Ray-Strong.jpgby 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

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

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

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.


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