Death, near-death and life metaphors inspire artist
Mayuko Ono Gray found her life’s work in a beloved grandfather’s death.
Ono Gray, born in Japan, two decades ago arrived in the United States and found her way to Laredo Community College, where she planned to study graphic arts, with an eye to a commercial career.
Then came word of the death of her paternal grandfather, Minoru, in her central Japanese hometown of Gifu. She returned at once.
“Seeing him in the casket, I realized I needed to do what I truly wanted,” Ono Gray recently recounted at her home studio in La Marque. “I realized I wanted to do art.”
She went on in 2007 to earn a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Houston.
Her current project involves calligraphy, which she had first studied in childhood.
Her interest in the ancient art was awakened when she happened across a work in progress by an Arab man studying under her eventual husband, Mark Greenwalt, a professor of art at College of the Mainland.
“I met this man, he was a retired doctor taking a painting course under Mark, and he was doing calligraphy,” Ono Gray said. “It inspired me to try this work.”
This work — her current work — emphasizes a flowing, stylized calligraphy rendered in graphite, a painstaking process that requires the use of tips of varying softness and precision — and infinite patience.
The completed compositions begin with a Japanese proverb drawn in a continual line wending its way top to bottom, right to left, in the traditional style and incorporate a beast, either of burden or of the wild, appropriate to the proverb.
“I start out writing the proverb straight out,” Ono Gray said. “And I connect it in one continuous string. It’s a metaphor for life: The continuum.”
Of course, she also strives for a cross-cultural appeal.
“Not everyone reads Japanese, so the lines have to be interesting visually,” she said. “It’s like foreign music: You may not understand the lyrics, but you can enjoy the music.”
Her visual lyrics are, in part, the result of her study of a deck of 100 cards she purchased, each bearing a Japanese proverb.
The art of drawing, like any other creative avenue, relies on conjuring something from nothing. The infinitive “to draw” specifically evokes that sentiment.
“The word draw means, in its original sense, to pull out,” Greenwalt said. “You draw blood, you draw a gun, you draw water from a well.
“In drawing art, something that is concealed is revealed, it’s drawn from the surface.”
Ono Gray, who early on was a student of Greenwalt’s, also teaches at College of the Mainland and serves as the director of the school’s gallery.
In the latter role, she arranges student exhibitions and is responsible for bringing in established artists to display their work.
Ono Gray similarly exhibits her work at both university and private galleries, including three times in the colonial Mexican city of Oaxaca, an ancient, mystical place where Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — is celebrated and bestowed on her a particular significance.
Several years ago, the artist had a near-death experience, one that left her in a coma for 10 days. That she survived surprised her caregivers in the intensive care unit. Yet, the incident didn’t frighten Ono Gray; rather, it inspired her.
“I discovered that dying is so peaceful,” she said. “Now, everything, every moment is a bonus.
“My main interest now, in art and in life, is simply to explore why we’re here.”