Artist Ray Strong: An Enduring Vision of the Oregon Landscape

By Humpal, Mark | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Artist Ray Strong: An Enduring Vision of the Oregon Landscape


Humpal, Mark, Oregon Historical Quarterly


IT WAS A CRISP OCTOBER MORNING as our two-car caravan headed out from the Frenchglen Hotel, bouncing along the dusty, washboarded road to the top of Steens Mountain. In the van ahead of me rode one-hundred-year-old artist Ray Strong, who had confided to me in early 2004 that he had always dreamed of seeing and painting the distinctive notch-topped mountain but, for various reasons, had never made the trip. After we reached the turnout for Kiger Gorge and surveyed the heavily rock-strewn path to its rim, we realized it would be impossible to roll Strong's wheelchair to a suitable viewpoint for him to sketch. Four of us decided to carry him down, wheelchair and all--"sultan style"--to an appropriate spot near the rim of the gorge. There Strong went to work, sketching the scene in charcoal on canvas-board with his remarkably large, steady hands seemingly undiminished by time. From there, we traveled further up, to the edge of the East Rim, where Strong viewed firsthand the extensive panorama of the Alvord Desert. That evening, he amused dinner guests at the Frenchglen Hotel with entertaining stories delivered in a booming voice and with occasional harmonica accompaniment.

I first met Ray Strong in February 2004, after arranging to interview him regarding his activities with another Oregon painter, Clyde Leon Keller. Who better to ask about Keller, I thought, than an artist who painted with him for over three years in the 1920s? When I arrived at Strong's home and studio in Santa Barbara, I was welcomed by an alert, bright, and outgoing man of ninety-nine years who gladly answered each question in detail with colorful language and gestural animation. Strong fully addressed my questions regarding Keller, and we proceeded to spend the remainder of the afternoon discussing the many Oregon paintings tucked here and there in his studio, some of which had been painted as long ago as the mid-1920s. As I reflected over the day that evening, I decided there was an equally fascinating but more timely story to be told than the one I was currently developing on Keller and the early Oregon Impressionists. I decided to focus my attention on Strong's life and art and spent the following three days interviewing him and becoming familiar with his work through the many paintings scattered about his large studio. Strong was enlivened by my interest in his painting activities in Oregon, and I soon discovered that his connections to the Pacific Northwest were lasting and extensive. Our lengthy discussions about all things Oregon reawakened his desire to return to the state and paint in areas he had not seen before:

I never made it to Eastern Oregon.... I always dreamed that sometime I would.... [I did go] outside of Dufur, the bare hills out of The Dalles, John Day country at different times over 30 to 40 years. I never really got to Eastern Oregon or Steens Mountain. I always wanted to get to Wallowa Lake ... yes it's the kind of thing I would have wished to have gotten, but never did. (1)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Today, artist Ray Strong is considered by many art historians and collectors as one of the foremost California landscape painters of the twentieth century. Perhaps not as well-known is that Strong has left an extensive artistic legacy to his home state, Oregon. His enduring vision of the Northwest landscape was nurtured early on by his parents, who were active in theater arts in Portland, most notably acting and singing in productions of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals held at the Apollo Club. (2) They also believed in art and music education for all their children and encouraged each child to play a musical instrument; Ray first tried cornet, then switched to flute in high school.

From the time of his teenage years until his early thirties, Strong's artistic talents blossomed and became more refined as he worked with a succession of art teachers and mentors. Throughout his long and prolific career as a professional artist, Strong repeatedly returned to Oregon for extended painting trips and exhibitions, and he always kept the natural, rugged beauty of the Pacific Northwest alive in both his mind's eye and in his dreams. …

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