by Patrick Davis
On July 4, we learned that Ray Strong had died the previous night. At 101 years old and growing, Ray was still, until very recently, painting up a storm in his studio alongside the Kawea River near the entrance to Sequoia National Park. He had mastered once again the High Sierra clouds and was content in his rustic environment with his daughter Barbara and regular visits that connected him to his beloved Santa Barbara.
Ray’s influence was mythic not just on the arts community, but on this region’s way of seeing and respecting its glorious natural environment. As a born teacher and mentor, Ray instilled in our community a way of experiencing the land, not just viewing it. His visionary teaching of plein air painting and his passion for art and the land have inspired four decades of area artists and helped propel Santa Barbara into the frontlines of the environmental movement. Ray was an artist who believed in action.
Ray arrived in Santa Barbara in 1960 to paint nine dioramas for the Bird Hall at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. He brought his charismatic organizational skills to bear as cofounder of the Santa Barbara Arts Institute in 1965, Gallery 113 in 1973, and the Oak Group in 1985. An outraged witness to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, Ray painted one of his few abstracts — “A Force Gone Wild” — in 1970, depicting the spill and its catastrophic effects on our coast.
Later, as rampant development proposals joined oil giants in repeated assaults on our coast and canyons, Ray, Arturo Tello, Michael Drury, Marcia Burt, Larry and John Iwerks, and a host of others formed the Oak Group. Initially a circling-the-wagons affair, the Oak Group quickly came to symbolize our human response to big oil and the government it owns by making art of endangered landscapes and selling the work to fund land purchase and preservation.
Painter Michael Drury spoke for many people last week when he said about Ray, “He made me understand the honor and privilege involved in being a painter and the responsibility of living intentionally in this world. I have never known anyone who lived his ideals as seamlessly as Ray. Next to my parents, he was the single most important person in my life. He loved us fiercely, and I am proud to have been one of his painting sons (and daughters). We miss him dearly for ourselves, but he certainly deserved to exit this mortal coil. I miss him, I love him, and I will strive to honor his legacy.”
Ray was born January 3, 1905 in Corvallis, Oregon. At age 8, he began painting, later attending the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the Art Students League in New York City. Together with Maynard Dixon, George Post, and Frank Van Sloan, he founded the San Francisco Art Students League, which nurtured aspiring artists like Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange in 1933. Like thousands of artists, Ray and his students were also part of the Roosevelt era Works Progress Administration (WPA) that provided unprecedented public support of the arts across America. An entire generation of artists found a powerful connection between their creative work and global issues of equal justice, economic development, and war and peace through the WPA Federal Arts Project.
Ray liked to tell the story of how he desperately wanted to support the Spanish Republic against the fascist takeover in the late 1930s. It was Ansel Adams who convinced him that he could do more good staying in the United States painting public projects and teaching. From this period, the public can see “The Choice” mural (1938), painted in the style of the great Mexican muralists, which is on loan and installed on the first floor of the County Administration Building on Anapamu Street; “Oh California” (1963) is displayed in the Naomi Schwartz building on Victoria Street; and “Indian Summer” (1991) is in the supervisor’s hearing room in Santa Maria. Ray’s great dioramas are still featured at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; his paintings are owned and collected throughout the western United States.
In 2005, the entire County of Santa Barbara celebrated Ray’s 100th birthday with many exhibitions, paint-outs, a movie, and lots of time hanging out with Ray, the kids he was teaching, and his old friends and artists. The image of Ray’s Moses-like frame ensconced in a wheelchair wildly encouraged even more painting and projects. He received proclamations from the Board of Supervisors and the City Council, the Heritage Oak Award from Santa Barbara Beautiful, and the love of thousands of locals, even as he resettled in the Sierras. Visiting Ray in Three Rivers was like visiting him in his Mission Canyon studio. He was surrounded by paintings (new and old), had lively and loud opinions about all kinds of things, and was as irreverent as ever. He seemed to personify one of his heroic mountain paintings. He was a force of nature.
Ray’s last weeks were simply life in transition, full of dignity and surrounded by love. We were all privileged to know Ray Strong. We already miss him. Like the felling of a majestic redwood or giant oak in a forest, there is an enormous silence and empty space, powerful evidence that a single person can compassionately and collectively change the world. As gathering clouds of environmental disaster darken our and our children’s future, it is more important than ever to follow Ray’s model. After all, the most basic description of art is truth and beauty synthesized.
A public community memorial is being planned for Ray Strong on August 12 at the Santa Barbara Courthouse Sunken Gardens. The Strong family asks that those wishing to honor Ray’s legacy make donations to the Nature Conservancy.