My art isn’t easy to categorize, or even describe. It is busy, sometimes rhythmic, imbued with hard lines and shapes and odd colour schemes; but most of all my paintings are about people. The human spirit fascinates me and informs every piece I produce. Our collective and individual capacity to overcome, to love and to endure fuels my desire to paint. These qualities are also integral to the strong and unique sense of community that is a defining feature of Canadian life. I have lived and worked in places across this immense country and have known a diverse multitude of people. For this, I feel infinitely grateful (and lucky) to call myself a Canadian painter.
I was born the last of four siblings on the last day of summer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. By shear chance, my family had a disproportionate number of artistic members, and our homes were replete with amazing watercolours, oil paintings and carvings by people who shared my blood line. Even those who didn’t necessarily produce art were on the progressive side of art appreciation and culture, generally. So, as a young boy, I was exposed to a healthy dose of divergent and eclectic pieces, and always had an available stack of fine art coffee table books to pour over when left to my own devices. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I do remember that I started to spend more time and energy on drawing, colouring and painting when other kids were shedding “art-making” as a dominant activity. As I passed from prepubesence to adolescence, my creative impulses strengthened, and art became one of the most important- albeit introspective and private- parts of my life.
It was during this period that I knew creating art would be my chief mission in life, although- ironically- I didn’t actually display or “show” my work to anyone. I had art heroes (Arthur Shilling, Tom Thomson, Pablo Picasso) and was developing unique and independent perspectives on art. But I wasn’t part of any art scene. I didn’t attend art classes, hang out with the misunderstood, creative types, or participate in any community art projects or school clubs. For all intents and purposes, I was a closeted artist. Whatever I produced I would discard. Every now and then, of course, my back-page doodles and napkin sketches would give me away. But no one really knew how serious I was about art. Even as I took my first fumbling steps into adulthood and my passion for painting was at its peak, I still wasn’t ready to let anyone see that part of me…not fully, anyway. That would all change, though, when I met my future wife.
Christie was 22 years old with beautiful dark hair and a big white smile. She was an earnest student with a high GPA and she didn’t have any vices (except maybe reading). She was perfect…and we were polar opposites. Although she had the attention of every young guy on campus, I must have appealed to her strong sense of charity! It was Christie that encouraged me to take all my inward creative development- the knowledge, practice and experience that I had accumulated for years- and start offering my work to the outside world. In fact, Christie was the first person to ever pay for an original “Oliver Ray”; she gave me a loonie ($1) for “Woman On a Boat”. My artistic journey began as a young boy, but it was Christie who helped me share it. And it’s Christie who helps me maintain my artistic integrity…and who stands me back up when life kicks me in the junk. She’s still perfect.
It’s hard to write your own biography, and this brief attempt is admittedly short on juicy tidbits and revealing anecdotes. I haven’t lived a boring life, and I have my share of interesting stories to tell. I could have written about broken homes, hospital visits and overcoming obstacles; or politics, the military, travel and my education, implying that I am “special” and that- by default- my creative output is more valuable than the average. But my point here is not to highlight events or circumstances in my life that make me unique, or to pretend that these things inform my work in a significant way. Quite frankly, my paintings aren’t about me. They are about people…all of us. We all have crutches to lean on and crosses to bear…and victories, too.
If there is a relationship between who I am and how I paint, I think there are really only two points that matter. One, I have worked hard to live life on my own terms, and that makes certain people and particular stories more appealing to me. It also means I’m not really bothered by trends or opinions. And two, I am Canadian, which affords a certain access, freedom and worldview that most people who aren’t Canadian don’t get to experience.
I should also add that I am an extremely private person, which makes any effort towards autobiography kind of painful :/
-Oliver Ray

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