Road construction on D.C.'s I-95 used to fascinate him. Using drapery rods and string and things found where little boys find things, he would return to Raleigh and construct make-believe roads for himself. Make-believed himself right into the artist he is now, in fact. One who today creates real and bigger and more complex roads that lead to pasts and point to futures because, as he says, "I'm trying to make people aware of their spiritual selves."
He is working while you are sleeping: to a soundtrack of Thelonius Monk or Stevie Wonder or Fela Kuti or John Coltrane or Bob James. He is creating when it is quiet, late at night, when "most of my good ideas come," in a studio that he calls "my sanctuary."
He speaks with long pauses. "Aaaahhhs" here and "ummms" there and "what was the question again?" Thoughts forming then disappearing, then pushing themselves to memory again--to spoken-aloud words. He is thoughtful, this artist. Composing each idea as if it were its own found object--narrating his own created history.
Who is Andre Gray? I ask him.
"Who is Andre Leon Gray?" he corrects.
This is how we begin our conversation.
Andre Leon Gray was born in downtown Raleigh in a neighborhood that he describes as, "low-income." His father, the other artist in the family, encouraged him to draw--a skill that he picked up at a young age. Later, as a student at Enloe High School, he won some scholastic art awards, though he says he's never received any formal arts training, "... especially in what I do now. It's like two different worlds, basically."
He has a habit of finding things. For one: Found things are free. Plus, things that others throw away take on new value in Gray's recycled world.
"Objects themselves have memories, and I guess I'm fascinated with the idea of a mysterious object having this unknown history and adding your own meaning to it," he says. "I guess objects possess their own stories--hidden stories--and I want to enhance that and, I guess, twist it into my own narrative."
He describes this narrative as "the forgotten histories of African Americans and people of color in general. The struggles that they go through. My work has a political or spiritual theme to it, I try to actually intertwine both in my work."
"My perception is that he creates more for others than for himself," says Corkey Goldsmith, former program director of Artspace, where Gray was the first Regional Emerging Artist in Residence. "He is his own person," she continues. "He is spiritual, philosophical, a thinker, a poet. He is deliberate, serious and passionate. He is like no one I've met."
Many, would agree with this observation. Painfully shy, there are few who can say they really know the artist. It takes him a while to find the words--a sentence even--to discuss this aspect of his personality.
"I don't know what people think," he tells me. "Ummm ... I guess I'm not very outgoing. I'm kinda introverted so I kinda ... I don't know. I guess it takes something for me to get out of my shell. ... I don't know ... "
It's a thought that bothers him--a topic that he will return to, even much later in our conversation.
But really, who cares. Gray's work speaks for itself. In "House of the Rising Sun," an old tin-typed portrait of a young black man sits in the window of a house-like structure. To the left of the house is a white cross atop a crutch, which is supported by a Bible. He says the piece makes a statement about people who suffer and "how they use religion as a crutch to maintain hope." In another work, "The Southern Theory of Relativity," a fertility doll and cracked liberty bell join images of a slave ship and cross to comment on race relations in the South.
"As a self-taught 'outsider' artist, Andre's work shines because of its raw, untainted originality," says Bob Doster, director of Glance Gallery. "It comes straight from his soul and cultural history, rather than the influences of his contemporaries. It is fresh and passionate and his works force the viewer to think about their own history. Andre creates cultural awareness by showing his pieces. His work makes important statements about our country's history, art history, and our citizens' histories."
Gray wishes more of his community were exposed to his work. He talks about their lack of attendance at his gallery exhibitions, and using empty lots and gentrified areas as canvases--potential sites where he can bring his art to the people. "A lot of black people, especially in my community, don't actually attend art events, so my goal is to actually try to do something in a more public space. At some point, I'm gonna plan on doing some kind of installation--some outside projects--where I can get more of an immediate response from the community, since they don't really do the art galleries."
But for those who do "do" the art galleries, Gray's work has had, and continues to have, a profound effect on many.
"Generally people are very ... I don't want to say amazed, but ... I guess I touch their souls with my work," he says. "I guess it's a thing that art should do."
"One morning I brought an elementary school tour group to visit Andre's studio," recalls Goldsmith. "The majority of the students that day were African American. When I brought them to see Andre's work, the kids were instantly pulled in by his work, looking at it and examining it, asking question after question. Andre gently explained that his work is about the African-American situation. He talked about the symbols he uses, who the people in the photographs are, why he uses 'junk', as one student called it, in his work. I never saw the kids so interested and inquisitive about an artist's work."
He'd like to do more work with kids. He'd like to teach, though he says he'd have to be approached (the shyness again), he'd also like to create art on a larger scale, and to get into sculpture and photography and multi-media art. And he'd like to collaborate with other artists, to encourage, as he says, "more of a sense of artistic community with different artists interacting with each other."
He hopes, one day, that his art will sustain him. That he will not always be punching a clock, or the starving artist getting turned down for another grant, again. And he'd like people to know, well, "that we're all human."
"If people can maintain a certain creative self," he says, "I think people would be more happy. ... I think individuals can be well-rounded by incorporating all aspects of culture. ... In the definition of culture, you have to have some form of art. If you look in the past, every culture has had some form of art to express themselves. So if you eliminate art, you're killing part of the culture. And culture is definitely important in this town. I think that's what's needed: more culture."
And more human beings like Andre Leon Gray, who, having found things others throw away, have the skill, the sheer brilliance to make it into something we can all see ourselves in ...