by Michael Drury
I met Ray Strong in late December 1970. I was working on a ranch north of Gaviota, painting as I could after work and just about at the end of my resources in terms of becoming a better painter: too far from town to take classes and a little at sea as to what to do with the rest of my life. I was familiar with Ray’s dioramas at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and had recently seen an exhibition of his small paintings of Oregon and Northern California in the mezzanine of the public library. Those little paintings were the most concise and powerful pieces I had seen in a long time, and as I talked about them to a friend, he encouraged me to give Ray a call.
Months later, I did, and on a cold winter afternoon, Ray Strong drove the 50 miles to my little ranch cottage. His big, booming presence was only a little intimidating. We loaded up my box of paints and the rest of my meager kit into his VW bug and headed up the ridge to paint the late afternoon light. As we set up our easels (his, a beautiful French easel spattered in paint; mine, basically three sticks), Ray began to talk about what we were seeing in terms of volume, air, and space. He described the abstract shadow patterns on the hills running below us to the ocean, the color of the water with the winter wind and light on it, the cool values of the islands on the horizon, how the sky determines the overarching tone of the scene, and how to organize all this into a painting. As he spoke, he laid out his palette and began to build a painting of the very values he was describing.
I don’t remember what happened to the one I began that evening. I just knew that, whatever it took, I was going to use the lessons we had discussed back at my house whenever I could. As for Ray, he made a wonderful painting of the canyons in the light and shadow of a December evening. After the sun set, we packed our equipment back in the bug and began the slow drive back to the house. I was awestruck and a little frightened of his enthusiasm when he said to me with great force, “Michael, let’s forget all this lesson stuff. Why don’t we just start painting together?” I must have stumbled out a response. I don’t remember what I said. What I do remember is that I understood I was being offered a great gift.
So I began painting with Ray. This included visits to his house and studio in Santa Barbara, where I was warmly welcomed by his lovely wife Betty, and shared many meals in the country we were painting, made and packed by Betty. These meals were so generously portioned that, after painting all morning, we had to take a nap for an hour or two before getting up and painting until sunset. I was beginning to understand a little bit about painting, and a little more about the life of a painter. Ray’s intellectual curiosity and knowledge about the world of ideas, his voracious appetite, and his great force and power comprised the single big thing that happened to me in those years. I became a painter. Ray gave me the ability to understand the honor and responsibility of such a calling, and the strength to make a life change that would almost guarantee only a small measure of financial success.
On the long trips we took up to the mountains of Big Sur, I learned more about this remarkable man’s life, his commitment to his craft, and his overwhelming generosity of spirit. In late April 1971, we went to Benwitt’s Art Supplies, where he presented me with a new Jullian French Easel. That was 35 years ago. In all those years, Ray has been a steadfast friend, counsel, and mentor. He and Betty offered me their friendship, hospitality, and love. I hope I have been worthy of it. I am grateful and honored to have been part of Ray’s life, and proud to have been his “painting son.” Ray passed across the river on the evening of July 3, in sight and sound of the rushing north fork of the Kaweah River. We are haunted by waters.