There is a curious marriage of hardware and art in New York's A-1 Yorkville locksmith shop at 249 East 77th Street. Bob Gray spends much of his time grinding keys for customers, but behind pick-resistant key cylinders are miniature airplanes and balloons that Gray fashions out of stained glass and sells for as much as $650.
Stained glass is a toilsome medium to master; it was this challenge to his manual dexterity that lured Gray into using glass to make intricate objects in turn-of-the-century style. His planes are reproduced precisely at [1/24] scale. Flyer I was re-created in the same light lime color as Orville Wright's 1903 model and, like the original, has one wing that is slightly shorter to compensate for the weight of the engine and the pilot who lay on the opposite wing. A network of fine brass and copper wires re-create the engine, seat, wheels, propeller and complicated suspension system.
Gray is fascinated with the history behind his fragile creations. Ask about his Bleriot XI. Antoinette and Curtis monoplanes or Farman, Fokker and Wright biplanes, and he will readily scale a ladder for a book to document aviation lore. He talks easily of Louis Bleriot's XI, the first plane to cross the English Channel (July 25, 1909). He explains the sleek, fork-tailed Antoinette, a beautiful craft but one that suffered fuel-injection difficulties resulting in several crash landings in the Channel. Said Gray, "If you have a motorboat that is fuel-injected, you can fool around with it in the water, but a plane is something else." He details the first and historic landing made on a ship (in 1910 by Glenn Curtiss' Golden Flyer).
Now 36, Gray came to his craft and calling in a typically New Yorkish way. When he first arrived in Manhattan from his native Detroit he took acting lessons from Lee Strasberg. "Later," he says, "I realized New York needed more locksmiths than actors. I had to support myself." He began stamping out keys and only a few years ago found his creative outlet.
Gray does not turn a profit from his art. The prices, $350 for planes, $500 to $600 for hot-air and gas balloons, represent a return of $1 per hour for his labor. He has sold only six planes and a replica of a propane balloon that a Texas businessman commissioned. "I am interested in making things that will be passed on, that will live beyond me," Gray says. "And I am happier now than when I was just a locksmith."