Waynesville’s Grace Cathey Crafts An Artful Life With Fire And Steel
By Frances Nevill
New book highlights the life and work of local metal artist
If you ask metal artist Grace Cathey about what has made all the difference in her life’s journey of creating art, she simply says, “drive.” She credits talent and creativity as well, however she is the first to say that she has met many artists that she believes are far more creative. It’s her drive, her sheer will to create, that she says makes all the difference in becoming a working artist.
“I couldn’t not do it,” Cathey says. “I believe I was born with a passion to create.”
Her steely combination of artistic vision and a relentless will to see a project to fruition, has resulted in a growing professional career that includes running a full-time gallery, creating numerous public installations and private commissions and the launch of a new book, Fire & Steel, a biographical pictorial of Cathey’s work co-written by Cathey and Sara M. Evans.
Looking back on her childhood, Grace recalls that the exposure she had to art, though not extensive, was just enough to nourish a creative inclination.
“I remember my mother having a painter come into the house and paint a mural on a wall in our playroom that is still there to this day. I also remember doing a lot of paint by numbers and that sort of thing. I was always a creative person. And even though I am the only artist out of seven kids, I’d say all my siblings were creative. In high school, I didn’t have art classes, but I had home economics and I remember really enjoying sewing and cooking and all the creativity that goes with that.”
Grace followed her creative calling and pursued fiber arts and became an accomplished weaver for nearly 15 years. But her calling wasn’t completely fulfilled through the craft of weaving.
“My drive to push forward and improve led me to sign up for a welding class. I thought I would learn something new and create a few Christmas gifts for my family.”
The intimidation that often comes with learning to weld—dodging flying sparks and mastering power tools—was not lost on Cathey.
“I think I would have turned around and left if it wasn’t for my sheer determination. No one spoon feeds welding to you. I can’t tell you how scared I was when those sparks were flying. I couldn’t do it for weeks and then, my drive kicked in and I returned to it and discovered it was really an outlet for this creative-driven soul that I have. If I could accomplish this learning curve I could satisfy that unending quest inside of me to create 3-dimensional art.” Cathey continued with the classes and soon began adapting the techniques to her art.
“I was never mentored by a metal artist. I was just determined to learn to use these tools and keep pushing myself to learn and grow. I think it was perhaps a good thing that I wasn’t mentored by a metal artist because I went about it all learning my own techniques and developing my own style versus trying to copy someone else’s style.”
Interestingly enough, the mentoring Cathey sought was that of local painter Lil Parks.
“Lil is such an accomplished painter and has an amazing talent that I really wanted her critique—good, bad or ugly. I wanted to improve and wanted that feedback.
Cathey has since gone on to run her gallery, housed in an old filling station, in downtown Waynesville’s Frog Level district. Cathey’s public works can be found along the streets of many of western North Carolina’s downtown communities, private collections, and have been featured on HGTV and numerous national magazines.
A new and exciting piece about to be installed pays homage to the Great Smoky Mountains. Wildflowers of the Smokies was commissioned by the Waynesville Public Arts Commission and highlights three wildflowers commonly found in the mountains: Bee Balm, Butterfly Weed and Lady’s Slipper. Each flower sculpture is six feet tall and is a colorful, large-scale representation of the beautiful natural environment of western North Carolina. It was dedicated in September 2013 and can be seen at the Town of Waynesville Mini-Park.
“I hope that when the public views these sculptures that they become a closer observer of nature and maybe the next time they are out on a hike, they might recognize these wildflowers if they don’t already. I hope my art somehow connects people to this incredible environment we live in.”
While working with metal does have its challenges, Cathey sees only the positives.
“Working with metal can be difficult, but I didn’t really look at it as such because I was so happy to be in a medium that was going to release me creatively. The dirt and the challenges didn’t bother me. I just didn’t see it.”
Working in the world of 3-dimensional art satisfies Cathey’s creative soul, but it’s the connection with people that is also part of what has become a rewarding experience.
“I love people and I love a challenge. It’s important that there is an outside world for your art to communicate with and I love art that communicates with people, even if it’s my smallest item in the gallery. It really fills my heart in the same way the large pieces do.”
The mountains of North Carolina also play a huge role in Cathey’s work. She strives to capture the nature and wildlife of the mountains and will continue to do so for many years to come.
“My soul is here and has been since the day I arrived. I knew in my heart I would never leave western North Carolina. This is heaven and it’s God’s country to me. The air is full of art. The lifestyle here is different. One could say it’s a different pace, but I would say it’s not about the speed at which you’re getting from point A to point B. It’s about the transition of getting from those places that matters. The quality of that transition is important. It’s a purposeful lifestyle.”
Fire & Steel, the Sculpture of Grace Cathey can be found in bookstores and online at: GraceCathey.com.
Frances Nevill is a freelance writer who writes about the people and places that make the southeast unique.