Dabs of reddish-pink dye spread out on the blank white rectangle of silk, the edges of the colorful swath mingling with the green and yellow already on the fabric.
Sylvia Gray used her paintbrush sparingly. Painting on silk requires small strokes because the fibers can only absorb a small amount of dye.
“It’s going to flow like crazy. So that’s the trick — controlling it somewhat. But my philosophy has always been to let the silk tell you where it wants to be,” she said. “If you get a drop of dye somewhere, just make it part of the design element.”
Silk painting has become a specialty for Gray, whose colorful, free-flowing designs are as striking hanging on a wall as they are used as a wearable scarf. Her work ranges from abstract and impressionist painting to drawing, printmaking, fiber art and encaustic work.
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Each project and style is different, but each is linked by a single thread: the vivid use of color.
Gray’s artistry will be on display during a special month-long exhibition at the Southside Art League. Her wearable painted silks and landscape paintings will hang in the Greenwood gallery through July 29.
In addition, she will offer a free silk painting demonstration so the public can see how her art comes alive.
“She’s phenomenal,” said Stephanie Louis Robertson, an Indianapolis-based fabric artist who helped introduce Gray to silk painting. “It’s really amazing to watch her interact with people when she’s demonstrating. She will be painting and talking and sharing stories at the same time. You feel so connected to her because she just exudes warmth and excitement as she’s doing her thing.”
Laid out on a table in Gray’s Westfield home, a series of gauzy impressionist paintings rested. Recently returned from a trip to Cahors, France, she has been hard at work creating art from the photos of gardens, castles, cottages and the hilly southern French countryside.
A portion of that work is featured in the Southside Art League show.
“It was an artist’s dream. There are all these old buildings, it’s not that populated, a lot of castles. The vistas were amazing,” she said. “This will be the first showing of these new French paintings, which is exciting.”
Gray and her husband Brad live on five acres in the countryside outside of Westfield. Her silk studio is a converted garage in the home, which allows her to work on her silks while her seven dogs and three cats assist. Upstairs, she has a studio for painting, as well as a shop where people can make appointments to browse her silk art.
She is a member of Indiana Artisan, the Hoosier Salon, Indiana Plein Air Painters Association and Silk Painters International.
Gray had enjoyed art and creating throughout her life. She loved going to art museums as a child but thought that she had to have some kind of “gift” in order to do it.
Not until she was in her 40s did her journey into serious artistry start.
“I knew I was good at color and design, but then I picked up a book that said that if you can write, you can draw. So I just started enrolling at classes,” she said.
What started as a few courses at the Indianapolis Art Center turned into an immersive study in drawing. Gray enrolled in Herron School of Art, bolstering the degree she already had in telecommunications and theater from Indiana University.
Her inspirations include Vincent Van Gogh, Wolf Kahn and the Blue Rider group of German painters.
By throwing herself into the work, she found that her skills sharpened.
“It’s funny,” she said. “The more you paint, the better you get.”
Silk painting was a course that she never considered until Robertson convinced her to take a class. Gray had been taking different classes from Robertson at the Indianapolis Art Center and decided to give it a try.
Eventually, Gray started teaching it herself.
“She does beautiful work and really has her own style,” Robertson said. “She’s not trying to repeat what anybody else is doing.”
Gray’s evolution as an artist allowed her to borrow concepts and techniques that she had used in her oil painting, such as doing figures, and transpose those into her work with silk.
“Marrying the two together, that’s what I’ve been working on lately,” she said.
Organizers at the Southside Art League had been familiar with Gray’s work in the past. She had done a demonstration for members a few years ago, and Bev Mathis, an art league member, had been intrigued by her work when she encountered it each year at the Indiana State Fair.
Mathis reached out to her, and helped arrange the exhibition.
“I had been watching her for years, especially at the state fair when she would have this beautiful silk paintings and scarves and things,” she said. “It’s very interesting hearing how she does this.”
Gray wanted to include a demonstration of silk painting with the Southside Art League exhibition because she thought it would be important to bring attention to that style of art. People often comment on the striking design and colors of a finished scarf or tunic, but few people realize what goes into the creation process.
“A lot of people think they can buy the scarf and don’t understand what goes into it. Even when I paint them, they’re not done. I have to put them in a big steamer to heat them, which bonds the dye to the silk. Then you wash it and iron it so it’s ready,” she said.
Sylvia Gray exhibition
What: A collection of impressionistic oil paintings, painted silk and wearable art by Gray, a Westfield-based artist.
Where: Southside Art League Off Broadway Gallery, 299 E. Broadway St., Greenwood
When: Through July 29
Gallery hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Reception: A public open house will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. July 14 at the gallery.
Demonstration: Gray will lead a free silk painting demonstration at the Southside Art League from noon to 2 p.m. July 15.
Information: Learn more about Gray and her work at sylviagray.net, sylviagrayart.com and etsy.com/shop/SylviaGrayDesigns