Spencer Gray starts his mornings before the sun rises. He works as a professional jeweler, but before clocking in he likes to spend an hour or two in his workshop making art. Dense woods surround Spencer’s home, though it’s only a mile or so from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in Pass Christian, and he starts a fire to ward mosquitoes away from his outdoor workspace, where fully assembled sculptures compete for space with piles of junk – his source material.
Most of the disarray is contained in the yard’s far corner, where long rows of various objects stand several feet high in what he calls the morgue. “This is where I come for inspiration,” Spencer says. “I pull things from these piles and put them out to get a vibe or feeling. I’ll look at a tea kettle and see a child’s face, and then start to build a piece around that idea.”
Gray, a tall, somewhat wiry man with medium brown skin, feels at home in chaos and needs disarray to work. That drives his wife crazy, but Sharon has learned that attempts at organizing the junk only disrupt Gray’s work-flow. “I’ve learned not to touch it,” she says, laughing. “He needs the mix of things all around him.”
Gray was born in New Mexico, where his father, Spencer, Sr., was stationed with the Air Force. He has lived in Mississippi most of his life, and his work tells the story of a childhood spent dreaming up stories in the countryside with his sisters, using nearby found materials to bring their imaginations to life. “When I went to my grandmother’s as a child, I would go through her junk drawer and use what I found to make things. Didn’t everyone’s grandmother have a curiosity drawer? I’m basically doing the same thing now in my workshop. Drawing characters and going through my salvaged items to bring them to life.”
These are 3D cartoons, so people are always looking for the next gag. They want to know the storyline… which I love, because these pieces are my heart and soul. They’re my therapy, and I get so much joy out of their creation.
One recently completed sculpture tells the story of two of his main characters — Onie and Mynette. No two versions of either character ever look exactly the same. Gray becomes animated when he tells their stories, changing his voice to impersonate different people and gesturing to various elements within his sculptures. “Onie’s full name is Winston Bartholomew Onesimus Carter, and Mynette is his girlfriend. They’re at his grandmother’s and they’ve just watched a TV show: the Wild Wild West. So, they start grabbing colanders and pots and pans to build a train and then they climb on and go for a ride. It’s not about fancy gadgets, it’s about creativity and imagination,” he says. “I want my pieces to look like they came from a child’s imagination.
Many of Spencer’s pieces refer to the past, to a time before kids could be distracted with cell phones and cable television. His characters play outside, with braids blowing in the wind and kittens underfoot. His work has evolved considerably over the last decade. (He began assembling bird houses and feeders shortly after Hurricane Katrina).
“I’ve been an artist all my life,” Spencer explains. “When I was young and cocky, I decided I wanted to be a nationally syndicated cartoonist. I sent my drawings off to one outlet, got rejected, and got discouraged. I decided to go into the jewelry business, which has, of course, also lent itself to my sculptures. Jewelers hide their work; if you can see something, it’s because they want you to see it. I assemble my pieces in a similar manner.”
Gray never stopped making cartoons, and at the encouragement of gallery owners and customers, his bird feeders began telling stories once only found in his drawings. “I started adding characters interacting with each other around the bird houses, and people were telling me they were too nice to display outside. They were finding space for my pieces in their homes. I realized I was onto something.”
Spencer and Sharon comb nearby junk shops and roadsides for source materials, and also travel to New Orleans routinely to comb Royal Street shops in the French Quarter for inspiration. “I like to find metals with different patina to indicate different skin tones,” Spencer says. Dozens of mottled copper mugs, typically used for Moscow Mules and mint juleps, currently surround his work space, soon to become faces and body parts in a series of sculptures.
“Once I have a group of children put together, I start hearing their voices and their laughter. I can ask them what they want to be doing, and then I’ll look down at the junk,” Spencer says.
Some of Spencer’s source materials come from Sharon, who works as a rural mail carrier. He likes to use tire tread for hair. “Spencer will call when he needs hair for his little girls, so I have to be on the lookout. There aren’t many cars out where I deliver mail, so it’s usually easy for me to reverse and open the door and lean out and pick up the tread whenever I see it,” Sharon says.
When he goes into his characters, I can’t do anything but laugh. He carries on these conversations with himself, too, in his brain. They all have their own accents and they tell him their stories. My therapy is getting to listen in and ultimately seeing what he creates.
The couple has gone to great lengths to acquire assemblage elements. “We’ll dumpster dive,” Spencer says. “There’s no shame in this game. We found half a piano on Royal Street that way, parts of which found their way into several different pieces. I’ve used pretty much all of it now.”
Spencer’s shows offer a unique storytelling element. All art tells a story, but Spencer’s works don’t just speak for themselves; he tells the stories, too. “These are 3D cartoons, so people are always looking for the next gag,” Spencer says. “They want to know the storyline… which I love, because these pieces are my heart and soul. They’re my therapy, and I get so much joy out of their creation.”
Visitors to Spencer’s home can expect to hear the stories behind each piece in an ever-changing display of works in progress. Sharon listens with a smile, enjoying guests’ reactions. “When he goes into his characters, I can’t do anything but laugh. He carries on these conversations with himself, too, in his brain. They all have their own accents and they tell him their stories. My therapy is getting to listen in and ultimately seeing what he creates.”
Most evenings, Spencer lights another fire and resumes working. Sharon is nearby, typically sitting fireside and listening to one of his character’s latest escapades. They’re in their element outdoors, finding inspiration in nature and in the stories Spencer tells through his art.