Andre Ray of Columbus applies paint to a work-in-progress in his studio Wednesday. November is Native American Heritage Month. Ray spent some time talking about his series of Native American chiefs. They are, from left, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Landscapes are a frequent subject for Ray, who has an affinity for the outdoors. Some of his landscapes are large, bold and vibrant. Others display a more serene palette.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Ray began studying Native Americans when he was a boy, inspired by the western art of C.M. Russell.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
November 8, 2014 10:12:25 PM
"The monster was eating all the animals ... so coyote devised a plan," said Andre Ray, relating a Native American legend about the origins of the Nez Perce tribe in the Pacific Northwest. Ray talked in his art studio, a compact, detached building behind his parents' home in north Columbus. It's also part music studio, where his dad records Christian music. Surrounded by his oil paintings -- none more dominant than his series of Native American chiefs -- Ray shared native stories. The 40-year-old has a deep reservoir. He's been captivated by the Old West and American Indians since he was a young boy.
November is National Native American Heritage Month, a fitting time to spend some time with Ray's warriors. He came to know each of them well as he worked on their likenesses during college at Mississippi University for Women. There is Geronimo, prominent leader of the Bedonkohe Apache; Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce; Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man and tribal chief; and Red Cloud, leader of the Oglala Lakota. Their images, interpreted by Ray, stare stoically from canvas. Their combined histories make fascinating study for an artist who says he would be lost if he couldn't read.
The chiefs trace back to the roots of Ray's desire to draw and paint. He remembers fifth grade, when his parents, Kathy and Paul, gave him a catalog of work by that great painter of the American West, Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926). Through more than 2,000 paintings, Russell's cowboys, Indians and landscapes told the tale of the rugged frontier. Ten-year-old Andre Ray was hooked.
"I drew from that catalog until probably high school," he said. "I tried to draw his landscapes and animals. As my love for art grew so did the knowledge of the things I drew. I got interested in Native American culture, the environment and the outdoors."
Of course, one might say Ray comes by his artistic leaning quite naturally. The family home's walls are filled with accomplished paintings by many relatives, including his great-aunt, Mary Katharine Loyacono McCravey. The well-known painter and philanthropist was the recipient of the 2004 Mississippi Arts Commission's Governor's Excellence in the Arts Award.
"I spent many hours as a kid in her studio; she was a big influence in me going into art," said Ray of the late matriarch. "I learned much from her, but she also encouraged me to investigate the artistic past of Mississippi."
Ray had no formal art lessons until he went to MUW.
"My original major was really graphic design, but after my first class, I realized I wasn't going to be a graphic designer," he said with candor and a self-deprecating smile.
He credits his art instructors, including Shawn Dickey, Larry Feeney and Robert Gibson, with helping him explore expression.
"Instead of dictating what to do, they wanted you to develop your own style, and I appreciated that," Ray remarked.
It was Dickey who suggested Ray try first painting his chiefs in black and white, applying color on top to create contrasts and interest.
After graduating from The W in 2000, Ray completed graduate study at Emporia State University in Kansas, earning a master's degree in art therapy. For a time, he taught art.
"My interest in art therapy came from a desire to explore the 'why and how' of how artists come up with their imagery," he said. "I learned how art, to some extent, can be used to help those with mental illness, disabilities or grief."
An exploration of Ray's paintings in the studio and house reveals an eclectic mix of horses, rodeo cowboys, London street scenes and landscapes -- many landscapes, some vibrant and bold, some more pastoral. His series of local musicians includes Keith Brown, Dawn Barham, Honeyboy and Boots and the Shane Tubbs Band, among others. Cypress swamps are a recurring subject.
"Look at this," he instructed, carrying a cypress scene, a work-in-progress, from the studio easel across the concrete driveway outside. He propped it against a fence. "See how the color and light are different now? ... If you don't like it from a distance, you probably aren't going to like it close up."
He keeps most of his paintings, gives a few away. Occasionally, he does a commissioned piece. He has not undertaken a marketing effort.
His mother, Kathy, has a thought about that: "When you get them finished, you don't want to sell them; they're like your children."
For Ray, satisfaction comes from the act of painting itself, something he often does while listening to John Denver's music, because it's "all about nature and being outdoors."
"Why do I love painting? There's such a freedom in it," Ray said, after some thought. He worked at finding words to sum up why he keeps returning to the easel. "It's creating a mood, an atmosphere. You're always trying to find that balance, a harmony. It's always a struggle between detail and less detail, that flow of different colors. It's kind of like a battle ... it's hard to explain."
Like his thirst for reading and knowledge, Ray can't envision a time when he won't paint, whether it be history-making native chiefs, windswept fields, bronc-busters or city street scenes.
"You kind of feel like a cabinetmaker," he smiled. "Sooner or later, you've got to go back and make more cabinets."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.