Ray Strong 1905-2006

Ray-Strong.jpgby 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.

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