Gay Speirbhain has traveled all over, in both location and imagination. A Tennessee native and 50-year resident of New Mexico, Gay has made a delightful addition to Paducah’s creative community. But don’t let her southern charm fool you. She offers something more than a pleasant chat on the front porch and a tall glass of lemonade. She is as colorful in her folk art as she is at enchanting audiences with the stories she tells about her life growing up in the south and tales of her adventures as an artist living out west.
Gay has spent the last 50 years weaving together enchanting stories of her experiences through both visual and spoken word art. She is a folk artist who paints vivid images, often with religious themes, adding just enough text to intrigue or inspire her audiences.
Each piece Gay creates sparks something unique in her viewers. For some, it is the bright color with which Gay paints that moves them to experience an emotion of delight and blissful extravagance. In others, a few simple words painted on the canvas may evoke a childlike innocence and emotion that they can’t explain in their own words. And when that happens, they must (and do) purchase the art that so inspired their hearts.
Gay’s work captivates the imaginations of those who view her art, inviting them into a new and often playful reality.
“I find so much beauty in listening to people’s stories and in telling those stories to others,” Gay says. “I see things in people that they often don’t see in themselves.”
Those stories are given life on canvas and on paper. Sitting in Gay’s studio, listening to her read from a collection of stories, you find yourself transported, sometimes to a world of joy and peace and other times to a world laced with sadness.
As many artists will tell you, it is often through great pain that great work is produced. Gay, like most people, she insists, has had her fair share of disappointment and heartache. It is those experiences that have inspired the art she paints and writes today.
“Life is painful, but it’s also magical,” she says. “A good friend of mine once told me to ‘stop crying and start painting.’ So that’s what I did.”
Gay is more than just a folk artist. She spent many years working as a model in New York City. It was through that experience that she learned what it is to draw an audience into a work of art.
She spent twenty years living with Native Americans in New Mexico, absorbing many of their traditions and adopting their spirit. They named her Sky Woman, an appropriate name for a woman who seems able to fly away into a magical world of bliss at any moment.
She has also been a frequent guest speaker at the University of New Mexico and Murray State University. So popular was she with a group of aerospace students, that, in 2004 her name was written on the seat of a plane that was sent into space.
She’s also looking forward to a visit, this summer, from Cincinnati filmmaker, Michael Abitz, who will include Gay in his upcoming documentary.
“All of my experiences have contributed to the person I am today. They have fed my spirit; they have fed me,” she says.
Gay loves working with children and spends her afternoons teaching private lessons to a small group of young people.
“I cannot teach you how to make folk art, but I can teach you the love of it. I can teach you to love the elements of the art,” she says.
There is a freedom in folk art that often doesn’t exist in fine art. There are no rules to prevent the folk artist from crossing new, unexplored boundaries.
“As a folk artist I get the best of both worlds. I can paint it, write it and even misspell it if I feel like it. There are no rules,” Gay says.
Those magical encounters Gay makes with the people, animals and nature that surround her find life, color and texture in all of her work.
She loves the collaboration she has experienced with artisans and artists in Paducah. Her most recent work includes a painting of the archangel Uriel on an old door that has been hinged to an elegant stand melded by a local welder.
“When I was in New Mexico, I was fed by the artists in the community,” Gay says. “I long to see more of that same camaraderie and collaboration develop among the artists here in Paducah.”
Much of Gay’s work is housed in private and corporate collections, including her piece Down to the Bone In Deep Creek and Flying Out Airlines, housed in the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporate collection in Louisville. More of Gay’s work can be found at her blog.