RANGELEY — Several hundred Rangeley residents were hardly surprised to hear that Ashley Gray took the world championship woodcarving title at the Ward Wildfowl Art Championships of 2012.

After all, Gray bought his first carving knife at Scribner’s Hardware in Rangeley in 1978 when he was 7 years old. He took it back to his family’s cabin on Long Pond and carved a totem pole about a foot high.

“It makes you wonder how these things are destined,” Gray said.

Those Rangeley fans hosted a huge reception and cookout to honor the artist on Memorial Day, where his award-winning sculpture, “Timeless Pursuit,” was on display in the town gazebo.

An intensely spiritual person, though not, as he says, a “Bible-thumper,” Gray feels his strongest connection to his family, and an almost Native-American connection to nature. The combination has produced some of his most powerful work.

When Gray’s mother, Hannah, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2010, he was already at work on a large block of tupelo gum, roughing out a great blue heron. Devastated by Hannah’s death in 2011, Gray turned the heron project into a tribute to his mother. He titled it “ Hannah’s Setting Sun,” and its grief and beauty communicated powerfully to all who saw it, for although it took second place in the 2011 Ward Championships, the public voted it the People’s Choice award.

Though a Rangeley resident for the past nine years, Gray is a native of Maryland, and his laid-back accent lets you know that his home town of Poolesville is just a ferry ride away from Leesburg, Va.; he counts the Lees of Virginia among his ancestors.

“I can’t say enough about my family,” Gray said. “They raised me to be honorable, to be a gentleman, and not to be afraid of doing what I wanted to do.”

From that first totem pole, Gray’s path led directly to woodcarving. His father’s friend, John May, gave a carving kit to Gray’s father who passed it on to his son. Ashley Gray used it to carve his first decoy.

“Some of our family friends were Mr. and Mrs. Frost. I sat on his lap as he carved a loon, and I was in awe. He told me to keep whittling!” Gray said.

“Decoys are the oldest American art form,” Gray continued at his studio in Rangeley last week as he worked on a Goldeneye in a courting pose for a prestigious decoy auction in Portsmouth, N.H.

In his junior and senior years of high school, Gray was named the best art student in Maryland, and used the prize money after graduation to study with renowned artist Larry Lucio in Mount Brydges, Ontario.

“I spent two years in Ontario as part of his family. His plan was to break me down, hard. I’d been told all my life I was great, but he broke me down and built me back up — it was almost a Zen process. He’s not a sculptor, but he told me that if I could understand the color wheel it would make me a great sculptor.”

When Gray paints his woodcarvings, the subtle juxtaposition of similar shades and contrasting tones on the meticulously crafted surface textures makes the end result glow and shimmer with a depth that draws the viewer in.

Answering the call of a different wild, Gray headed west to Montana, where he did design work for Big Sky Carvers for four years, and showed his own work in galleries in Montana and in Sedona, Ariz.

“While I was there,” Gray said, “a guy from Black Dog Productions got in touch and said they needed canoes for a TV history show on Lewis and Clark. They had found some large cottonwood trees on a local ranch, and my crew and I felled them, dressed the logs, and crafted the dugouts the old way, building a fire down the length of the log and scraping out the ash. I tried to make them more pleasing to the eye, more theatrical you might say. I also custom built the trailer that carried them, and when we got to the river we held our breath, but they balanced right and went off like a champ. I went to the premiere in Bozeman, and you might still see the series on the History Channel.”

After four years and a divorce in the West, Gray came home for his dad’s 60thbirthday, and decided he had to come to Rangeley. He started up a metal roofing company, which he has kept going for some years, but now he’s working toward going back to art full time.

“Rangeley has been good to artists,” Gray said, “and has brought a different perspective to my designs. I’m doing not just sculpture, but painting, and custom furniture. One of my big canvases is right next door in the Corner Side Restaurant, opposite the bar. And I’d like to go into bronze casting, like Donatello, my favorite sculptor.”

The future may include opening a school in Rangeley where people can study both additive and subtractive sculpture, in clay and wood.

“Its hard to predict what you’re going to do next as an artist,” Gray said, “but I’ll be taking the obvious and pushing it. I told my dad, I don’t know what it is, but since Mom passed away I’ve become a better artist in so many ways. You’re more open to spiritual connections when you’re hearing with your heart.”

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