Perched on a grassy outcrop surrounded by stone, the young woman is breaking free. Captured in mid-action, she’s busting out of her old body, shedding, shattering and shaking off 10 limbs that are no longer needed. Crumbling arms that seem to be carved from granite arc through the air. Perhaps she’s sloughing off the cycle of creation and carnage embodied by the many-limbed Kali, or maybe she’s emerging like a butterfly from a cocoon. The woman looks up, but it’s hard to read her emotions. She is open, questioning and peaceful, but not quite serene. She may be divine.
The woman is the focus of “12 Limbs,” a digital painting created by Charlotte-based artist and musician Lena Gray, who identifies as Black, transgender and feminine. Gray has been making art for as long as she can remember, but three years ago she started drawing on her skills as a graphic designer to create digital art that provides empowering images of trans people of color — depictions that are so often absent in popular media.
“At the heart of my art, I want people to feel like they belong,” Lena Gray says. “I want to normalize different types of bodies and people.”
The poised, indomitable figure in “12 Limbs” is different from most characters depicted in fine art, comics and movies. She bears a striking resemblance to the artist, as do the subjects of many of Gray’s works. But she says the figures are not her.
“Each character is modeled after me, but I don’t think of them as myself,” Gray offers. “I like using my own face and body because it helps me stay grounded.”
Like several of the characters in her art, the woman in “12 Limbs” is a divine symbol of healing, Gray says. “A lot of art representing marginalized people tends to focus on trauma, but it’s also important to depict liberation.”
Art imitates life, life is art
Now 34 years old, Gray grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia. When she was still a baby, her family moved to Newport News, located at the mouth of the James River feeding into Chesapeake Bay. To all outward appearances, Gary was a cis male child, youngest of four brothers. Even then, however, she felt different from her friends without understanding why.
At this time, art also entered Gray’s life. She cites comic books and her mother as key influences in the development of her approach to character, composition and subject matter. Of the two, the influence of Gray’s mother, Nikki, has been most profound. A sculptor and painter in her own right, Nikki created art to empower marginalized people.
“My mother taught me the value of finding beauty within ourselves and expressing it,” Gray remembers.
When she moved with her family to Tallahassee, Florida, at age 8, Gray found that her art and identity became inextricably entwined. She wanted to see imagery of people like herself.
Later, when people looked at her art and started to identify with her goals, Gray grasped the importance of being herself — but that revelation lay in the future. In the meantime, she explored other creative avenues in addition to drawing and painting. Gray began to write stories in which she imagined herself as a different person.
At Lawton Chiles High School in Tallahassee, Gray took a class that showed her how to create images in Photoshop. This sparked an interest in creating digital graphics. After graduating high school, Gray attended Radford University in Radford, Virginia, where she earned a degree in graphic arts.
Although Gray ultimately decided that graphic design was not her desired path, she has freelanced in the past, creating designs for an array of clients including Richmond-based market Ellwood Thompson; Carrboro tattoo and piercing shop Naiad Craftworks; and Astral Well, a monthly installment of guided meditations featuring astrology and tarot.
Ten years ago, Gray also started playing guitar. At that time, music was not a serious vocation, she recalls. Like her art, it was a private pastime. Both art and music became tools for processing her anxiety, which subsided slightly in 2013, when she made her first transgender friend.
“We weren’t close, but just being around him gave me a lot of perspective,” Gray says.
Through mutual friends, she became aware of other people starting to come out as trans. She also began to feel drawn to Charlotte. She started visiting one of her older brothers who lives in the Queen City. One trip she remembers vividly included a stop at The Milestone Club to see Xiu Xiu, then her favorite band, play a gig supporting their 2008 album Women as Lovers.
Meeting other transgender people prompted Gray to transition in 2016.
“My parents didn’t know what to think at first,” Gray says, noting that a lot of her parents’ fears stemmed from concerns for their daughter’s safety. “They didn’t want me to be in danger. That was their main motivation for wanting to discourage me. They didn’t realize it wasn’t a choice.”
The artist came out as transgender in 2017 and moved to Charlotte that same year. Today, she says she enjoys the full support of her family.
Once ensconced in Charlotte, Gray delved back into music-making. She began experimenting with a looper pedal that allowed her to layer melodies on top of one another. Gray started playing ambient music as a nightly ritual to help soothe her anxiety. She also continued to pursue digital painting in private. Soon, her art would go public.
“I started sharing my art three years ago,” Gray remembers. “I had a table with some of my prints at a small event that a lot of people came to.”
Some trans customers came to the table and purchased some pieces. Gray was excited to find buyers, but even happier to connect with so many trans people.
Once something she needed to do for herself to explore and express feelings that enabled her to deal with her gender transition, Gray’s art became something far bigger. Her works became an avenue of representation, not just for herself but for other trans people. She realized that voices like hers were not being heard.
Gray began exhibiting in 2019. She’s been featured as an artist in local shows including Born This Way at Canvas Tattoo and Transgender Day of Remembrance events, Girls Rock Charlotte’s Femme at Five event, Goodyear Arts’ Hilites Fest II, Charlotte Pride Spring Spotlight and more.
In May 2021, Gray contributed a piece to Match Studio Collaborative’s Advocacy as Art show. The artwork touched on the dark side of being trans — being depressed, afraid and feeling like you have no support.
“It feels like you’re underwater,” Gray says.
So, she created a piece that depicted hands pulling someone out of the water. She chose the grassroots nonprofit Trans Lifeline as the recipient of all funds raised by her work. Trans Lifeline hosts a hotline and allocates microgrants to trans people in crisis.
