When Ray Strong died in 2006 at age 101, he left behind an admirable legacy. The artist was well-known in Santa Barbara and a thorn in the side of those in power. He was well-loved but had no filter in speaking his mind.
To kick off a whole summer of shows celebrating Ray Strong’s work, a series that involves 11 art galleries and museums throughout Santa Barbara County, Frank Goss, Jeremy Tessmer and Nathan Vonk of Sullivan Goss have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first-ever monograph of this important painter.
“All these guys that worked in Santa Barbara: Thomas Moran, Colin Campbell Cooper, Lockwood DeForrest, Herbert Bayer. They ruled the city and there’s a book on every one of those guys. They’ve all been memorialized for their efforts, and then there’s Ray Strong, who might have been more influential than any of those guys.”
Mr. Strong arrived in Santa Barbara in 1960 when he was commissioned to paint the large dioramas in the bird hall of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum. He went on to become a part of nearly every arts movement in Santa Barbara save for Abstraction, which was already established. He co-founded the Santa Barbara Arts Institute in 1965 and later the Oaks Group in 1985.
“Even though he was working in a style that was before Abstraction, he was a reactionary,” said Mr. Goss. “He was saying ‘No, pay attention to the earth, look down, look into the soil, look at how the earth produces its trees and shape, and how water sculpts it.’ ”
He was an accommodating man, said Mr. Goss, and one who held socialist ideals from the days of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, but he took commissions from exclusive venues like New York’s Bohemian Club.
His modesty at his own openings might mean that he would talk about somebody else’s work instead. Mr. Goss remembers the artist insisting that any check he’d write for Mr. Strong’s work be made out to organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund.
But he was “the glue” that held all the other landscape artists of Santa Barbara together, Mr. Goss said.
The idea for the book came over lunch one day when the gallery’s Mr. Tessmer suggested the idea in passing. As Mr. Tessmer tells it, Mr. Goss came in the next day with the business plan sketched out.
Privately they raised $37,000 to pay authors, editors, and photographers to put Mr. Strong’s work in context. They found allies in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; Ellen Easton of The Easton Gallery; Marlene Miller formerly of the Arlington Gallery; and Oak Group leaders like Arturo Tello, John Iwerks and Chris Chapman.
Researchers have uncovered some 78 mural panels across the country, including one in a New York hotel that was about to be demolished. The book eventually will feature 225 images.
The final step was to go to Kickstarter to raise an additional $30,000 to fund the rest of the book, and to make sure that further editions of the book could be printed in the future.
As noted on the Kickstarter campaign page, a monograph of this caliber used to be the exclusive domain of a scholar’s lifetime work, and prohibitively expensive. But the Internet has helped changed that, and crowd-funding has made it easier.
This summer, Ray Strong will be everywhere, with shows at the Maritime Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Solvang’s Wildling Museum, Santa Barbara City Hall, James Main Fine Art, Ellen Easton Gallery, the Art Design & Architecture Museum of UCSB, and Sullivan Goss, of course.
All the dates and gallery info can be found at www.theraystrongproject.com, where one can also find the Kickstarter page. There are still four days to donate to the campaign, and receive the first edition.
For Frank Goss, it’s not just about a painter whose work has been influential and really shows the beauty of Santa Barbara, it’s a project to honor a man who affected many people in town.
“He was one of those people when you shook his hand, you know they’re going to do something. When I got here in ’94 he was 84 years old, but it was evident he was still going places! There was never a doubt that he couldn’t stop that germ of creativity. You can’t put a cork in that. He never stopped, and I wish I had interviewed him more when he was alive.”