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Artist Audrey Gray seeks a true blue hue in found pigments 

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When traveling with artist Audrey Gray, expect unplanned stops. She's probably digging for blue. While working on her art degree from Southwestern University near Austin, Texas, Gray started to worry about what was in the paints she was using.

"Traditional paints expose you to a lot of toxins," she claims. "Cadmium, cobalt, turpentine ... your body absorbs all these."

Instead, she paints with found materials, like sticks, rocks, mica, seeds and dirt. She gets a broad range of colors from the mountain laurel seeds native to Texas, for instance. She also uses mustard-yellow sand from Egypt, white volcanic ash from Texas, purple soil from Arizona, and coal dust from the Four Corners.

"The Earth provides many ready-made pigments," she says. But not blue. Not so far, anyway. "I haven't lost all hope, but right now I'm doing it the hard way by mixing. I got the purple on a trip to Arizona, thinking I'd find blue, but ... no. I still need to find it."

Gray, 38, is currently vice president of the Pikes Peak Arts Council, and she's a board member on the Manitou Springs Arts Council. Her artistic streak goes back to making pictures with glue and sand as a child while growing up in Brighton, Colorado. Gray's latest artworks are an offshoot of this, though a bit more complex. She grinds her pigments either by hand, using a mortar and pestle, or with a blender.

"The blender works really well, and is less physically demanding," she explains. "It creates a fine material that is easy to work with." She mixes her materials with wax and linseed oil to create a paste that she then uses as paint and applies to her canvas with her hands. Clear acrylic bonds larger chunks to her paintings.

Technique and methodology came to her while in Austin. She chose to stay there for a while after college to explore the Southwest and discover what she wanted to do as an artist.

"I had to separate what I learned from school — and it was a wonderful education — with what I wanted from my art," she says. Once more interested in abstracts and working with the textures of her materials, Gray is moving toward a representational style.

"I'm doing images of actual places, like bluffs in Utah, a cousin's farm near Mesa Verde and Cheyenne Mountain," she says. "I'm working on Pikes Peak, but I can't nail it down just yet."

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