There is a small village forty minutes north of Florence where you can still feel the presence of Michelangelo. With the Tyrrhenian Sea on its doorstep and the Tuscan hills over the back fence, it is a mythical place where sculptors, including the Renaissance master, have rolled up their sleeves for centuries.
It is now a home away from home for Kevin Francis Gray and the place where he put the finishing touches on his latest exhibition, Breakdown Works, amid this crazy once-in-a-century year.
While this unprecedented year isn’t over just yet, the Irishman is ready to reveal his latest collection when London’s lockdown ends next week and the doors to the Pace Gallery reopen for the first time in more than a month.
Gray has been working in Pietrasanta since 2006, immersing himself in a scene that has been the epicentre of sculpture for centuries, where more than 50 marble workshops and bronze foundries and 75 different monuments make it a mecca for art lovers.
He now has his own studio in the Tuscan town that has attracted everyone from Joan Miro to Jeff Koons to Henry Moore to Damien Hirst, where he spends ten days of every month covered in sweat and marble dust, focused on the task at hand, surrounded by a small artisan team.
We are speaking via zoom, as has become the norm during this most unusual year, with Gray back inside his London studio following another manic day of installations at Pace’s Mayfair gallery. Thick coffee table books and small sculptures sit on top of a mahogany desk behind Gray’s head, providing a minor distraction as we chat, days out from an opening that has been delayed more than once.
Executing an exhibition is far from easy at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic that continues to plague Europe and most of the northern hemisphere. But with light at the end of the tunnel, Gray lifts the curtains on a life spent between two vastly different destinations.
“I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to have a studio in Tuscany. I started out working there a good 15 to 20 years ago. I was working with a lot of older artisans in their studios,” Gray told Man of Style ahead of the opening of his new show.
“It took me a long time to have the courage to branch out myself because, as you can imagine, it was pretty intimidating over there with all these guys who have been doing it in their families for centuries.
“I set up my small studio and it allows me to make my own work, make my own decisions and the team who work for me are really committed and super nice people. My studio in Italy is a real working studio. It is a place I go to focus on the work. It is very hard work because as you can imagine it is very hard work working on stone and very mentally challenging, so it is always pretty exhausting when I go there.
“It is an incredibly special place but it’s also kind of intimidating because there is so much history going on there. If you looked around too much and you self-analyse, you could end up sitting in a bar all day drinking coffee and doing nothing because you’re terrified of doing any work.
“My London studio would be considered the more creative place, the place where I experiment. It is a place where I make a lot of works and a lot of mistakes as well. Then works that I feel are strong enough and have enough symbolism and meaning, they go to my studio in Pietrasanta and then we make them there.”
While the world has learned how to work from home, restaurants have pivoted to elaborate takeaway options and sport has continued behind closed doors, art has been forced to be consumed in different ways. Less people have been able to enjoy it, and most have only been able to experience it via social media or online.
“It is such a crazy time. We’ve all been going through highs and lows of how to handle it. It has been difficult no doubt about that,” Gray said.
“One of the major things as an artist is about visitor experience; seeing the work and experiencing it. This has been a really tricky one for myself as an artist, just that lack of contact that lack of people seeing your work.
“The logistics of doing a show and installing a show are really complicated, as well as trying to run a studio in London and a studio in Tuscany as well. It’s all filled with trepidation, anxiety and complication because Italy has its own issues with lockdown. All the practical stuff is now super, super complicated.”
All complications considered, Gray is ready to show a more vulnerable side of his work to a larger audience. He started creating the Breakdown Works months before the term ‘COVID-19’ became part of the modern vernacular.
Now he is ready for you to see them, albeit he didn’t envisage you wearing a mask and observing social distancing etiquette when he started conceptualising inside his Bethnal Green studio.
“The whole idea of the Breakdown Works was it was a really open honest conversation I was having with myself and the work. Hopefully people were listening and could experience it and engage with the work,” he said.
“I had this idea of breakdown and crisis and realignment. With the Breakdown Works I was trying to put less importance on the history of stone, trying to make it less heavy and less 17th century. I was trying to make it have more contemporary that we can engage with as contemporary people.
“I was talking about big issues like societal breakdown like we’re all experiencing right now. It is very equalling what’s happening right now. And there were some more personal things; I’m in the middle of my life, so in a weird way it is about me having the confidence to be really honest and up front.
“And then this fucking thing happened, which really seemed to tie in with the Breakdown Works. Maybe that’s why people are digging these works? I think we can all relate to this idea of breaking down in a way.
“Speaking as a man, I think we’re ready for that openness and expression of vulnerability. People don’t want these egos. The art world is packed full of people with egos. They want to see that there is vulnerability and insecurity and they can take strength from that.”
Timing is everything in life. And the timing couldn’t be more apt.
Kevin Francis Gray opens at Pace Gallery on Thursday 3 December.