Hazel Louise Thomas Gray (1906-1999), an accomplished painter whose steadfast dedication to art has provided an invaluable legacy in the body of work which she produced throughout her long productive life. Although not widely known as an artist in her time, it is evident from the remarkable cache of paintings found after her death, that she was a serious, and prolific painter. Gray’s husband survived her, and after his death, longtime family friend, E. Thomas Williams was asked to check on the Thomas family home in Brooklyn. Williams, a lover of art, knew Hazel Gray’s work, some of which he had previously acquired for his distinguished collection. He also knew that Gray lived in Sag Harbor during the last years of her life where she continued to paint. He was, therefore, surprised to find a treasure trove of paintings stored in the Thomas’ Brooklyn home. Thanks to E.T. Williams, Hazel Louise Thomas Gray’s life’s work will now get the attention it so richly deserves.
Coming of age in the early twentieth century Gray, like other aspiring African American artists pursued careers that provided some financial security and allowed them to continue their creative development. Like the celebrated artist, Alma Thomas, Hazel Thomas Gray became a teacher. She taught in the New York City school system for forty years. A career as a teacher enabled her not only to share her talent and love of art with thousands of students, but also to study and paint during the summer months. She studied painting at Pratt Institute, The Brooklyn Museum Art School, and with private instructors. When she and her husband, Julius M. Gray began spending summers in Sag Harbor in 1963, Hazel studied at the Art Barge in Napeague.
While Gray did not work exclusively as a painter of still-life, it seemed to have been her major interest. It is difficult to know what sparked her deep interest in still-life painting. It is possible that like her contemporary, painter Lois Mailou Jones, Gray, having grown up in Brooklyn, had the opportunity to spend some of her early summers at Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Jones who grew up in Boston, recalled her delight when seeing Oak Bluffs for the first time:: “The fields of daisies and buttercups, the beauty of the landscape and ocean were overwhelming,” inspiring her to want to paint. Perhaps the island’s natural beauty was also an inspiration to Gray. It is possible that Gray and Jones knew each other as young women, since documents prove that they were often on Oak Bluffs at the same time. The Jones family, and the Shearer family, whose guest house Gray frequented, were two of the earliest African American families to have residences on the Vineyard.
As both women were perfecting their artistic styles, French impressionism was becoming a formidable influence on American art. Lois Mailou Jones was exposed to it firsthand when she went to study in Paris in 1937-1938. Gray would have learned of the style from her teachers, museum exhibitions, and from the work of contemporary artists like Jones. In any event, influence of the French Impressionists is clearly apparent in Gray’s work. In her floral paintings, brush strokes are fluid and relaxed without strictly defined lines and hard edges. Her colors are brilliant and lush. The watercolors are spontaneous, while at the same time they project a feeling of earthiness in their beauty. Gray was able to capture the essence of the flowers, fruit, and ordinary objects that she combined to form her compositions without the super realism seen in the work of some of the earlier painters of still-life subjects whose fidelity to nature was absolute on the other hand, her paintings were new, fresh, and life affirming.
After Gray retired from teaching, she and her husband lived in Sag Harbor year round, enabling her to create these magnificent treasures, which fortunately, are no longer hidden.
Proceeds from sales of the paintings will be contributed to The Hazel Thomas Gray Scholarship Fund through the Brooklyn chapter of The Girl Friends, a social and charitable organization in which Hazel Gray was an active and loyal member for many years.
More images and information available upon request