portrait Interview with Bruce Gray

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 65 ~ October, 2002

Bruce Gray is a metal sculptor and artist who currently lives in Los Angeles. His inventive art, which incorporates various types of metal, has appeared in numerous art galleries and exhibitions, as well as in motion pictures, television, commercials and music videos.

Born in Orange, N.J., Gray’s childhood was marked by sporadic moves, including living in Belgium for two years. In the mid-seventies, he served a four-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he was stationed at one point in Alaska in the Aleutian Islands.  He received a B.F.A. in Design from the University of Massachusetts in 1983 and then worked as a graphic designer for an advertising agency in Boston before moving to Los Angeles in 1989.

Gray is known and admired, for creating diverse artistic designs using a variety of materials, including magnets, luminum, stainless steel, and scrap metal, as well as chimes and metal balls. His work features rolling ball machines, kinetic art, magnetic sculptures, musical sculptures, functional art, abstract painting, and mobiles. Gray’s specialties include creating oversized renditions of everyday objects, such as animals, large keys, insects, gigantic shoes and swiss cheeses in metal.

Gray’s works have appeared in the Gallery of Functional Art in Santa Monica, California; the Museum of  Contemporary Art Shop in Los Angeles; the Andrew-Shire Gallery, also in Los Angeles; and the Bruce R. Lewin Gallery in Manhattan.

Derek Alger: That was a major step leaving a secure job and traveling all the way across the country to a strange city to pursue being an artist full time. What are your thoughts on
that looking back?

Bruce Gray: There was the fact that I wanted to create whatever I wanted instead of working at an agency where you are given projects to work on. Some interesting, and many boring. I also felt that I was underpaid and that my talents were not really being used. My mother passed away suddenly, at about this time, and it made me feel that
life is too short to be unhappy with what you are doing. You never know how much time you have on this planet, and you should go after a career that makes your heart sing.

DA: You’re known as a metal sculptor, but also a kinetic artist. For the uninitiated, such as myself, what is a kinetic artist?

BG: Kinetic art is moving art. That includes mobiles, stabiles, rolling ball machines, wind powered sculptures, balancing art, and any other art form.

DA: When you first arrived in Los Angeles, you mostly worked in wood but you have said that most of your ideas lent themselves to steel. Could you elaborate a bit?

BG: Steel gives you strength and durability in situations where using wood would be impractical. Many of my sculptures have rods or other elements that are too thin to be fabricated in wood, like my rolling ball machines. Metal is also more durable for outdoor use. Metal can also be bent in shapes, and simply spot welded together, which makes construction safer and more spontaneous.

DA: It’s rather amazing, but also impressive, that you bought a welder and taught yourself how to use it. What was your thinking at the time?

BG: My thinking was that if you want something done right, do it yourself . . . even if that means having to spend a significant amount of time in the learning process. I figured that if I am going to be making sculptures and furniture, it would be way cheaper to do it by myself, and also being able to weld gives me the flexibility to alter design during construction, as I often do.

DA: Is there anywhere special you get your artistic ideas?

BG: I find that I can be inspired by almost anything. Museums or art gallery shows, architecture, cool shapes, other artists, nature, pop culture, TV, animals, music, things I see while scuba diving, etc. The key is to look at all things, even the most common or uninteresting, as a potential of inspiration, and to take the time to really appreciate interesting visual stimuli that you come across in your life’s travels and learn to observe and think more visually.

DA: So, you can be inspired by everything and anything?

BG: I am motivated by the desire to create as many interesting art forms as possible.  I love making sculptures, and I love to have lots of them around me at my studio. I enjoy seeing how my art affects people in positive ways. It is rewarding to see people smile, laugh, stare in astonishment, or plead with you to demonstrate kinetic sculptures again and again. It is also great to get comments from your collectors on how much they enjoy having the sculpture at their home or office. My current ambition is to get my work in as many modern art museums’ permanent collections as I can. I am also very interested in doing much larger sculptures for public places. My other goal is to collaborate on a project with some of my favorite architects, like Frank O. Gehry and Bart Prince.

DA: Did you always know you were going to be an artist?

BG: I have been interested in creative expression in one form or another since I was a small child. When I was young I loved to draw, paint, and build things. I never took any courses in high school but I did enjoy all the wood shop and drafting courses that I took, and I loved photography.

