Submitted as part of the Women Mind the Water (WMW) digital stories project produced by Pam Ferris-Olson, in conjunction with Stories from Main Street and the traveling exhibition "Water/Ways." This story is one in a series created for a podcast in 2022-23, featuring regional and international artists whose inspiration blends conversation, activism, science, and water. Find earlier stories from the WMW initiative by searching for "Women Mind the Water" on this website.
Julia C R Gray is a California-based artist who has a connection to nature through her sculptures. Julia uses slip-casting and hand-building methods to mold female forms that represent the strength and vulnerability of women, a dichotomy that Julia believes women’s bodies share with the ocean. Julia’s love of nature, her walks on the beach at sunrise and contemplation of the perfect spiral of a seashell are evident in her sculptures.
Pam Ferris-Olson (00:02): Today on the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series on womenmindthewater.com I'm speaking with California-based artist Julia CR Gray. Julia says she has wanted to find a way to be more connected with nature. She found that connection through her SHE sculptures. Julia uses slip-casting and hand-building methods to mold female forms that represent the strength and vulnerability of women, a dichotomy that Julia believes women's bodies share with the ocean. The Women Mind the Water Artivist Series Podcast on womenmindthewater.com engages artists in conversation about their work and explores their connection with the ocean. Through their stories Women Mind the Water hopes to inspire and encourage action to protect the ocean and her creatures.
(00:54): Today I'm speaking with Julia CR Gray a California artist who lives in Cardiff by the Sea. Julia's love of nature, her walks on the beach at sunrise, and contemplation of the perfect spiral of a seashell, are evident in her sculptures. Welcome Julia. Thank you for contacting me and offering to share your deeply personal message about women and the ocean. I'm looking forward to discussing your artistic practice and some of your work. Let's begin by learning a bit more about you. You live in Cardiff by the Sea, California, which I discovered is in San Diego County. Have you always lived near the ocean, and has proximity to the ocean shaped your view?
Julia CR Gray (01:43): First of all, thank you, Pam, for having me on Women Mind the Water. I'm really excited to be here. I was born in Los Angeles and I grew up in Orange County, so I spent a lot of time at the beach as a kid living in Orange County. My husband and I moved to San Diego to raise our kids.
Pam Ferris-Olson (02:03): Okay, so has your proximity to the ocean shaped your view of the world in any way?
Julia CR Gray (02:09): The ocean is so important. It's kind of the breadth of the Earth, and that connection to the ocean for me is spiritual.
Pam Ferris-Olson (02:24): Tell me about your interactions with the ocean. Are you mostly someone who looks at it from the shore or do you physically immerse yourself in it? For example, do you swim or scuba dive?
Julia CR Gray (02:38): This year I plan to learn to scuba dive. I haven't done it ever. Well, actually when I was a teenager I did a little bit. So I want to get back into scuba diving. But right now I boogie board in the ocean, and swim, and I walk the beach at sunrise regularly, almost every day.
Pam Ferris-Olson (03:01): During your observations of the Pacific Ocean what sort, if any, changes have you noticed over the years in the ocean and the coastline?
Julia CR Gray (03:09): The high tide is one. It just seems there's more flooding, more tide coming in. But the other thing, locally we've had, they're wanting to save the cliffs by replenishing the sand. What's happened when they've done that is it's killed off a lot of the crabs and sea life. So there's this balance that society is trying to do in staving off global warming and the rising of the seas, and yet some of the things that they've done have caused problems. So I've seen that. We used to see lots and lots of crabs all around, and they've really diminished.
Pam Ferris-Olson (03:57): That's too bad. So how have these changes affected you personally?
Julia CR Gray (04:02): It kind of breaks my heart. Personally, it just makes me want to have people be more aware that this is important, that we don't want to lose these creatures, and as we lose this life it affects our quality of life. We're on the chain too. We're also part of that. So yeah, it really does touch me.
Pam Ferris-Olson (04:33): I see some of your sculptures behind you, and I want to ask you how come you chose a woman's torso to use as your canvas?
