The Paintings of Josie Gray

Josie Gray is from the shores of Lough Arrow in east Sligo and shares a tradition of landscape painting with such artists as Patrick Collins and Sean McSweeney. Born in 1925, he commenced painting in 1994. He has already had several successful exhibitions in the U.S.A., both on the East and West coasts, and in Ireland. He paints most of the year in Ireland and visits regularly on the Olympic Peninsula in Port Angeles, Washington where he loves the close conjunction of water and mountains.

Like kinsmen McSweeney and Collins, Gray has a reverential feeling for the land and the sky of the West of Ireland, especially scenes of Strandhill and of Lough Arrow where he lives most of the time. The time he spends each year abroad in America allows him to see his home from afar, so when he returns to paint it, there is the sense of his having reached across time and space to find the landscape freshly. It is not surprising that he has also found kinship with the forests, seascapes and plant life of the Pacific Northwest.

Some of Gray’s early inspiration came from the Zen-influenced paintings of Morris Graves (1910 — 2001), an American artist well-known for the inner radiance and calm of his still lives, birds and landscapes. Gray has translated Graves into a reinvention of Irish light, its drama of luminous cloudscapes and river-flow against witnessing dusky landforms.

Gray’s landscapes seem to be dreaming into themselves, inhabited by a held-in aliveness that has the effect of seeming to quietly expand as the viewer attends the scene. They invent an emotional and spiritual space which never existed before the creation of each particular scene: sun bursts forth in a shattering, or white rivers crackle with a tinge of pink below a glower of sky. At times his colours are subtle, more rumor than fact: blue-grays and rust-green, strong blacks with melon tints behind silhouetted trees. But in others the colours are rawly emotional and given full strength.

Gray’s landscapes seem to be dreaming into themselves, inhabited by a held-in aliveness that has the effect of seeming to quietly expand as the viewer attends the scene.

In Gray’s attitude towards the landscape one senses the pensive Japanese influence of his mentor, Keiko Hara (Whitman College, where Gray began to paint), an abstract painter who nevertheless has an appreciation for the way landscape becomes a form of meditational transport in Gray’s paintings. But there is also a Celtic brashness and daring which pushes us out of thought and into the world of visceral reception on a direct current. His titles such as “Bandit Weather,” “The Balloon Has a Night on the Town” and “Still Unable to Speak” carry a current of inner dialogue which reveals his delight in and dramatic engagement with the landscapes he paints, whether from memory or presence.

His paintings have begun to appear on the covers of literary journals including Artful Dodge (Spring 2001) and The Bellingham Review (December 2001). Paintings also appeared on the cover of poetry volumes, such as Alice Derry’s Strangers to Their Courage (Louisiana State University Press, Fall 2001) and Paulann Peterson’s The Wild Awake (Confluence Press, Fall 2002). Ken Kesey’s latest novel published in Prague by Argo carried Josie Gray’s “Things Could Change” as its cover. Recently, the painting “Tree-Speak” has also inspired a dance production directed by Vicki Lloyd at Whitman College.

Gray is also a storyteller of the first rank and has collaborated with short story writer and poet Tess Gallagher to bring these stories into written form in the book Barnacle Soup: Stories from the West of Ireland, published in Ireland by Blackstaff Press in 2007 and in America by Eastern Washington University Press in 2008. His next show will be held on September 3, 2009 at the Rob Schouten Gallery on Whidby Island in Washington State.

— Tess Gallagher

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