I moved around every year or two as a child and I found that drawing and such were great ways to pass the time when you are moving around, or are the new kid in town and don’t have friends yet. My mother encouraged my creativity as a child by giving me art supplies and lots of construction related toys like Lego, erector sets, blocks and woodworking tools.

DA: What are the first projects you remember doing?

BG: I built a completely handmade electric guitar as a senior wood shop project. I also got into silk screening at about the age of twelve; and made lots of fun T-shirts for many years.

DA: You joined the Coast Guard after high school. What motivated you to do that?

BG: I was not sure what I wanted to ‘be’ in high school, and felt like I needed some time to grow up, experience things, see the world, and decide what to do with the rest of my life.  I also wanted to get the GI Bill to pay for my college after my four-year enlistment. I very much wanted to be self-supporting as soon as I graduated high school. My stepfather was an abusive alcoholic and I wanted to get out of the house ASAP.

DA: Despite what you were escaping, it sounds like a tough experience being isolated up in Alaska. What was the advantage of that experience, ether then, or in retrospect?

BG: It was the kind of experience that was both great and horrible at the same time. I am glad I got to experience the Aleutian Islands for the intense beauty of isolated nature and wild animals. The sights will stay in my mind forever. The advantage of experiencing a year of isolated duty is that you don’t take anything for granted when you get back to civilization. I remember being very happy just to see trees again!

DA: You’ve been concerned about the environment for a long time, when did you first
become so aware?

BG: I have always loved nature. This got started during my Boy Scout days during Junior High School. I have also been scuba diving since then. During high school and beyond, I also did a lot of camping and took photographs of nature. I find it very inspiring. It was not really until I saw the damage happening to our planet getting worse that I really started getting pissed off, and felt like I had to make some sort of positive difference. I have been a member of many different environmental groups, including The Rainforest Action Network, Cousteau Society, Zero Population Grown, Greenpeace, etc. I have also organized two large art auction benefits for the Rainforest, and plan to do larger events in the future. I would like to be known as an environmentalist as much as I am a sculptor.

DA: After the Coast Guard you decided to go to art school.

BG: I decided to get in an art school back home in Massachusetts. I applied to the University of Massachusetts but was told I would need to submit an art portfolio. I didn’t have one, so I drew a few pencil drawings and sent them in. They were not very good, and were done in a few hours.

DA: What happened?

BG: My portfolio was rejected. A few months later, I got a notice that if I met with the Dean of the design school and did some drawings for him, that I might be considered for admission. I met him and did a couple drawings. I was not feeling very confident in my abilities and nearly walked out, however, the Dean said I had promise, and I was let in on a probationary basis, meaning that I had to keep a B average to stay.

DA: Which you did.

BG: I had just spent four very long but beneficial years in the military to get my college paid for, and my years of being a slacker in school were over. I worked very hard in college and loved every minute of it. I majored in Design and got a BFA after four years. I also studied drawing, photography, art history, sculpture, typography and advertising.

DA: And after college?

BG: When I graduated in 1983, I moved to Boston and got jobs in photography and advertising. Then after about five years, I felt like I was not living up to my creative potential and wanted to create my ideas somehow. This point was amplified by the sudden death of my mother. I realized that life is short and there are no guarantees for tomorrow. One day at work, it dawned on me that I should search further for my life calling and I quit on the spot.

DA: Before moving to Los Angeles in January of 1989, you found yourself on the road driving to Mexico City. What was that about?

BG: This was also partially inspired by my mother’s death. The ‘life is too short’ syndrome. It was a soul-searching trip to clear my head and decide what to do with my life. I only intended to go to North Carolina for a week or so wind surfing, but after a week there, I headed south stopping in New Orleans and Corpus Christie, Texas. Then it was on to Mexico City. It’s like I was waiting for some sort of inspiration, and I think seeing the Mexican pyramids started to process somehow. Anyway, by the time I drove all the way back to Massachusetts, I knew I was going to move to LA and become an artist. Doing what, I had no idea at this point.

DA: You also recently discovered you have Dyslexia. Tell us about that.

BG: Dyslexia, or as I like to call it, Aixelsyd, is something I have had all my life, but didn’t know I had it until last year. It has made certain learning difficult, yet at the same time seems to enable my mind to visualize completed concepts instantaneously. It seems to give one an advantage in thinking in three dimensions, which would explain why geometry was the only math class I ever got an A in.