Julia CR Gray (04:42): First of all, I'm a woman, and I go through life as a woman. So it's authentic to me to work with a woman's torso. I'm not comfortable working with a man's torso. I tried a little bit, but it just doesn't feel authentic. The first time I sculpted a woman's torso was when I was at San Francisco Art Institute completing my bachelor's in 2014. I sculpted it and I divided it to put images on the inside so people had to look into it. It created a canvas, like the perfect canvas that I can keep using and talk about all the things that are important to me, from women's rights, to climate change, to the ocean itself. So my work is consistent, but yet I can say so much more.
Pam Ferris-Olson (05:43): How interesting that you started by putting the conversation inside the body. But the pictures that I have seen are outside. So why did you bring the message out?
Julia CR Gray (05:55): I actually do both. I think I sent you a video of one that I'm working on, and it's actually behind me. You can see the front pieces. There's three pieces in the front and three pieces in the back. On the inside of each of those columns are painted images. This one's specifically about the ocean and some of the things I love about the ocean and some of the things that upset me, like the plastic. I didn't mention plastic, seeing plastic on the beach a lot.
Pam Ferris-Olson (06:25): Maybe it would be helpful for the audience who is listening to the audio-only version of the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series Podcast if you would describe one of your works. I thought we'd talk about SHE-Sea Wisdom, a ceramic female torso attached to a base of coral-inspired shapes. I think I'll start by asking, why did you choose to use the capital letters S-H-E? Is the word SHE, that precedes the title of this work, an acronym?
Julia CR Gray (06:56): No. No. It was more of an emphasis. I just wanted to talk about how important women and people who identify as female are to society. It started with a series that I did for a show at the Oceanside Museum of Art in Oceanside, California. The show was titled NOW, and it was 20 women. I proposed a show of 20 women talking about now. At the time it was 2019. We started doing the work in 2020, and all of a sudden now became so different from just the regular now.
(07:35): One of the things that was happening was women's marches, and that was so important to me to talk about that. So I created a series of SHE: The Power of Protest, and it was 55 10-inch torsos of all different colors and textures. I was talking about how we're all different, but yet when we come together we can create change. So that was the first SHE that I did. Then I continued using that torso, and so the SHE just kind of got carried through into my ocean pieces.
Pam Ferris-Olson (08:17): Okay, so could we describe SHE Wisdom and the thought process that drove its creation?
Julia CR Gray (08:25): Sure. I cast a 10-inch torso, and I glazed it so that the body is smooth with gloss and also with opalescence over an aqua gloss. On the SHE Wisdom jellyfish ones I paint or draw in one jellyfish, and then all the other shapes are plastic bags floating in water.
Pam Ferris-Olson (08:56): Oh, my.
Julia CR Gray (08:57): You wouldn't really know that unless you took time to actually look at it and compare the drawings on them. Then I attach it at the same time that I sculpt the base. I sculpt the base by doing a coil method. I make like a rounded shape, and then I cut out different shapes so that the bottoms is kind of scalloped all around. I just do that because I love the organic shape of that. Then I add texture by putting lace over that smooth surface and taking slip, which is mud or liquid clay, and I brush it over the lace several times. You kind of have to let dry just the perfect amount, and then pull the lace up. It leaves behind this texture. I'm not going for lace, I'm just going for an interesting texture.
(09:54): Then it gets covered up with layers of handmade ... I do cut out holes in it too because you see that in the ocean all over the place. Then I make little balls, and then hand make all the different coral forms that I attach to it. Then that gets fired in a bisque fire. I work with Cone 5 clay. Then the next thing I do is do that glazing process where it's smooth on the body and textured on the pieces, and I use a lot of different colors where the corals are. That gets fired. Then the last firing that I do is opalescence and gold. I go around and touch different textures and different things to bring out a feeling of preciousness.
Pam Ferris-Olson (10:44): Oh, my. You know, the first time I saw some of your artwork on Instagram, I'm not sure that I understood it. I just went, "Oh, she's just working with the female body. I don't know how I feel about that." But the more I hear you talk, and the more that I see what you're doing, it's just really inspiring. How does the muse for each piece come to you? Is it related to things that are personal to you or something that you have experienced or something else?
Julia CR Gray (11:17): I take it all in, the things that I'm thinking about, the things that I watch, that I read, that I see, that informs what I do. But the muse itself is just magical to me. I have a really great example for that. When I was working on the SHE: The Power of Protest work, at that time I was completely focused on that work, but I kept seeing a female torso that was a shell, two-sided shell, the front and the back. And I just kept seeing it.
