An Interview with Artist Lynda Ray

August, 2011

Lynda Ray received a BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, MA in 1987. That year she also attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, ME where she studied under Agnes Martin with whom she maintained contact and visited over subsequent years. Ray has been awarded artist residencies at the Vermont Studio Colony, Johnson, VT; the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Omaha, NE; the Santa Fe Art Institute, Santa Fe, NM; and the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, Woodstock, NY. She has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Program and The Sam and Adele Golden Foundation for the Arts, Inc. Since 1987 her paintings and sculptures have been widely exhibited in the US and have been featured in 20 solo exhibitions. Ray’s work is found in numerous private, corporate and public collections. She has taught and lectured on encaustic painting. She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.

Julie Karabenick: Your artwork over the years shows great variety in appearance, technique and materials.

Lynda Ray: I regard everything I do as an exploration.

Scroll, encaustic on panel, 51 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in), 2009

My process is very intuitive rather than planned out in advance. When I talk about my work, it’s usually after the fact. I never know how a particular work may turn out. However, there have been consistent themes and interests over the years.

Hexagon, oil on canvas, 122 x 152 cm (48 x 60 in), 2008

For example I’ve always been attracted to pattern.

Trawl, oil on canvas, 127 x 122 cm (50 x 48 in), 2008

I’m strongly influenced by patterns found in Nature—

Riprap, encaustic on panel, 23 x 30 cm (9 x 12 in), 2010

—especially the canyons and Anasazi ruins of the Southwest.

Lightness and Darkness
Light and Darknessencaustic and watercolor on panel,
25 x 36 cm (10 x 14 in), 1999

At the same time, I’ve always been intrigued by manmade structures and architectural elements.

Ancient Unity
Ancient Unity, wood and metal, 34 x 35 cm (13.5 x 13 in) 1991

JK: You often incorporate materials from such structures in your work.

LR: These found materials, each with their own separate histories, have a patina or color that, together with other textures, adds a certain kind of energy or reference to a work. I think in terms of color, form and texture, and I find what is available in my environment.

Powder Puff
Powder Puff, engine metal, oil paint on wood,
76 x 137 x 13 cm (30 x 54 x 5 in), 1991

JK: We see your focus on the physical qualities of your materials in your two-dimensional works as well.

LR: I love the feel of materials and the possibilities for transforming colors and shapes into something more. By layering colors, forms and patterns, I reveal the history of a work’s construction. In this way, I hope to create a visceral connection for the viewer and a realization of time passing. This is achieved through the visible evidence of my process of building the work.

FloatyRed Pink Vector
Floaty, oil on canvas, 152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2007Red Pink Vector, monotype, 51 x 38 cm (20 x 15 in), 2008

This sense of building a work can especially be achieved with encaustic painting—through scraping back to earlier layers or showing the buildup of paint on a work’s surface or edges. So instead of experiencing time in a linear way as a narrative to be read from left to right, top to bottom, I look at time condensed and compressed like a double exposure photograph where one picture is taken on top of another. The end result allows multiple moments to appear at once, as if one is looking through peeled back layers to reveal earlier stages of development.

Light and DarknessQuay
Darkness and Light, encaustic, 20 x 20 cm (8 x 8 in), 2004Quay, encaustic, 20 x 20 cm (8 x 8 in), 2004

JK: Another consistent interest appears to be your use of diverse geometric shape. You seem to draw your inspiration from a variety of sources.

LR: Yes. The rectilinear shape of the canvas itself spurs me to create work where I organize the surface to embrace that shape.

Roost, encaustic on panel, 23 x 28 cm (9 x 11 in), 2009

And I’m attracted to the geometry of patterns found in both Nature and in manmade objects. For example, I’ve always been fascinated by the geometric relationships found in Moroccan zeillige—terra cotta tilework covered with enamel in the form of chips that are set into plaster—and the intriguing way that shape and color are arranged in a pattern.

An example of zellige

I find great beauty in the consistency of interlocking shapes.

Sawtooth Proof
Sawtooth Proof, oil on canvas,
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2008

Geometric patterns in Nature also inspire me. For example, I’m intrigued by the honeycombs of bees, facetted crystals, rafts of bubbles, snowflakes, spider webs and images of microscopic plants and animals.

Rec Eclipse
Red Eclipse, encaustic on panel, 51 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in), 2010

I also wonder if it’s in our nature to build rectilinear shapes as it is in the nature of bees to make hexagons.

Balanceacrylic on found wood,
34 x 33 cm (13.5 x 13 in), 1991

JK: You’ve explored forms in space across a variety of mediums—in paintings and works on paper as well as in reliefs and free-standing sculptures.

