Paintings from the edge
He's painted on the world's highest mountains, under the deepest seas and even surrounded by sharks! Our reporter meets Irish Naval officer-turned-adventure artist Philip Gray
A plume of cigarette smoke rises from the courtyard veranda and sails out over the colourful roof tops of Kinsale. Its creator sits back in his chair deep in thought. It's here in a former micro-brewery that Philip Gray, the man who swapped the Irish Navy for an easel and a thirst for the less ordinary, paints, ponders and plans.
As an artist, Gray is somewhat unique. He paints under water, sometimes surrounded by sharks, in volcanoes, under icebergs in Antarctica, in the Sahara Desert, in sea caves and the rainforests of Borneo. And while he says he's not a complete adrenaline junkie, he manages to see beauty and possibility where others see danger.
The acclaimed artist, who will exhibit at next week's Art Source fair in the RDS, was born in Cork City. His parents, Bert and Wendy Gray, came to Cork from the UK in the mid-1950s with a view to establishing inter-denominational Postal Sunday Schools. They moved to Dublin and Laois, and Philip would study in Belfast before getting into trouble and being asked to leave school. It was in Drewstown House in Meath where he'd eventually sit his Leaving Certificate.
"I always had trouble with learning Irish, so I ended up in Drewstown House," he says. "It was run by Americans, but was the only school in the South of Ireland at the time where you could sit exams without Irish."
Philip did well in everything… except one significant subject. "I actually failed my Leaving Certificate art exam - can you believe that?" he tells me, looking over his wide-rimmed glasses. "Ours was a small school and we didn't have a qualified art teacher. The result shocked everyone so the school queried it with the Department. They were told it was felt the student, me, had been assisted by a tutor. So, I was told to resit the exam and it was quietly suggested to me that I shouldn't do so well the second time. For the first, and last, time in my life, that's what I did - and I passed."
His efforts were rewarded with a place in the Dun Laoghaire School of Art. But Philip wasn't ready to throw himself into his studies. "Instead I decided to join the Navy and have some fun for a few years. I thought I'll get that out of my system and then go to college. But before I knew it, those 'few years' became 17-and-a-half. I became a Naval diver and really loved the work and the people. The whole aspect of the danger was exciting to me - it's probably where I got the buzz to put myself into extreme environments. I didn't realise it at the time, but my experiences in the Navy helped shape me as an artist," he says.
It was while doodling and sketching one day that his talent as an artist became known amongst his peers. "I remember, I was on board a minesweeper called the L.É Fola and I was drawing a German naval ship. A duty officer was walking around and he happened to see it. Before I knew it, Captain Jim Robinson had commissioned me to do a drawing of the L.É Fola itself for a presentation. Afterwards, someone else on the ship wanted one, then another and another. I realised that there was something here. We'd seven ships in the fleet so I decided to draw a picture of each of them for reprint so that people could buy a copy. That way, I didn't have to start a new sketch every time." He branched out. When his ship would pull into port, he'd get to work. "I'd dress in a shirt and tie, carry a briefcase and portfolio of my work and visit hotels, bars and restaurants in places like Galway or Dublin. I'd ask if they'd like a painting of their building. Then I'd take a photograph, get it developed, paint it on board the ship and bring it back when we were next in Port. It got to the stage where I was probably earning more money doing that than I was from my naval wage," recalls Philip.
His biggest break came in 1986. "As Chief Petty Officer, I sailed on the inaugural voyage of the L.E. Eithne Naval ship to the Statue of Liberty Centennial celebrations. I was given the opportunity to exhibit a selection of my originals on the ship at an official reception on its arrival into New York. The response from a mixed audience of fellow naval officers, Irish American dignitaries and other state officials was amazing."
Gray exhibited 25 works, paintings of old Ireland and Irish landscapes. By the time the L.E. Eithne pulled out of New York, he'd sold every last one of them and it was only a matter of time before the budding artist left the Navy behind.
"By 1995, I knew I had to make a move, so I took a three-year career break from the Navy. I only had to work two-and-a-half more years to be entitled to a naval pension for the rest of my life and so I intended to return. But in the meantime, I started my own company selling reproductions of my work, which prospered. When the three years was up, I decided there was no way I could return to sea and so signed off and took the difficult decision to pass on my pension."