(11:54): I walk on the beach regularly, so I'm sure that informed some of it. I knew that I had to kind of stop what I was doing, make this piece, and then go back to my work. Because sometimes if you let these things go, they may go off to somebody else. The muse was like, "Okay, we're going to go over here." So that's my experience of the muse. Then once I completed the work and installed it in the museum, I went right to the ocean and started creating both the SHE-Shells and the SHE-Sea Wisdom pieces.
Pam Ferris-Olson (12:30): Lovely. So I was going to ask you this question, [inaudible 00:12:34], when you create your pieces are you consciously thinking about the viewer or are you driven more by a passion inside of you? But before you answer that, I don't know how old your son is, but there you are sitting in front of these female torsos, and I just wondered, does it make your son uncomfortable to see torsos of naked women?
Julia CR Gray (12:56): So first of all, we have three grown sons. They're all adults. But when I was a painter, I also did a lot of nudes, and to me it's the divine feminine. So my sons grew up knowing that they were goddesses. So that was their experience. We even had an experience when one was in elementary school and we were at the museum. Someone was concerned about it. I said, "Cameron, come here. Take a look. What is it that you see right there?" He turned, he says, "It's a goddess." So you know-
Pam Ferris-Olson (13:34): That's lovely because some little boys, especially when they get into upper elementary and middle school, are just sort of giggly. So that's a lovely way to bring up your children. Let's go back to the question, when you create your pieces, are you constantly thinking about the viewer or are you driven more by something inside of you?
Julia CR Gray (13:55): Definitely inside of me. The only time that I really think about someone else and what they want from my work is if it's someone that is a client or a collector that is having me do a commission, and then I become a conduit. It's like I become the thing that they want. I become the artist to create what they want. But otherwise I do not think about the viewer.
Pam Ferris-Olson (14:22): So Julia, I regularly ask my guests for a call to action, but I'm going to ask you this question in two parts. First, I'd like to hear what you think is the most important issue facing the ocean and where you are personally trying to make a difference.
Julia CR Gray (14:41): Plastic. Plastic trash in the ocean is such a huge thing, and I can make a difference by picking it up every time I see it. Here in Cardiff we're really fortunate because I'm not the only walker on the beach that carries a plastic bag. In fact, there's a group of people that just regularly, almost every day, walk the beach and keep the plastic off. Boy, does it make a difference. You can see it after a storm, or if people can't get down there, there'll be more that wash in. But when people can get on the beach, it's taken care of, and we're all working together. We're not even working together, it's just that everybody's doing it. So that's important to me.
Pam Ferris-Olson (15:29): I'd like to ask you to offer advice to the audience on how they can make a difference.
Julia CR Gray (15:35): Pick up plastic, stop using plastic if you can. I mean it's so integral in our lives, plastic everything. But if you can avoid it and choose other things. One is, instead of using plastic straws, metal straws are available, bamboo straws are available, and some of them even come in a little container so you can carry it around in your purse if you have to have a straw. I just refuse straws because they're so damaging to the creatures in the ocean, and it's one choice you can make.
Pam Ferris-Olson (16:11): Very good. Well thank you, Julia, for what you're doing and working to let people know why and how women are impacted and connected to the ocean. I hope listeners have gained an appreciation for the power of an artist to create moving statements about the ocean. In other words, how a woman can move others through her artwork, her inspired eye, and her passion. I'd like to remind listeners that I've been speaking with Julia CR Gray, the California-based artist whose message expresses both the vulnerability and the strength of women, and our connection to the ocean.
(16:52): Julia is the latest guest on The Woman Mind the Water Artivist Series Podcast. The series can be viewed on womenmindthewater.com, Museum on Main Street, and YouTube. An audio-only version of this podcast is available on womenmindthewater.com., on iTunes, and Spotify. Women Mind the Water is grateful to Jane Rice for the use of her song, Women of Water. All rights for the Women Mind the Water name and logo belong to Pam Ferris-Olson. This is Pam Ferris-Olson.
Asset ID: 2023.01.05.a-b
Themes: Art, Sculpture, Artists, Artistic Process, Rising Seas, Crabs, Climate Change, Women, Women's Rights, Anatomy, Female, Protest, Plastics
Date recorded: February 12, 2023
Length of recording: 0:17:26
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Women Mind the Water
More information: https://womenmindthewater.com