STORY & PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICHARD CORNISH
The old French cake stand is made from wire. Hundreds of strands of exceptionally fine steel wire tightly wound around a frame of thicker steel wire. It is beautiful. A blend of hand craft skills as intricate as embroidery combined with the brute power of the industrial revolution. It is one of hundreds of pieces of wire work collected and displayed at the museum-like Wire Work Room at Shades of Gray Gallery in Castlemaine. This is studio and workshop complex of charming wood sheds set in a magnificent garden owned by wire work sculptors Pete and Chelly Gray. In the garden and galleries are displayed hundreds of pieces of their own work, most of it for sale to the public.
The couple met each other in the early 1990s while studying ceramics at art school at Bendigo. She was 19 he was 21. “We wanted a decorative bird cage,” says Pete. “We found an old roll of wire of rusting baling hay in a shed in Werribee and made ourselves a bird cage,” he says. (Normally the couple are inseparable but today Chelly is offsite working on the installation of a sculpture.) “A friend said, ‘that is beautiful’, and suggested we sell them.” They took another to the Convent Gallery in Daylesford and soon found themselves making more. Their range expanded to incorporate wire work candle sticks and by the mid 1990s their beautiful and practical handmade household objects were being sold in the best galleries in Melbourne.
The Grays’ success continued. The Guggenheim Museum in New York requested a range of their wire work pieces for a show. “The curators liked the way our pieces were shaped.
It reminded them of the curves of the Guggenheim,” remembers Pete. The irony was that the Grays did not have enough funds to fly to New York to bask in the glory. Instead some friends visiting America took photos and sent them back. Their success continued with commissions from advertising agencies for wire work props for photo shoots and their works were sold across Australia.
Then things turned sour. A boutique in Melbourne took some of the Gray’s wire work candles to a sweatshop in Indonesia where they were copied and then sold back in Oz for a mere fraction of the price. Pete’s face grimaces when he tells the story. They had to turn their back on the work that had been their success and develop a new style of cold sculpted steel mural work that was impossible to copy. When the drought hit in 2003 they started work on galvanised iron plants and flowers that could bring joy to brown, dry gardens. Then Chelly started working with copper wire. Her nests and baskets are beautifully intricate that feel like they have evolved organically while being eerily reminiscent of a network of blood vessels. The pieces are large and represent hundreds of hours of work carefully twining finer and finer strands of copper around a framework of thicker copper. Today the couple continue working creatively together developing projects and workshopping concepts. “The thing is,” says Pete. “We’ve only got enough time in our lives to make 20% of our ideas.”
Shades of Gray;
Cnr Farnsworth St and Brown St,
Castlemaine; Open weekends in May 11am-4pm; shadesofgray.com.au