Some believe he is following in the footsteps of Jamaica's most famous artist – although that's not the path Gray set out to navigate.
Nonetheless the similarities are striking.
Both are marine biologists that grew up in privileged circumstances in environments where the ocean was part of their lifestyle and as close as a short stroll away. And both were fascinated by the sea and everything that swims, crawls and grows in it from the age of well, “innocence” as Gray describes it.
He was three, maybe even two when he recognized the ocean as a wondrous and alternate universe that was much more interesting than the Fisher-Price toys he was amply provided with. Among his happiest memories are fishing for steenbrass – a type of snapper with large canine teeth and cob - a drum-like fish he used to catch fishing the rivers near Port Alfred with grandfather Rubin Knopf.
In the South African community where he was born and raised on the country's southeast coast, the ocean and its tidal pools were as close as a walk down the hill from the home where his parents Edwin and Kate raised their two boys and daughter. Despite the ocean's proximity, Adrian, his mother and grandfather Rubin were always the most keen about fishing, he said.
“I used to plow through the tidal pools at Port Alfred for hours upon hours, plucking and feeling and looking at everything that inhabited those shallows. That's where the fascination began,” he explains. And whenever school assignments came up, that was what he drew.
The study of fish, not art, consumed him. “I saw myself becoming another Jacques Cousteau.” The family business however could not have been more different. “My father owned a chain of department stores that sold clothing and shoes,” he explains. What they did have in common was a knack for drawing.
“In his own way, my father was an artist in a way. He used to enjoy painting the store's signs.” Now retired and living in New York City, his parents always appreciated art, architecture and beauty, he said. “When we traveled we would visit galleries and spend time looking at graphic and visual arts.
In the 1980s, the family moved from South Africa to the states, settling in Miami which made a big impression on the 31-year-old Gray. Living in South Florida stoked the fire even more. “Tarpon, permit, bonefish, sailfish, marlin, I couldn't get enough of it,” said Gray, who enrolled at the University of Miami, where his major was marine biology. With outstanding professors in coastal law and marine geology, he was feeling a little conflicted about his career path. So following graduation in 1999, he went to work for Dr. Mitch Roeffer of Roeffer's Fishing Forecasting, which introduced him to computer graphics.
“I worked as a fishing forecaster but the job also involved creating visual graphics and developing text for newsletters which led to my current job at the International Game Fish Association,” said Gray.
Working for IGFA in Dania, Fl. for the past five years, Gray oversees the organization's multi media materials including the world record yearbook, web site, newsletters and other print presentations. One would surmise his interest in art may have been behind his working for the IGFA but that was not the case, he said. “Not then but now that I am actively involved in marine photography and art it's just a wonderful place to work because I get to see the best there is and learn from it,” he said.
As a young man he never took more than more than the usual high school art classes. There was a time however, he said, when I would sketch people and their catches for fun. “But it was never anything serious.” Perspicuously, a friend had given him paints and an easel as a gift hoping to spark the interest he'd once expressed enjoyment for.
In college and afterwards Gray freelanced as a professional mate for Miami captains like Frank Godwin on the Sonny Boy and Mike Puller on the Lisa L. He even went for his captain's license. Working as a mate was a great way to learn more about the sport. The extra money was good too, he adds. During this time he met Tony Ludovico. A professional freelance mate, Ludovico also was an underwater photographer – passion Gray was getting into much like Guy Harvey.
As for art, that still was not a passion. “To be honest, the only reason I became an artist was because of a fish that become so important to me I felt compelled to capture it in memory, to paint it.” The work Bridled Anxiety (pictured below right) is that fish, an unusually large 400-pound swordfish that Gray got to experience over 10 hours as it struggled for its survival in a give and take with his friend and angler Tony Ludovico.
On a busman's holiday one July evening in 2004 Gray and Ludovico and two other friends went swordfishing off Miami and hooked the monster swordfish. After fighting it through the night, the fish was landed around 8:30 a.m. the next morning. Exhausted, even after ten hours it was still could show its majesty, he said. The iridescent purples and electric blue colors are something you don't see in any other fish. “I was so inspired by that fish I felt I had to try and capture its beauty and power so others could see how magnificent it was. The fish moved me to become an artist.”
Whether it was passion or talent guiding his hand, he doesn't know but the piece turned out good enough that several people who saw it offered to buy it. Yet an artist friend who saw it, he said, advised me not to sell. “He said you should never sell your first painting. And he was so right. The painting is still an inspiration to me.” The piece, which appeared on the cover of last year's Edge magazine, remains in his permanent collection, although prints and giclees are available.
In the four years since Gray painted Bridled Anxiety, he's created 14 other major marine paintings, several of which he has sold. And he is also working on a blue marlin piece that will debut at this year's Boy Scout Tournament.
Gray does now see himself as an artist, he adds. “Working here at IGFA I am constantly studying and looking at the best marine art.” Among those he has studied most closely, he adds, and those who have helped and encourage his work, are artists Diane Rome Peebles and Don Ray. “They are my idols,” he explains. “I love Diane's artistry and the scientific perfection of her work.” As for Don Ray, “he brings such realism to his work. To me he's one of the best at lighting and movement. He's a diver and photographer so he really has studied his subject in its natural setting. I just hope one day I can be as good as he is.”
This year the Boy Scout Tournament is proud to acknowledge this emerging talent as our artist of the year.