Point of Time
Point of Time, oil on canvas, 102 x 152 cm (40 x 60 in), 2002

LR: With my early paintings, I didn’t question the idea of a painting being a window on the world, and I painted scenes, landscapes and still lifes. Later space itself became a subject—the depiction of space from shallow to deep. How far can an object sit back in space or project into the viewer’s space from the flat painting surface?

Red Trace
Red Trace, encaustic, 102 x 122 cm (40 x 48 in), 2007

During the late 80s and early 90s, I made shaped paintings that hung on the wall and projected out toward the viewer that I called three-dimensional paintings.

As I began to use less paint and incorporated more found materials, the works became more like sculpture. The question I ask myself with sculpture is: how can I achieve  a kind of presence? Space, color, size and scale are the elements I consider when working in sculpture. The various materials I use vitalize the surface and give the three-dimensional works more of a powerful presence.

Fixed Point
 Fixed Point, acrylic and oil on wood, metal and corrugated
cardboard, 51 x 46 x 8 cm (20 x 18 x 3 in), 1988

Free-standing works came about after spending some years in the flat desert of New Mexico. I was influenced by great mesas and outcroppings and how the Rio Grande carved through the land. Erosion by wind and water revealed fresh layers on the canyon walls. Hiking these areas made me very aware of the structure of the environment. In some of my freestanding sculptures, I explore inside and outside, front and back, hardness and fragility, and the position of a structure relative to its surroundings.

OrientationNottle 2
Orientationoil on wood and metal,
48 x 28 x 48 cm (19 x 11 x 9 in), 1990
Nottle 2, acrylic and wax of wood and metal,
48 x 23 x 25 cm (19 x 9 x 10 in), 1990

JK: Were you interested in art as a child?

LR: I’ve been making things as far back as I can remember. As a child, I was always trying to understand machines and tools. I was interested in how they worked and in the process of invention. I was curious about what plant and animal life had in common with manmade objects, and how this all works together to make our world. My sources were not books or television—they were observations of my environment.

As a small child, I visited my grandmother’s farm almost every weekend, and there I would explore the hayloft, the animals, and all that goes along with farm life. I lived in a rural community that quickly became populated with returning World War II veterans who were starting families. So while I experienced the natural world, I also watched my father build our house. And as I got older, I would explore the building sites of new homes and schools when the builders weren’t there. It was very exciting to climb around the buildings’ skeletons and see the daily progress.

At home I was encouraged to paint and draw. My parents would take my brothers and me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where there were good Egyptian and Impressionist collections, though no contemporary art at that time. At home my younger brother and I would listen to my father’s classical music to which we did a lot of interpretive dance. At school my artistic abilities were recognized, and I was invited to take advanced art classes with other students in my town on Saturdays. It was exciting and affirming to be with others who had strong visual sensibilities.

On school-sponsored field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts, I remember returning home on the bus at night and seeing everything out the window differently. The winters are cold in New England, and I saw the bare lacework of the trees contrasted with the orange sunset and fading light. I felt that art and Nature were one and the same, and I was deeply moved by both.

JK: And your college years?

LR: I began my undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, but had to stop for financial reasons. It was a tumultuous time—the late 60s—and my older brother was in Vietnam. I was protesting the war and at the same time trying to be supportive of him. There were anti-war protests and protests about the fact that Black History wasn’t being taught. Everything seemed in an uproar. I wanted to paint, but this seemed less urgent than all that was spinning around me. I left college, to return 15 years later.

JK: How did you spend that time away from school?

LR: I lived very close to Nature in a rural community west of Boston. At some point, I started exploring all the subtle changes that take place in the landscape over time. I took daily walks, sketching and taking notes on my observations. Years later, I returned to the Massachusetts College of Art with a strong conviction to paint no matter what was going on in the world around me.

JK: What was your return to school like?

LR: It was exciting to once again be taken seriously in my pursuit of art. In the 2D Fine Art Department I learned to appreciate a painting as a whole and complete entity, something unique unto itself rather than an illustration of an idea. As I began to refine my interests and build a visual vocabulary, colors, shapes, textures, forms and scale were the elements I worked with.

JK: What were you painting at that time?

LR: I had always done paintings of structures— barns, banks, schools, industrial buildings. I wanted to capture as much information about each structure as I could—its function, character and place in the landscape.

In the early 80s, I became interested in windows. In these small watercolor studies of shape and color, I was exploring the window as a framing device. I would soon dispense with any literal reference to windows.

