Robert Gray was born in Colorado Springs in 1943 and spent his childhood in Loveland, Colorado. He received two degrees from Colorado State University and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. His wife, Marjorie Burden Gray, also a Colorado native, is a highly awarded American history and government teacher and a James Madison Fellow. Their daughter Jamie, a fifth generation Coloradoan, is a designer in Seattle. They have made Buena Vista, Colorado, their residence for over 30 years. Robert Gray’s Colorado heritage is deeply invested in each vessel coming from his studio in Buena Vista, Colorado. The Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains and the Upper Arkansas Valley have provided a spectacular backdrop for his 30 years of wood working. Robert’s interest in wood began while studying for degrees in forestry and industrial arts education at Colorado State University. In 1972 he established the Woodworking Program for Buena Vista Public Schools and in 1978 opened a fine cabinetry shop which he continued for 13 years. Periodically he works with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He built and ran the Trembling Aspen Gallery and Studio in Buena Vista for ten years where he continued to improve his turning techniques and forms for his aspen vessels. These interests in the natural history and aesthetics of natural woods, as well as his dedication to hand craft eventually led Gray to dedicate himself to his long term interest in woodturning.
As his commitment to woodturning grew, Gray expanded his craft through studies under a number of nationally recognized turners, including Rude Osolnik of Kentucky’s Berea College, Dale Nish of Brigham Young University, Richard Raffin of Australia, and Michael Peterson of Washington State. A hearty Westerner, the energetic Gray lives by the characteristic adage of the bumper sticker on his ubiquitous Ford pick-up – ‘No whining’. His passion for making combines with his humanitarian generosity in his volunteer work building houses for Habitat for Humanity. With the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Gray has scaled the high peaks and waded the high country lakes at timberline, evaluating the health of the state’s trout population. An avid trout fisherman, and past president of a Trout Unlimited chapter, his philosophy of catch and release fishing is compatible with his policy of never cutting a living aspen for his work; his vessels come only from windfall trees. Gray’s finely sculpted vessels are individually created from carefully selected aspens downed by the Rocky Mountain winds in the nearby forests of his native Colorado high country. He follows a meticulous multi-step procedure that includes a lengthy curing process to prevent cracking, ranging from 12-24 months, producing a very stable vessel. Aspen presents a challenging paradox. Technically a hardwood, it is relatively soft yet has great strength due to its long fibered structure. Although this presents sanding problems, Gray’s surfaces are flawless satin and he exploits the wood’s natural strength and resiliency to achieve extraordinarily delicate vessel walls.
This artist’s exquisite, tactile vessels are surprisingly light and lyrically translucent, exploding with the colors of natural aspen that range from the subtle to the dramatic. These ongoing explorations of vessel form respond to the unique character of each piece of wood. Robert synthesizes his unique artistic sensibilities with a deep appreciation and knowledge of wood and expert technical skills. “Early in the turning process I determine the shape of each piece as the color and grain dictate its potential to me. No two of my vessels are the same.” Solid blanks of wet aspen, Gray’s raw material, weigh up to 100 pounds. These are ultimately reduced to a few elegant ounces of vessel form, so thin that most are translucent skins of marbled aspen wood pattern. The wood’s coloration ranges from a light ivory with the purity of this rarefied tree to a rich buttery cream, frequently marbled with grain in glowing ochres and deep browns with suggestions of maroon and purple. “As I work into the core of the wood blank, the inner tree is revealed. It excites me to discover the grain and color and the patterns of the wood.” Gray’s intimate understanding of the opportunities and limitations of the lathe interacts with his eye to explore the potential of each piece of wood. Recent shapes have evolved from opportunities suggested by the structure of each tree encountered. As a result, Gray has innovated a number of personal turning techniques that defy normal expectations of the woodturning process, pushing the edges of this art form. This technical exploration and formal evolution draw on a solid foundation of vessel history.
The influence of Chinese and Korean ceramic origins, as well as prehistoric and historic Southwestern Pueblo designs, can be identified in Gray’s vessel shapes. “I have always loved Colorado and the Southwest, and the beauty and meaning of the Native American heritage of the region. When I work with aspen, the hidden lines and patterns of color that reveal themselves often resemble ancient Anasazi pottery surfaces.” These ancient traditions, based on the coil or the potter’s wheel, follow the dictates of centrifugal motion, as do most wood turner’s lathe work.
Gray’s work frequently departs from the expected geometries of the wood turners’ tradition. He constantly defies the limits of the lathe and meets the challenges of his chosen material. Aspen trees grow tall and slender, and only the most favorable microclimates and soil conditions allow a tree to form a sizable trunk diameter. To expand the possibilities of aspen wood, Gray has developed a special technique for joining multiple sections of wood, allowing him to make exceptionally large vessels. Limbs and joints offer Gray new options for vessel shapes as well, and he has developed lathe-turning techniques to exploit these eccentric shapes that rise organically out of the vessel’s geometric body. Carved and textured surfaces sometimes trace the aspen grains flow across the vessel’s surface, contrasting with Gray’s signature elegant satin lacquer finish. At the end of this complex process, each piece is signed, numbered and registered with the artist, a vigorous regional art expression of the American West. A member of the Chaffee County Council for the Arts, Gray is an avid supporter of regionally based art and has received numerous awards. His work has been shown in galleries in Aspen, Ashcroft, Buena Vista, Denver and Breckenridge, Colorado, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Seattle, WA, Hartford, Connecticut and Delray Beach, Florida, and is found in collections worldwide. Recent exhibitions include Contemporary Wood Turning, Wave Galley, New Haven Connecticut, concurrent with Wood Turning in North America Since 1930 exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery and Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., Baker Art Center in Liberal, Kansas, Hays Art Center in Hays, Kansas and the Colorado History Museum, Denver.