Kathryn Taylor Gray
article by LAURA CASON / photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Before 2009, Kathryn Taylor Gray could be found signing and sorting legal documents for the law offices in Mississippi where she worked full time as a legal assistant for 34 years. When we first get on the call, Kathryn jokes that she moved away from her Louisiana roots “Way, way, way before you were born” in a genial southern accent. Transplanted to the Mississippi gulf coast in 1975 from the small, rural, farming community of Start, Louisiana, which can be found (if you know where to look) about twenty minutes east of Monroe along I-20, Kathryn, like so many of us, found her life brought to a screeching halt by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Living in the Gulfport, MS, area at the time, Kathryn remembers, “I had no inkling I was going to stop making photography, and then I found those keys.” In the midst of the devastation she found herself wandering about the ruins of our collective history and stumbled upon some rusty old keys when inspiration struck. “I thought these would make some cool jewelry. There was so much chaos here and so much stuff everywhere that it helped me to make some kind of sense out of it, if I could create something out of the junk,” Kathryn tells me. She cites local artist Lori Gordon, who was based out of Bay St. Louis, MS, in 2006 as a source of inspiration for her. After Katrina, Gordon made several mixed media installations using larger debris from the hurricane in the work she is most widely known for, “The Katrina Collection.” “I wanted to do something like that on a small scale,” Kathryn explains.
Found objects have always been a fascination for her. Whether it be old transit tokens, Girl Scout pins, rusty keys, or vintage bottle caps, Kathryn has a certain talent for creating the extraordinary out of the everyday chaff of life. “I am a collector of odds and ends, bits of evidence of moments past. My work is a response to the quality of these things and to the associations they may evoke.” Each piece she creates breathes new life into dusty, simple treasures. Kathryn reimagines each found object as part of an entirely new piece while remembering its history. The life it had before, the place it existed, the memories it holds are honored in her refashioning of it for use and display again. She is a kind of herald of admiration and worth to the beauty of the unnoticed and overlooked. “I’d say I am a lover of all things old, rusty, used, found, played with and loved,” Kathryn explains in her artist statement. “I love anything created with junk,” Kathryn tells me on the phone, and in the destruction Katrina brought, she found herself immersed in it.
“I’m always looking for new things. I have enough stuff right now to make jewelry for the rest of my life but yet, I continue to buy more stuff!” She describes the process of seeking materials as “harvesting.” Estate sales, antique stores, ebay, thrift shops, flea markets, and garage sales are prime hunting grounds for a fresh crop. Kathryn tells me she loves collecting old tins (“like Grandma used to keep her buttons in”) to cut and fashion earrings out of because of their light weight and bright patterns and transit tokens because they are little pieces of history and they make great cufflinks. The feeling of nostalgia permeates her work, as she calls upon her childhood memories for inspiration, she invites her customers into their own.
Kathryn remembers her childhood in Start fondly. “I’m a proud small town girl,” she tells me. She graduated from Start High School before moving to Ruston, LA, to attend Louisiana Tech University, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Business in 1975. “I always wanted to go to Tech,” she says, “and they offered me the best financial aid.” Growing up, Kathryn had a passion for art. “As I say, I was an artist in my soul.” She remembers drawing constantly as a child, and she competed in the National Library drawing contests where she often placed. “That reinforced me, you know? When you win a ribbon you’re like, ‘Well, I’m an artist!’” In the ‘80s, Kathryn took up painting, experimenting with watercolors for a few years. In the early ‘90s, she began working with photography, focusing mainly on mixed media collages for the next twenty years before she transitioned to making jewelry in 2005.
Once Kathryn retired in 2009 from her position as a legal assistant, she was able to devote herself full-time to being an artist and jeweler. “I like working with my hands,” she explains when talking about the transition from photography to jewelry and what drew her to this new avenue of creation. Kathryn says it’s different from the other forms of art she’s worked with because “jewelry is such a personal thing because you’re wearing it on your body, I mean it’s hanging on your body. It’s not like it’s hanging on a wall, you know? So you have to really like something in order to hang it on your body.” It is especially gratifying for her to see her work bring people joy and be worn all over the world. “Art opens up people’s minds and gives them something bigger to think about” she tells me. “I do think I have a role to play in that.”
