The Plein Air Scene

by Sarah Beserra


(above: Scott Burdick, Sarah in Catalina, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches. Please click on image to enlarge it.)


Ray Strong at 98

by Michael Whitt


In Landscape one should love the country one paints and be deeply moved by it. But love is not enough for beneath the love of the transient individual - on the earth's surface - lies the great life forces that made the earth and illuminate its wonders. Some sense of this should pass on to generations to come.

Ray Strong


Ray Strong was born 98 years ago in Corvallis, Oregon, in the shadow of the snow-capped Cascade Range. His life, which began in the days of the horse and buggy, spans the period of the greatest technological development in the history of mankind, yet he has remained unchanged in his commitment to paint the landscape of his time and place, a landscape that reveals the timeless forces that underlie and shape it: the earth's molten core pushing up spectacular volcanic cones; the slow-motion collision of the Pacific and North American Plates scooping out valleys and tossing up mountains; wind, ice and rain sculpting, eroding and watering it and the thin layer of soil producing grass, trees and flowers to clothe it. (left: Ray Strong, Zion Portal Cliffs, 25 x 30 inches, oil on canvas)

For almost 90 years, Ray Strong has held up a mirror to the living landscape so that we might look into it and see what is permanent, productive, beautiful and inspiring in our world. He has shown us our heritage.

Ray began to paint at age eight, after being confined to the house with a bad case of food poisoning, first copying his maternal grandmother's romantic landscapes. In high school he began working outdoors with Clyde Keller, whom he described as the best landscape painter in Portland. They went out every Sunday, "rain or shine," building a bonfire if it were cold and rigging a tarp if it were raining or snowing.

1925, when Ray was 20, Jimmy Swinnerton, a cartoonist for the Hearst Syndicate and an accomplished desert painter, saw some of Ray's work and invited him to join a group of artists, including Frank Van Sloun, going to the Grand Canyon on a painting excursion. After the others went home, Jimmy and Ray stayed on until winter snows forced them out. When he returned, Ray had over 200 thumb-box oil sketches of the Grand Canyon made at different times of day in all weather. With Swinnerton's encouragement, Ray went to study at the Art Student's League in New York where he studied under Frank Vincent Du Mond.

Returning to California in 1930, he joined his friend Van Sloun as one of five assistants painting the Redwood Grove Mural at San Francisco's Bohemian Club. "Here's the ladder," Van Sloun told them. "You're young, go up on top."

In 1934, he, Van Sloun, Maynard Dixon: and George Post started the Art Students League of San Francisco, so that art students could get the kind of instruction they wanted and paint from life -- help denied them by the universities and art schools -- without going to New York as Ray had done. Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Imogene Cunningham were also members of the faculty. The San Francisco ASL was actually the revival of a school run by and for artists founded at the turn of the century by Gutzon Borglum, Emil Carlson, Arthur Mathews and others. Ray and his colleagues opened a cooperative gallery in Ansel Adams' old studio. This latter-day league lasted until Van Sloun's death in the school's quarters in 1938.

In 1960 Ray moved to Santa Barbara, California, where he continues to teach and to paint into his tenth decade. In his work he still seeks "the feel of a hill, its other side." A significant legacy of his long career, The Oak Group, celebrated its fifteenth anniversary two years ago. This group of preservation-minded painters affiliated around him has raised nearly $1 million to purchase conservation easements and protect wild and agricultural land from development. Painting to preserve wild lands and conserve agricultural lands is a spontaneous response by artists to what inspires them -- and feeds all of us, both physically and spiritually.

At the conclusion of the first Marin Agricultural Land Trust benefit show in Nicasio, hosted by the Oak Group and a small coterie of Marin painters, Ray sat in the doorway of Druid's Hall, which had been transformed into an art gallery for the occasion, looking out on the square where a little league baseball game was in progress. Across the way, the white steeple of a little frame church poked into the sky. Ray blurted out in his characteristic way: "MY GOSH! The setting! In the center, little kids playing baseball, dogs rolling in the grass, on the other side the most beautiful little church in the country... THE HILLS! THE PEOPLE! PURE AMERICANA! ...BEAUTIFUL!

© Sarah Beserra, 2003

Read more of The Plein Air Scene by Sarah Beserra in Resource Library Magazine

Sarah Beserra is Editor and Publisher of The Plein Air Scene - a monthly newsletter on plein air painting in California. Please see the website for The Plein Air Scene for email address and phone number.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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