BALANCE OF THE SOUL
Shray's sensual bronzes embrace life, love and unity.
By Susan Hallsten McGarry
Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) once noted, "In art, one does not aim for simplicity; one achieves it unintentionally as one gets closer to the real meaning of things."
"The real meaning of things" is a phrase that cuts to the chase of Shray's figural sculptures.
In her most recent works, she has simplified her human forms, reducing them to soft planes, sensual curves and sinuous lines. To create them she doesn't build her forms, rather she carves into blocks of wet clay, finding the forms within, much as a carver chips away at a block of marble.
"My current sculptures begin with the spine line," she explains. "I see it in the block of clay, draw it in with my index finger and then begin pulling away the clay. I adhere to that line throughout the entire sculpting process. Everything relates to the line as it courses in and out of the highlights and shadows, as it moves across the positive forms and deep undercuts, and as new lines appear and disappear. My goal is to make sure that the lines encounter no flat spots, which would distract from the lines' perfection."
Shray attributes her arrival at this exhilarating point in her career to a lifetime of mentoring. "From childhood on, my mother exposed me to great painters and sculptors such as Rodin, Giacometti and Henry Moore," she recalls. "She encouraged me to learn the fundamentals so I could find my own way. My teacher Patrick Haberman at the San Francisco Academy of Art grounded me in classical anatomy and color theory. When I sculpt the front of a leg or a hand, I don't have to see the back because I innately know where the joints, ligaments and muscles come together. And Piero Mussi, founder of Artworks Foundry, gave me free reign to learn all aspects of bronze casting. He taught me that the best sculptures do not fight the flow of liquid metal. When the flow is right, the bronze fits the form of the sculpture like a glove."
As exemplified in Balance, Shray's sculptures are about relationships-physical, emotional and spiritual. "I leave the stories in my work unfinished-I don't tell people how to feel," she says. Nevertheless, the sculptures resonate with bonding and loving interdependence. In many of them, the figures interweave in an ethereal dance. Legs entwine as if they were vines seeking strength and support. Arms form concentric, protective circles. Torsos interlock in rhythmic patterns that marry yin and yang into a perfect, harmonious whole. Heads conjoin as if they are two chambers of a single heart.
Whether a man and woman or a mother and child, these empowered duos share an intimate, secret world, sheltered from the surrounding chaos. "I'm inspired by the vast ability of the human heart to share with another all things," Shray says. "Sometimes when I am working with the clay I feel myself reach out to it, in the same way I do to a loved one. I guess my work is a reflection, showing me my own heart."
Part Scottish, part Native American, Shray was named after her paternal great grandmother. The Indian term translates to "rising star" or "morning star"-the star that in Plains Indian lore gave birth to the human race. Born in Virginia, she grew up surrounded by extended family on a Colorado sheep ranch during the summers and attending school in San Francisco, California, the rest of the year.
Shray continues the dialogue of earthiness and sophistication in her philosophy and art today. "When I depend on the beauty of nature as a guide, I accept the simple purity of her gifts-the glow of the sun through a petal or the thousand colors in the shadow under a leaf," she has written. "When I feel nature's breath and hear her laugh, I am free to sculpt without conforming to the pretensions of those who would mock nature. I can lean on nature, my old friend, and watch her changing. I hope to grow and change with her."
Just as Shray has no preconceived idea of what the block of clay will become until she draws that first and inspired line, so she casts her future into the hands of the expanding universe. "My mother gave me the confidence to experiment in all things," Shray concludes. "After she passed away, I sculpted Evermore in her honor. The mother holds the child in tenderness and faith. But the grip is not so tight or restrictive that the child cannot move, experience freedom and travel on its own. I try to place that dichotomy of support and letting go at the heart of my life and my art."