Untitled, watercolor, 20 x 15 cm
(8 x 6 in), 1985
Untitled, watercolor, 20 x 15 cm
(8 x 6 in), 1985

In my work on canvas, I was more interested in two-dimensional structure than three-dimensional illusion. I was exploring what it took to make the work’s objecthood dominant over illusion. I worked at a small scale and used thick stretchers to support this idea. Paintings on canvas such as Blue Sky or Adobe were transitional to my use of wood as a painting matrix.

Blue SkyAdobe
Blue Sky, oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm (30 x 20 in), 1985Adobe, oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm (30 x 20 in), 1985

JK: In short order you transferred these explorations to works in wood, some of them quite large.

LR: In my works on wood, I was really building a painting. Some were of human scale and very object-like. I was concerned with weight and physicality. I’d begin by drawing shapes with black lines on my white studio walls. When the shapes seemed satisfactory, I would cut pieces of wood accordingly. I used a palette knife to paint them with a mixture of oil paint and Dorland’s wax medium. These materials and method of paint application helped give the piece the physicality that I wanted.

      Untitled 4 (AO Series)                             detail
Untitled 4 (AO Series), oil-based wax on wood,
122 x 122 x 10 cm (48 x 48 x 4 in), 1986
Untitled 4 (AO Series) detail

I adopted the attitude that anything in my environment was fair game to incorporate into my work. The crudeness of construction was intentional. Sometimes a wet work would fall on the floor where it picked up sawdust and even my studiomates’ discarded cigarettes. I would simply continue to paint over these inclusions. I used color, shape and proportion to express a feeling or mood.

Untitled (IS Series)
Untitled (IS Series)oil-based wax on wood,
152 x 122 x 8 cm (60 x 48 x 3 in), 1986

I was interested in how forms could both collide and yet work together. I had taken my work out of the confines of the rectangle. The idea that a color could make a shape and the shape was the color fascinated me. Creating the illusion of overlap was also interesting.

Untitled 5 (AO Series)Untitled 1 (C Series)
Untitled 5 (AO Series), oil-based wax on wood,
137 x 112 x 15 cm (54 x 44 x 6 in), 1986      
Untitled 1 (C Series), oil-based wax on wood,
46 x 33 cm cm (18 x 13 in), 1985

Upon graduation in 1987, I was fortunate to be accepted to spend nine weeks at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. I was on fire with passion and excitement to be in such a supportive and stimulating environment. Joseph Campbell was there for a few days and discussed the role of the artist in society. Agnes Martin was there as a resident artist and was very inspirational and supportive of my work.

I’m interested in the idea of perfection, and recall Agnes Martin saying that we can’t make a perfect painting, but we can see perfection in our minds. Martin said that art itself cannot be perfect because it’s of this world, while perfection is immaterial. She told us that the artist can awaken in viewers memories of past experiences of beauty and perfection.

   Blue AuraHiber
Blue Aura, oil-based wax on wood,
71 x 43 cm (28 x 17 in), 1987    
 Hiber ,oil-based wax on wood,
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 1988

I have always hoped that my work would generate and remind the viewer of such beautiful moments.

Lynda Ray with Hiber
The artist with Hiber, 1988

JK: We soon see you incorporating found materials into these works made from wood.

LR: I’d reached my limit in my exploration of large planar shapes. As in the two works below, I began to incorporate pieces of discarded scrap wood. I wanted to break up my surfaces and create a more visceral experience of color—thinking of those scraps of wood as if each were a stroke of paint.

 Untitled 1 (X Series) Untitled 8 (M Series)
Untitled 1 (X Series), oil and wax on wood,
46 x 30 cm (18 x 12 in), 1988 
    Untitled 8 (M Series)oil and wax on wood,
69 x 51 cm (27 x 20 in), 1988

With the Tantra works, I was looking at a lot of African art and also Native American art, having spent time in New Mexico. Here I’ve incorporated corrugated cardboard and found wood. I wanted warm, inviting colors. Tantra 6 has a patterned area that suggests chevrons, a form I would often use in later work.

 Tantra 2  Tantra 6
Tantra 2, oil-based wax on wood, found
wood and cardboard, corrugated cardboard,
38 x 23 cm (15 x 9 in), 1988
Tantra 6oil-based wax on wood, found wood
and cardboard, corrugated cardboard,
46 x 20 cm (18 x 8 in), 1988

JK: Much of your work became increasingly three-dimensional.

LR: Yes. I was enjoying putting together materials by trial and error and making work that would project further into the viewer’s space. I also began to explore making art that did not hang on the wall in a traditional way. For example, Cusp was hung in the corner of a room, hovering high up on the wall. When an artwork hangs prominently in a room, you feel almost obligated to look at it, while you might not notice a work like Cusp right away—and then suddenly you might see it, and it would energize the space.