Soon the Philip Gray brand was everywhere. "The format lent itself, not to galleries, but to craft shops. We ended up supplying 230 craft shops in Ireland and supplying the QVC television channel, where they can sell 3,000 prints in three minutes. Unknown to me, the Philip Gray brand became very recognised. At one point, we were 10th in the list of top Irish gift brands and we had up to 28 staff."
But while Philip Gray 'the brand' was strong, Philip Gray 'the artist' was becoming disillusioned. The company was taken over by John Hinde, they of the postcards fame, and though Philip served as managing director for two years, he flew solo in 2005. His efforts were quickly rewarded when Helen Swabie, CEO of the Amorartis Group which handles fine art, walked into a gallery outside London one day and was taken by the Irishman's work.
Now he's displayed in 80 galleries or more across the UK and further afield (two of his works made it into the White House) and he tells me: "They effectively buy everything from me on a monthly basis. There is a constant need for my artwork to supply to the galleries. It's great knowing when I put a blank canvas up, its already sold and I feel so fortunate that's the case."
But it's not just Philip's sensational works that tantalise buyers and art critics, but the fact he produces them in the most extraordinary of settings and conditions. "When I'm painting underwater or under an iceberg, I get a humongous buzz factor. I really feel alive - it's impossible not to. That might be a complete deterrent to another artist, but I find by pushing myself, in mind, body and soul, something comes out, something different, something unusual."
I ask if any one place stands out above all others as a location to paint. "They all stand out for a particular reason. In the rainforests of Borneo, I found the beauty and wisdom of the people so eye-opening. They have so little but are so fulfilled. I tried to reflect that in my works from there in the colours I used. I'm not sure the viewer gets it always, but that's what I'm trying to do. In Antarctica, I was struck by the natural beauty of the place. Man hasn't destroyed it and that was amazing to witness and paint."
So how do you paint underwater? "I use the normal oil paints, but run a gel through them which gives the right texture," Philip reveals. "I have a rubber implement which I attach to the easel and that effectively acts as my brush. The easel is usually placed on a firm surface such as a rock and I paint for around 50 minutes. There is some resistance under water, but not as much as you'd think, and from working as a diver for so many years, I don't really notice it. In freezing conditions, such as in the Antarctic, I mix the oils with pure alcohol to make sure it doesn't become solid."
But what about the sharks? "Ah, they were fine. To be honest, my main concern was that one would knock the easel with their fin as they passed. We are very careful in planning these sessions and I presume the sharks were well-fed," he says somewhat unconvincingly.
We retreat to Philip's studio where some half-finished works stand awaiting the master's touch. He shows me a video clip of his recent trip to Mexico where he painted underwater in sensational cenotes. These turquoise pools containing fresh water are noted for their beauty and the clarity of the water. "The light was just amazing. If people didn't see where I was painting and what I was looking at, they could hardly believe the beauty of the painting." In his studio on the ground floor, I look through the finished articles. Some of these amazing pieces of work sell for thousands. They dazzle with vibrancy and authenticity.
Unlike many other artists, Philip's fitness is a vital factor in his work. "I'll be 58 next year and the dives and climbs can take a lot out of you. But I feel great and I look after myself. That being said, some do say its time I started acting my age! But this keeps me fit, young and focused. I wouldn't want to slow down and have no intention of it."
Indeed, he tells me of a particularly zany plan for the new year. "I plan to do some pastel painting while sky-diving in Longford. We've designed a pack which I can Velcro to the harness to allow me paint. We'll have about 15 minutes in the air and I can produce a pastel painting in seven minutes, so it should be grand."
Above Philip's place of work on the wall are the words: 'Creativity is allowing yourself make mistakes, art is knowing which ones to keep.'
He tells me: "It's so important to grab opportunities, to follow your gut instinct and not to ignore those light-bulb moments in life. I could have signed back on to the Navy all those years ago in the fear I was going to lose out on a pension, but now when I'm doing what I love best in a remote and wonderful part of the world, I appreciate that I made the right call."
While the journey from Navy diver to artist might, at first, seem an odd one, it's clear to Philip they are utterly interconnected. "In the Navy, we dived in difficult conditions, it was dangerous at times, but we had to respect Mother Nature. In my work now, I get to see and paint nature in all its pure beauty and that's an amazing thrill.
"The two lives have so many similarities. And at this hour of my life, I don't think I'm going to run out of amazing places to paint, things to do and inspirations to find. I can't wait for the next challenge."