced my drive to pursue sculpting. I had, of course, experimented with sculpture in school. Still, the choice to focus on it wholeheartedly upon graduating came from a very intuitive pull towards working with three-dimensional materials.
Marble is a material with so much history. What drove you to embrace this medium?
As a young artist, I actually began sculpting with the materials that were more readily available to me in London, resin and bronze. But, if I’m honest, my drive to sculpt always originated from the hunger to work with marble. The last decade of working in Italy, in what is arguably the marble-sculpting capital of the world, has been a long lesson in discovering everything that can be revealed by the stone. I have always been conscious of keeping my production small, as I believe an artwork’s rarity is one of its real beauties. Every marble work is unique and cannot be editioned in the same way as bronze sculptures. This gives each work a sense of individuality and distinctiveness, which is key to my practice.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Several years ago, I had an exhibition at Pace in New York, and two experiences from that show particularly stand out. The opening was on a First Thursday when the Chelsea galleries all have openings. I specifically remember a loud, boisterous group of musical theatre students – energetic and curious. They marched right up to me and eagerly shared that it was their first-ever art opening, and they were thrilled to meet ‘The Artist’. Their excitement was contagious, and I walked them through the show, as we jostled through crowds of seasoned collectors. To me, it was a moment about art being approachable to everyone and sharing a new experience with someone who will hopefully go out and seek more art.
The second was the day following the opening, a visit was organised for a patron who is blind. Her guide was walking her through the show, running her hands along the marble sculptures. I feel so strongly that the power of marble can be felt at the touch - that unmistakable coldness, its durability, but also its softness. She reacted so beautifully to the pieces and connected with the works in precisely the way I had intended - all without ‘seeing’ them with her eyes. It was incredibly moving.
What role does the artist have in society?
This is a question that has weighed heavy on my mind in recent weeks: our time in self-isolation has inevitably transformed into a period of self-reflection.
I believe the power of the artist remains as prevalent as ever. We, as a species, have the drive to create and in equal measure, a drive to consume creativity. I feel very strongly that art serves to feed the psyche and the soul. Artists are the visual and aural servants for wider society: it’s our role to dig beneath the surface, uncover the veil and ask questions.
What can audiences look forward to in the future?
I’m working on a new body of work which will hopefully be on view soon with Pace Gallery & Eduardo Secci Gallery. The pieces are centred around the idea of giving power back to the youth, of young people finding potency in their vulnerability and emotional truth. I’ve been inspired by my children and the confidence they have in their own opinions. I feel as though my work is now trying to carve out some space for a new generation to express itself.
When museums re-open, I have an exhibition at the Museo Stefano Bardini in Florence, which will run through the summer. The Bardini museum is an exquisite Palazzo, and they have invited me to place contemporary works amongst their incredible collection of antiquities. It’s a thrill to finally be able to show in the region where I produce so much of my work, and I look forward to sharing that with people. In the meantime, though, the creative process carries on - we’re always in development, and if people want to reach out, they should feel free to do so!
To access the full range of Quintessentially Art Conversations please contact Cornah.email@example.com
. All images courtesy of the artist