He spent most of his 37 years trying, and usually failing, to please his father. And when that larger-than-life figure died without a will, "I practically had to become him," says Hank Gray IV, whose father, Charles H. Gray III was killed in July 1996, at the age of 47, when a TWA plane crashed off Long Island.
Today, the younger Gray no longer struggles to pattern himself after his dad, a prominent insurance executive with Midland Financial Group, Inc. Instead, Gray has "discovered the courage" to make a living as an artist; his first solo exhibition will open November 24th at Jay Etkin Gallery at 409 South Main.
Painting oils on canvas and working with brushes, rags, knives, and rulers, Gray says his abstract works reflect what he calls "perfectly balanced chaos." He's motivated by such conflicts as sex versus hypocrisy, nature versus industry. "It's all very visceral," says Gray, "and even if people don't like my style, I want them to find the balance in the work and feel the emotion."
As he paints, Gray locks out the logical part of his brain and lets the creative side "go full speed ahead, guns blazing." Sometimes, though, what he later takes off the canvas is as important as what he applies. That's where the knives and rulers come in. "I put all that frenetic energy, or chaos, on the canvas and slowly scrape it off, pick it apart."
You might say he also took that same approach to his life.
A native of Fayetteville, Arkansas, Gray, earned a business degree and went to work for his father as an options trader. "My dad was verbose, outgoing, with a fiery temper. I would call him an angry, highly intelligent Peter Pan figure. He wanted to stay young forever. He worked hard and played hard, and I tried to protect him from himself. Many nights I'd be putting this 6-4, 200-pound man to bed," says Gray.
Shortly before the fatal plane crash, father and son had an argument and the son left the company. After his father's death, Gray was devastated: "We hadn't spoken in a month. I had lots of anger, lots of guilt. At the end I felt like my will killed him, that I wanted him to be gone."
With his father's estate in disarray, Gray found himself handling numerous lawsuits. Once the estate was settled, he took up commodities trading. He also started painting in earnest, but lacked the confidence to give up his job.
Then, earlier this year, he experienced what he calls an epiphany. While playing with Vivian, one of his two young daughters by his first marriage, he painted a circus big top. "It was abstract, somewhat dark, but happy too," says Gray, who recently remarried. "For Vivian, it was the greatest thing she'd ever seen. For me, it was overwhelming. I realized that my whole life I'd been trying to please other people and pursuing what would be considered 'real work.' I found the courage to give that up." Today his paintings belong to several private and corporate collections.
For more information about Hank Gray's art -- which sells in the $2,500 to $5,500 range -- and upcoming exhibit, go to jayetkingallery.com.