The importance of art in her own life was highlighted by the COVID-19 lockdown. “In the last year when we were all at home so much, I would say to myself, ‘I don’t know what I’d be doing with myself if I were not an artist, if I were not creating something.’ It just gave me, even more so, a sense of purpose and peacefulness. If I’m ever upset about something, I can just go sit down at my jewelry table and lose myself for a few hours.” In fact, the arts seem to have been the saving grace for many this year. They have provided an escape from the isolation and hopelessness that emanates from living through a global pandemic.“You lose yourself in the creation process,” Kathryn agrees. In a society, that seems to value science and math over art, this past year has been eye opening about the things that truly last. “Science and all that is very important, but when you go looking for civilization that’s gone, what do you find? You find pieces of art. You find pottery. That’s all that’s left of them,” Kathryn tells me. “Art is really the only thing that lasts.”
The main platform Kathryn uses to display and sell her work is her Etsy shop, NooBoo Designs, which she opened in 2006 just one year after Etsy first launched its platform. Through her online shop she’s been able to build up clientele over the years, with several regular customers. Kathryn says her market is generally southern women like herself who find her jewelry as fun and whimsical as she does. And whimsical is the word for it; inviting people to reminisce is one of her main joys. “I want to make people laugh. We need to laugh more,” she says. Kathryn’s fun loving personality and southern heritage shine through her pieces. Whether it be her vintage S&H green stamp earrings or a bracelet made from old monopoly properties, she tells me, “I try to make them funny if I can. People get a kick out of things from their childhood.”
While there is almost certainly a piece for everyone in the 159 items listed on her shop, you can also order commissions or custom work through her Etsy page. One woman sent her a whole box of her grandmother’s old vintage jewelry which she transformed into several updated necklaces. In 2014, Kathryn received a commission for a special necklace to be given to Tony Award-winning Broadway costume designer Linda Cho on the opening night of A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love & Murder to commemorate the play by a personal friend. Kathryn read the entire script of the play before deciding how she could best memorialize it in the commissioned necklace. Linda reportedly loved the piece and the woman who commissioned it sent Kathryn a picture of her wearing it on opening night. “That was my one tiny claim to fame,” she laughs.
Whether you buy one of her handmade pieces online or commission something uniquely your own, you can count on getting something one of a kind and crafted with care. “Jewelry makes people happy,” Kathryn tells me. “I love what I do.” And clearly, people can tell. Her Etsy shop, which can be reached at the link www.nooboo.etsy.com, has been very successful. She has accrued more than 1700 sales and 645 reviews averaging a five-star rating from very satisfied customers. While perusing her merchandise, be sure to check out a few of my favorite pieces: the ‘Milk and Honey’ earrings made with brass beadcaps, antique brass wires, vintage dairy tokens, antique brass bees, and vintage pearls; the ‘Desire’ cufflinks made with authentic vintage New Orleans Streetcar tokens; and the ‘I Do’ earrings made with vintage rhinestones, vintage pearls, silver plated spoons, sterling silver wires. Kathryn’s jewelry is also available at two physical storefronts on the gulf coast. The Art House Art Gallery, an artist co-op, and Coastal Magpie, an eclectic antique and gift shop, are both located in Ocean Springs, MS, just across the bay from Biloxi. Be sure to stop by while you’re in the area for a chance to meet the artist herself on your way to the beach.
To purchase Kathryn Taylor Gray’s jewelry, visit www.nooboo.etsy.com or stop by The Art House Art Gallery at 921 Cash Alley in Ocean Springs, MS or Coastal Magpie at 918 Washington Avenue in Ocean Springs.