 Untitled 7 (M Series)   Cusp
Untitled 7 (M Series), oil on wood,
64 x 23 x 8 cm (25 x 9 x 3 in), 1988
Cusp,oil on wood, found metal,
56 x 20 x 18 cm (22 x 8 x 7 in), 1988

Rubble Core is a very tall piece that is also meant to be hung in a corner, black and hovering. It’s filled with pieces of scrap wood that I’d find near my studio. It made me think about Anasazi structures that I’d seen in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The Anasazi would fill walls and other supporting structures with materials—called “rubble core”—adding thin veneers of stone to the outsides. The close-up shows a section of gridded fluorescent light covering that I painted black. I was reusing and re-purposing found materials.

   Rubble Core   Rubble Core detail
Rubble Core, acrylic and oil on wood, metal
157 x 48 x 38 cm (62 x 19 x 15 in), 1989
Rubble Core detail

JK: You made a practice of collecting discarded materials both around your studio and during your travels.

LR: I found that in New Mexico, I was allowed to roam freely in scrap metal yards. In Unallied I’ve used thin rusted corrugated metal as well as corrugated cardboard, aluminum and wood. This was one of my first freestanding works—a big step for me. And it incorporates the idea of inside and outside, as you can actually look into the sculpture and see its underpinnings and how it was made.

   UnalliedUallied view 2
Unallied, acrylic on wood, aluminum
and corrugated tin, 36 x 23 x 8 cm
(14 x 9 x 3 in), 1990
Unallied view 2

I also began to do frottage—rubbings of the pieces I was constructing. I was exploring how I could make something flat out of something three-dimensional and seeing what else I could learn about a piece by doing a rubbing from it.

Unallied, pastel on paper, 36 x 23 x 8 cm
(14 x 9 x 3 in), 1990
Unallied, pastel on paper, 71 x 36 cm
(28 x 14 in), 1990

Next to the work in wood, below, is a frottage that was done of the front of the piece, resulting in a rubbing that is quite frontal—like a painting.

 Untitled 2 (VF Series)Untitled 2 (VF Series)
Untitled 2 (VF Series), oil on wood,
64 x 5 x 13 cm (25 x 2 x 5 in), 1990
Untitled 2 (VF Series), crayon on paper,
102 x 46 cm (40 x 18 in), 1990

I next made a very large body of works that were nearly square.

JK: Here you seem concerned with horizontal and vertical relations.

LR: In my extensive time in the Southwest desert, I’m always very aware of its flatness, of being on a plateau where the sky forms a dome over you. There, anything standing upright takes on great importance. Things that are vertical tend to become anthropomorphic for me.

Ancient Unity
Ancient Unity, wood and metal, 34 x 35 cm (13.5 x 13 in), 1991

And again I’m incorporating found materials, going to hardware stores for nails, screws or mending cloth rather than to art stores. I admired Anselm Kiefer’s free use of found materials. This helped to confirm what I was doing in my own work.

These works are slightly taller than wide to emphasize the human body rather than the landscape. Some project out from the wall a number of inches and have small openings. Each one is an individual specimen about a particular aspect of my environment.

Orientation, oil on found wood, metal,
34 x 33 cm (13.5 x 13 in), 1991
Symmetry, acrylic, corrugated cardboard, found wood,
34 x 33 cm (13 1/2 x 13 in), 1991

JK: Some of these works, especially those below, seem to have a spiritual feeling to them.

LR: Frequently during my time in New Mexico, I would attend tribal dances. You may be noticing the impact of those experiences on my work. I leave interpretation to the viewer.

Revel, wax, acrylic and oil on wood, metal,
124 x 51 x 7.5 cm ( 49 x 20 x 3 in), 1991
Revel 2, acrylic on wood, metal,
107 x 43 x 15 cm (42 x 17 x 6 in), 1991

Drop Dead is another sculptural piece. I liked that it could sit quietly on the floor, yet at the same time cause a disturbance.

JK: The use of nails in some of your sculptural works makes me think of African nail fetishes.

 Drop Dead, wood, metal, encaustic,
58 x 28 x 15 cm( 23 x 11 x 6 in), 1992
 Drop Dead view 2

LR: I’ve seen a lot of African art, especially at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I feel a strong connection to the materials, but actually, I was making this work before I moved to New York City in 1994. I was spending time in the hardware store, adding to my stash of materials.

I found some white tin ceiling pieces in a scrap metal yard that stood out from all the brown and black rusted and burned pieces of wood and metal. I used a piece intact and built the sculpture around it, covering the sides with long

 The Bride, tin ceiling pieces, screws, wood,
130 x 69 x 23 cm (51 x 27 x 9 in), 1992
 The Bride detail


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