“It’s important to me to help these people,” she says. “I’ve had struggles with suicidal ideation for my whole life up until the last few years.”
For Lena Gray, her art is advocacy, and it’s important that her work offers a monetary as well as metaphoric helping hand.
“I want my art to uplift people,” she says. “It’s not just to help me pay the bills.”rans
Digital painting is an emerging art form in which traditional painting techniques such as watercolor, oils, impasto, etc. are applied using digital tools by means of a computer, a graphics tablet and software. To create a digital painting, Gray starts with sketches and photos, using herself as a model in various poses. In terms of visuals, she’s drawn to Christian imagery because she feels it’s ingrained in our culture.
“I’m not necessarily religious, but I like the meaning and weight that comes with that imagery,” she says. “I build upon that.”
In 2019, Gray created a series of paintings depicting trans saints. The sequence illustrates her goal of creating art that subverts existing iconography to a new narrative — a story about empowering trans people of color.
Peppered with arrows, St. Sebastian is reimagined as a transmasculine angel. In the digital painting entitled “Sacred Heart,” a trans woman cradles the titular heart, a Catholic symbol for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In “The Seven Sorrows,” a trans woman is pierced by seven swords symbolizing the seven sorrows of Mary — a series of trials and tragedies that includes both the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
Several of the saints depicted are martyrs, reflecting the high rate of violent death among transgender people, particularly trans women of color. In April, the Human Rights Commission reported at least 14 transgender or gender non-conforming people violently killed in the U.S in 2021. The death toll includes two Black transgender women murdered in April in Charlotte.
“One of the hardest things about existing as a Black trans woman is dealing with all the death that I see,’ Gray says.
Art as advocacy
Another digital painting from 2019, called “Duality,” depicts two identical trans women standing on either side of a column of light in all the colors of the rainbow. When she created the dual portrait, Gray says she was starting to feel connected to her body for the first time.
“It’s very much about trans joy,” she says.
Her “12 Limbs” painting stemmed from a desire to explore more positive things after depicting so many martyrs. The painting is also influenced by the late French fantasy artist Jean Giraud. Under the pseudonym Mœbius, Giraud garnered worldwide acclaim for his work in comics and the design elements he contributed to movies like Alien, The Fifth Element and Tron.
“[Mœbius] creates these elaborate worlds that feel strange, majestic and comforting,” Gray says.
In “Preceptor,” a work dating to August 2020, a figure that looks like Gray appears to be making tai chi moves. Her eyes are all white, without irises or pupils. The painting is about wisdom and guidance, Gray says.
“I chose to make [the character] look demonic because of how much LGBTQ liberation is demonized,” she says. “Feeling that stigma makes me want to embrace that imagery and subvert it into something positive.”
Swathed in serpents, a winged dark angel drips blood from its taloned hand in a recent work from February 2021. The symbolism, Gray says, is unplanned.
“That one is pulled from my subconscious,” she says. “I had the saints in mind, but I wanted to do the opposite, [but] I still wanted it to have a sense of power.”
Gray’s most recent work is called “Trans People Are Sacred.” It depicts a person in a red cloak walking away from the viewer. There are monuments on either side of the figure — nude classical-style statues of trans people.
Gray says she has encountered anti-trans prejudice, some of it stemming from the assumption that being trans is her entire identity. Gray counts several incidents where she has felt unsafe. Sexual harassment is all too common. Because Gray has depicted figures nude to illustrate they are transgender or non-binary, she’s heard from people who eroticize and fetishize trans bodies.
“I used to do a lot more nudity [in my art],” Gray explains. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that without having people … send me nude pictures unsolicited, or share inappropriate stuff.”
In general, Gray feels safer now than ever before because she has experienced solidarity with other queer and trans people and their allies.
A musical career progresses
Along with her art, Gray’s music has also blossomed. Encouraged by a friend to take her music public, she plays guitar and keyboards as well as synthesizers and samplers that she programs.
“That allows me to do stuff with drones and have a fuller sound,” Gray says.
Her discography includes the dark synthwave albums Sheliah Court (September 2019), Bloom (March 2020) and Wrapped in Flesh (October 2020). She describes the latest as anti-fascist black metal, but it is so much more.
Gray’s music — mystical, dark, romantic and angry — can be heard on a bill that includes Alex Lippert, Leo Wulf and Sweet Boy for a night of experimental electronic music on Nov. 27 at Petra’s.
On songs like “Blue Curses,” an ethereal synthesizer build-up is shattered by Gray’s macabre and breathy black metal scream, buried in the mix beneath stuttering machine gun drums that suggest the staccato work of German free jazz band leader Peter Brötzmann.
On “Violent Harm Reduction,” an ominous, slowly building horror soundtrack chord is torn to tatters by roaring guitar. With wailing siren-like synths and lyrics conveyed in a growling goblin whisper, “Bombingham” references a nickname for Birmingham, Alabama, a city that witnessed a series of bombings carried out by white supremacists during the civil rights movement.
“I was drawn to black metal because I feel like it’s a good medium to make music about injustice,” Gray says. At the same time, she is also proficient at playing the kind of ambient electronic music she’s used to sooth her anxiety.
“I want a balance of the two, where parts are really heavy, but it’s not bleak and making people lose hope,” she says.
At present, Grays music trends darker and more aggressive than her digital paintings, which uplift and celebrate trans and non-binary people. Gray believes that despite the difference in approaches between her music and art, both balance each other and are compatible.
“I want the overall message and intent of both my art and music to be hopeful,” Gray says. “At the end of the day, I want people to feel like we can make a difference.”