By LYDIA BERGLAR
Walking into Christina McAnally Gray’s Lookout Mountain garage apartment is like walking into a peaceful beachside cottage. Shelves and tables are covered with seashells, sea glass, and found bits of trash turned into treasure. Art (both Gray’s art and pieces by other artists she admires) decorate her walls. The atmosphere is relaxing, creative, and filled with Gray’s desire to honor Christ.
While the artist’s life is now a story of redemption, 35 years of it were filled with addiction. In February 2024, Gray will be ten years sober, but she described her younger self, saying, “When I graduated high school in Dade County in 1985, I was the girl in the White Snake jacket with the pink hair, smoking Marlboro Reds and pot and selling drugs, and everyone knew it.”
Gray’s great-grandparents lived on Mount Olive Road on the mountain, not far from where she now lives, but she grew up in a broken home and moved around a lot, even spending some time in Europe. She explained, “I started drinking daily while in Europe when I was 13. That led to a 35-year addiction with alcohol and painkillers.”
Throughout her years trapped in addiction, Gray felt that she needed men to take care of her, explaining, “I went from home to husband to husband to boyfriend. I felt like I could not take care of myself. I didn’t know how.” Because of this, being able to support herself fully through her artwork now is all the more empowering to Gray.
After a divorce, Gray moved to California where her story of renewal began to be realized. Gray wanted to get away from the old haunts and habits in the north Georgia and Chattanooga areas, and one of her two children (her daughter) serves in the Navy and was stationed in San Diego. Gray began nannying her three grandchildren and other children.
While she was not using substances at this time, Gray said she had not yet recovered. “I had stopped drinking and stopped using, but I hadn’t died to self yet. I went to a church service at a recovery church, the Good Shepherd in San Marcos, and I wanted what the people there had. Not only were they sober, they were saved and so joyous and free. You can stop drinking and using, but addiction is a spiritual problem, so logic tells you that the solution is also spiritual. You need a higher power.”
She explained that while she had tried multiple rehab programs and a variety of tactics to beat addiction, she had not experienced spiritual renewal or put in the effort needed to succeed. Three key components merged at the same time to change her life: God’s intervention, a community of faithful Christians, and Gray’s own hard work.
The priest at Gray’s Anglican church told her, “Just keep coming back. Keep suiting up and showing up, whether you feel like it or not. Keep coming to the meetings.” She got a sponsor and attended every meeting, study group, and workshop. In her words, “You must be all in if you really want recovery. Jesus is the way, but you must do the work and you must get to the root of the problem of why you began to drink and use drugs in the first place. Now, I have tools and a wonderful sponsor and several wonderful mentors.”
Gray is quick to note the importance of good community, especially when fighting addiction. “The people at Good Shepherd took me in, and they weren’t afraid to call me out on anything that was ungodly. God removed all the friends I didn’t need and replaced them with Christian women in particular.”
During this season, Gray often went to the beach. She said, “That’s where the Lord met me, on the beach in San Diego. Nature is healing. Salt water is healing. Putting your feet in the dirt is grounding. I think God intended it to be that way. I would talk to Him and didn’t really know who I was talking to, but things started happening. I started noticing shells, sea glass, driftwood. I started bringing things home, even keeping the garbage.”
One day while reading Exodus 31:1-11, (a Bible passage in which God talks about giving certain Israelites the gift of craftsmanship to be used for His glory), Gray felt and even heard a strong call from the Lord. She immediately went to the nearest craft store, walked to the jewelry aisle, and asked a fellow customer how to make jewelry out of sea glass. That night, by looking at YouTube tutorials and experimenting, she made a pendant.
She posted a photo of the sea glass necklace on Facebook and awoke the next morning to a hundred messages from people who wanted to buy sea glass jewelry. For the next six months, she nannied, hunted at the beach, created jewelry, and sold her pieces. She recalled, “I wrapped sea glass with wire until my fingertips nearly bled. I knew I was doing the right thing.”
Now, she was able to provide for herself while also contributing something beautiful to the world. She reflected, “I realized I could be a productive member of society. I’d lived on the fringes for so long and been a criminal. If I wanted something, I took it or teased it from my husband, boyfriend, or a friend. I didn’t know any other way. Looking back, God was showing me, ‘You can provide for myself. You do not need to be in an unhealthy relationship in order to have food, clothing, shelter, and water. I will provide these things for you. I’m going to show you that you have value and worth.’ He spoke to me profoundly.”
Gray eventually switched from jewelry to assemblage art after making a bird with three little birds (signifying her grandchildren) for her daughter. Friends on social media loved the piece and wanted ones like it. Assemblage art is all about using broken pieces and discarded trash to make new creations. Gray said, “Just like the sea glass and these broken things that we pick up on the beach, you can put them back together in new and beautiful ways, kind of like the Lord does with us.”
Today, Gray’s work hangs in homes and centers across the world, including places like the Maui Ocean Center. “Beachcombing Magazine” featured her in 2019, calling her work ecological art because she uses garbage in her pieces and cleans the beaches while collecting.
Last year, the magazine wrote another feature about a book collaboration between Silke Stein and Gray. Stein, a Canadian poet, reached out to Gray about a three-part book series using Stein’s poetry and photos of Gray’s work. The first is called, “The Sea Glass Sisterhood,” the second is “Girls Who Comb the Shore,” and the third is upcoming.
Gray has also gotten into mudlarking (scavenging in rivers for valuable objects) and dump digging (excavating old garbage dumps to find objects that are often antiques) to find interesting objects for her art. She has a wealth of knowledge about relics from ships, glass factories, and other bits of history because of her adventures.
Over the past decade, Gray worked to repair relationships and make amends. In her words, “I cleared the wreckage from my past. I accept full responsibility for the choices I made. My relationships have been restored, and they’re even better than I could have ever hoped for. I gave people the apologies they deserved, and now I’m living out my amends. God is a god of restoration, and He’s proven that to me.”
Two years ago, Gray moved back to Dade County to be closer to her son and daughter-in-law, saying, “I felt like I owed it to myself to come home and give this a try, supporting myself solely off art.” She began visiting churches, eventually making her home at Our Lady of the Mount on Lookout Mountain. One of the first churches she visited was Trenton Ministry Center where she learned about A Hand Up Ministry’s Hope House, a ministry she loves.
Due to back injuries and surgeries, Gray can’t hunt right now, but people from all across the world have reached out on social media to give her items they’ve collected. For both her work and her journey to sobriety, Gray said, “I cannot stress enough how I did not do this alone. It was the people the Lord brought into my life.”
Also due to issues with her back, Gray isn’t able to sell at art shows and festivals, but social media is all that she’s needed to be successful. She posts photos on her personal Instagram and Facebook pages as well as in two Facebook groups: Sea Glass Lovers and 716 Beach Glass Girls. She reported, “Around 75,000 people see each post, and my pieces usually sell the day I post them.”
If interested in seeing or purchasing her art, friend her on Facebook (Christina McAnally Gray) or Instagram (@bornagainbits). Art is shown by appointment only.
Gray continually thanks the Lord for both her recovery and her life as an artist, saying, “The most important thing in my life is my faith. Without Christ, none of this would be possible.”