- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

REISTERSTOWN, Md. (AP) - With his life-like and abstract paintings covering every wall, walking into the Rev. Peter Gray’s Reisterstown home is as awe-inspiring as walking into an art gallery.

The dark-skinned mother, her head covered with an indigo scarf, and her light-eyed son, wearing a bright white shirt, stare at viewers as they reach the top of Gray’s first-floor steps.

Nearby, a still life shows a white linen table cloth and a white bowl, filled with lemons that look three-dimensional.

Around the corner is a vibrant abstract piece, filled with blues, reds, olives, oranges and just a touch of white at the center.

“White is one of the hardest colors to keep and use because you can contaminate it,” Gray says.

Yet somehow, the 63-year-old artist and Catholic priest does it with ease.

Gray is known around the globe for his work. He has painted everything from popes and chapels to celebrities and everyday people, and earlier this year, he was chosen as one of 40 artists to participate in “The Key,” an exhibition organized by the Illinois-based, international peace-building arts organization Caravan.

“Every once in a while you come upon someone where their work calls out to you,” said the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founder and president. “There’s an evocative quality to his work that draws you in. I’ve never met an artist with such range who can produce so quickly.”

A self-proclaimed “precocious child,” Gray grew up in Erie, Pa., near the Canadian border. Neither of his parents had an artistic background.

“My mother was terribly unartistic,” he said. “She’d say, ‘I can’t even draw a stickman.’ My mother never spoke to me about art. She just knew I had a gift.”

His parents bought him his first set of paints and brushes at age 4. Soon after, on a day his parents weren’t home, he painted the four seasons on the house walls.

“Over the doorway there were giant German irises, the kind my father had painted around the house,” he said. “One purple, one orange and with pollen coming out of them. I was a very strange kid.”

At age 5, his parents enrolled him in a summer art program at what was then Mercyhurst College. For two summers, he studied painting and drawing. All the while, his interest in art grew. But so did his interest in Catholicism.

At age 14, he left home to attend Saint Mark’s Seminary, a now-defunct minor seminary near Erie for teens interested in becoming Catholic priests.

“There, I learned discipline and silence,” he said. “That’s when the high level of concentration began.”

Gray continued his studies in 1973 at St. Charles College, a seminary in Catonsville, receiving degrees in both language and literature. He also earned a master’s degree in sacred theology from Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. Gray was ordained as a deacon in 1978 and a priest in 1979. Then, after two years of parish work, he joined the Society of Saint-Sulpice - a group of Roman Catholic diocesan priests charged with educating, guiding and supporting fellow priests.

But it wasn’t until he was stationed in California that his artistic skills resurfaced.

While working toward his Ph.D in philosophy and the arts from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, he began teaching art at Santa Clara University. In 1983, he painted his first abstract works under the guidance of California artist Lee Michael Altman.

Altman taught him to commit to his work, Gray said. Altman also encouraged him to take a leap of faith, abandoning his former art ideas and techniques so he could “let go into the mystery and the possibilities of making something uniquely you,” Gray said.

“He pushed me to get out of where I was and get into another space,” Gray said.

For more than 30 years, the last 12 of which he has lived in Reisterstown, Gray has been filling that space with his art.

Gray paints every day at his kitchen table. Some days, it’s just to put brush to paper. But other days, he has a specific idea - and he runs with it.

“Sometimes, you get seized by an idea, and you have to work,” he said.

Gray has no parish assignment. Instead, he is the artist for the Society of Saint-Sulpice U.S. Province. He has traveled around the world (more than 70 countries) for artistic and humanitarian work. Those travels, along with nature and religion, provide him with ongoing inspiration, he said.

“Nature is my number one inspiration source,” he said. “I can get lost in anything that’s natural.”

He is especially inspired by the Hindu and Buddhist culture and temples, he said.

“I see transcultural symbolic possibilities all the time,” Gray said.

In 2012, Gray painted a life-like portrait of actress Audrey Hepburn. Like Hepburn, Gray volunteered with United Nations’ humanitarian efforts. He drew inspiration from the piece after attending her 1993 funeral in Switzerland.

“The very top of the grave site held the white tulips, and I took one of them,” he said.

Almost 20 years later, he incorporated the tulips into her portrait.

Using photos, Gray also painted portraits of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul when they were canonized. And in 2013, the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., commissioned Gray to paint Pope Francis’ portrait. Once again, he used a photo to complete his masterpiece.

Fans of Gray’s work call his level of realism “mesmerizing.” But his abstract work is just as captivating, they said.

“The abstract work is just as amazing as his portraits of saints, celebrities and still-life pieces that make your mouth water,” said Cindy Slaughter, a Baltimore resident who owns one of Gray’s abstract works. “His abstract works on paper are clearly another way to express his range of talent as a painter. I like that he goes back and forth.”

That versatility is what drew Chandler to Gray’s work.

“Being able to go from abstract to abstract figurative, all the way to realist, he’s strong in all of them,” he said.

Gray is the only religious figure to participate in Caravan’s “The Key” exhibit, in which artists use a variety of mediums to cover an almost 4-foot tall sculpture of the Ankh - the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic character that read “life” and is known as the oldest symbol of pluralism, tolerance and harmony.

Gray chose acrylic paint. On the front, he painted a mother’s face and her extended hands touching her son’s head.

“Woman is the ‘key’ to nature, the opening to the mysterious and the invisible,” Gray said. “Truly divine.”

On the opposite side, Gray painted an abstract pattern using square shapes. The squares tie to the communications world, which is filled with pushing buttons and screens, Gray said. They also compliment ancient Egyptian calligraphy, he said.

“As soon as the sculpture arrived, I stood it up and looked at it for a few minutes, then after an hour I saw exactly what I wanted to paint,” he said. “There are no lines, no drawing marks. I painted it directly and in just eight hours. Once I get an idea, I run with it and keep pace with the passion and the energy of the universe.”

Yet even with all of his artistic success, Gray keeps little of the profits. Instead, he donates the money to families in Nepal affected by earthquakes and homeless people in Baltimore City.

“It’s art with heart,” he said. “When you see the work, you see the love, you save a person.”


Information from: The Baltimore Sun, https://www.baltimoresun.com

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