Visual Vernacular: Joel Ray
Joel Ray, “2 AM,” 2007 (detail)
Acting on the suggestion of a stranger in the middle of a busy supermarket line, Joel Ray took his busy receipt-drawing handiwork and turned his skill to the canvas. Rapidly gaining confidence in his unique skill, Ray took a leap of faith becoming a full-time artist. Known across town as a man of conversation, creativeness, and charisma, Ray has bound together an eclectic mix of our community through his art. He explains how he got his start along with his take on the art scene in our city.
Free Press Houston: Your introduction to art wasn’t typical. How did you discover painting as a medium that spoke to you?
Joel Ray: It wasn’t until 22 years of age and it came in a peculiar way. As fate would have it, I was doodling on the back of a receipt while working as a cashier at a local grocery store. This doodle caught the eye of an artist who was checking out. Seeing my potential, the artist encouraged me to give painting a shot since I had never painted before. That very day I got off of work and went to buy oils, acrylics, canvas and an easel not even knowing basics like that oils don’t mix with acrylics. For the first time, I put a brush to canvas and created my first paintings. Upon seeing these early paintings, a painter named Marcus Mann realized my gift and invited me to paint with him. Ultimately, this relationship would lead me into the art world and have a profound impact on my life for the good.
FPH: You took a big leap into the art world by becoming a full-time artist. Was there a defining moment when you made that decision?
Ray: I distinctly remember a moment where I was asked to sit across from a table to oversee the meeting of a major art collector and an artist. After that event, I realized if you want to be an artist you have to be fully devoted to your art and secure in your abilities, otherwise how does one expect someone to trust and invest in you? I told myself you either sink or swim and there is no other option. I was 22 and art had just found me. Never wanting to be an artist before, I had to find myself through the art, which I think is a blessing because its allows me to continually grow as a person.
FPH: As a painter, are there any artists that speak to you?
Ray: Most people expect to hear me mention a painter when asked this question but my main influences have always been along the lines of Steve Martin, Michael J. Fox, and Sting, meaning I am very inspired by stories as an individual and their relation to their gift and not physical art. Stories that fascinate me are the ones on how one came into their passion, grew that passion, and dealt with having their passion become a commodity.
That’s not to say I do not have some favorite artist such as Wassily Kandinsky for his use of color and structure, which conveyed a symphony throughout his works. Another artist that influences me is Jackson Pollock. In his early works of art, he gave you a strong sense about his struggle for acceptance in love, art, and fame. Of course Picasso also influences me for his vast array of styles and subject matter on woman. Lastly John Singer Sargent for the way he painted poetry through portraiture. I often seem to get Kandinsky’s color referenced in my works from others.
FPH: Have their been any particular experiences that have changed your work for the better?
Ray: I would have to say the passing of my father to cancer was one that I can remember. The exact experience happened the night of his viewing. I had so many people tell me stories about the acts of kindness my father did that I was not aware of because he was not the one to speak about his giving. I was so overwhelmed and inspired that I decided not to sleep that night before my dad’s funeral. During those hours, I spent painting an oil portrait of my father to take to the funeral that morning as my gift to him.
FPH: What has it been like creating art in Houston? What are the best qualities and what can be improved?
Ray: I grew up here in Houston and so its nice to be able to be around those who have known you forever and see your progress from the beginning. The art scene has grown in abundance, which is a positive for bringing more artist and collectors to Houston. Having one of the top private collections in the world in your back yard has never hurt either. We also have such an amazing collection of galleries and museums. I go to the treasure of the Menil often to find inspiration.
I would like to see the high-end art market of Houston grow. It has always been staggering and I truly don’t think will ever be able to keep up with the major art markets with out growing and supporting those special talents here. All to often the most gifted ones unfortunately have to leave to become known before they are ever truly supported here and that’s even if they want to come back. I find that to be a real problem.
FPH: Your work focuses on the human connection. What are some of the things that resonate with you as an artist in these modern times?
Ray: It’s my belief that every great artist leaves a commentary on the times they lived in. In my art, I have always painted from within, meaning that which is real to me because when your true to yourself it seems to resonate the same with others and helps communicate a language that has no borders. Today a lot of my art is dealing with the fact we live in a world were we have so many ways to communicate at the speed of light and everything is connected at the end of your fingertips.
Yet our biggest problem is communication between each other. We have social media portraying one thing, but false lives on the other side. Cell phones were no words are spoken, dating like it is from a menu, and a lot of personal interaction that has vanished leaving relations of business and marriage to fail because were to caught up with technology and their distractions rather than the investments in one another.