Matt and Amy Gray’s
Iris Garden Gallery

by Rachel Perry

When visitors walk into the Iris Garden Gallery, the first painting they face shows layered blue hills in a horizontal landscape. A framed reproduction of an oil painting by nationally known Tennessee artist Jim Gray, the image could easily be a view from Kelley Hill in Brown County. The similarity is no coincidence.

Proprietor Matt Gray, who happens to be Jim Gray’s son, grew up near Gatlinburg, and has owned art galleries for most of his life. When visiting in-laws in Columbus, Indiana, the attraction to Nashville was a natural. He saw the Art Barn complex for sale last year and jumped at the opportunity. “I really love Nashville,” he declared. “The people have been embracing. I wish I’d come here a lot earlier.”

Rummaging through piles of bubble wrap and boxes, Matt apologizes to curious visitors who wander in to have a look at the art. “Pardon the mess. A lot of shipments are arriving now. We’re still in transition,” he explains. “We were open last fall and only a little while in January. Next winter we will be open all year.”

Keeping some of the artists who were already being represented, Matt is expanding previously underutilized space in order to increase the number of artists in the gallery. In addition to flat art, the gallery sells pottery and art glass. “Right now I have 45 different artisans,” he said. “Some of the pieces are on commission, but I purchase most of the pieces outright.”

Many of the artists are well known in this area, according to Matt, and many are from Indiana. “I love the fact that we are in an area that is filled with a tremendous amount of talent. It gives a great source to pull from. But just because something isn’t from here, I’m not going to turn it down,” he explained. “If I really love it and if it happens to be from another state, I’m going to carry it still. If it conveys the same look or the tone that I try to express in the gallery, I’m going to represent it in the gallery.

“I always enjoy seeing new artists. People ask, ‘How do we possibly get in the gallery?’ and I always give an audience to an artist. You never know what’s going to be presented to you. So I’m certainly interested in any artist—especially area artists—that would like to display their work here. I’m bringing this gallery to a new higher echelon and I’m certainly interested in seeing what they have. If it fits into the tone that we keep in the gallery and if we have room for it, we’ll consider it.”

“I’m trying a few different things with this gallery than I’ve had in previous galleries,” he continued, gesturing toward a stand of several long poles topped with pottery torches. The outdoor lighting devices use lamp oil for fuel and are designed to be wedged into the ground anywhere desired.

Other unique items include glass art that incorporates seashells and iridescent Raku pottery. “Raku is an old Chinese technique,” Gray explained. “They actually fire the pots to about 1200 degrees, pull them out individually from the firing and put them into what they call a Raku pit. The pit will typically have wood shavings and wood chips and sometimes straw. When the pot is introduced into the pit, it erupts into flames. It’s really a visually exciting process! The artists are working very quickly as the piece is going down through the temperature range. These pieces (displayed in the gallery) have a copper glaze. Raku artists who know their stuff can gage what’s happening on the surface of the pot and trap it in the temperature that produces the look they want.”

Last fall, the Iris Garden Gallery hosted Raku artists who demonstrated their techniques using a pit right outside the gallery. “I’ll be doing that again this year,” Matt said. “I’ll be trying to bring in as many artists as possible to do demonstrations.”

“We’re in transition on the property itself,” he added. “We’ll be re-facing the buildings and incorporating green spaces in the common area out front.” The Iris Garden designation was taken from the original name of the cottages surrounding the gallery. The Grays continue to rent four cottages, ranging from one to four bedrooms. But they should not be confused with bed and breakfast units. “I’m not quite the cook,” Matt laughed.

He also mentioned the possibilityy of putting a sculpture studio in the back corner. A sculptor in addition to being a businessman, Matt Gray works in wax, clay and wood, primarily creating wildlife pieces. “I hope to find time to get back to my passion,” he said.

Matt’s wife, Amy, and two children, Josie and Tanner, will be moving from Pensacola, Florida as soon as school is out. “I’ve not had much time off to really get out and enjoy my new surroundings,” Matt says of Brown County, “but as soon as my family is here we’ll be out and about exploring these beautiful rolling hills.” The family will be looking for a permanent home in Nashville.

In the meantime, other family members are supporting the new gallery in their own ways. “Amy’s family in Columbus has been a wonderful help in many ways and my Dad called me up the other day and said that he’s coming out with a new fine art print called ‘The Iris Garden,’” Matt Gray smiled. “He said this painting is of irises in a natural setting and thought the name would be appropriate.” Matt explains that he is very proud of his father’s work and having a print edition named the same as his gallery is “just kind of a neat thing.” In the month of May the suitability of the name will be even more obvious—iris bulbs are planted throughout the property.

The Iris Garden Gallery and Nightly Rentals are located at 79 North Van Buren Street in Nashville. To reach Matt Gray call 812-988-2422 or e-mail: <>.