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 James Wallace Ray  (1921 - 2009)

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Lived/Active: Nebraska/Colorado      Known for: painting, teaching

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:

Midwest Regional Artist, James Wallace Ray, Lincoln, Nebraska

James is the eldest son of Waunita Williams-Ray and George Webster Ray.  James was born March 2, 1921, in Denver, Colorado.  His father was a lumber salesman in the Denver area.  James soon moved to Shelby, Nebraska, where he spent his childhood.  His father, an Irishman, owned and operated a lumber yard in Shelby, the Strand-Ray Lumber Company. 

James is from a family of artists.  His mother, Waunita Williams-Ray was a self-taught artist who specialized in abstract painting.  Waunita passed away in 1974.  His brother, Web, had no formal art training but painted folk art and was a journalist/photographer for the Lincoln Journal Star.  Web covered the Charles Starkweather murder case.  Web passed away in 1986.  James' youngest brother, Bill Ray, ordered his first professional camera from Germany at age 12.  Bill was hired, at age 17, as a photographer with Lincoln Journal Star.  He later worked for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and became a Life/Newsweek photographer.  His photos include Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, the Kennedys and Vietnam.  Bill is currently a free-lance photographer in New York City.  James also has a sister, Bess.

James started drawing as a young boy.  An elementary school teacher recalled that she assigned him a daily task rendering comic strips on the chalk board.  The subject of his early drawings and paintings was often people.  He kept a lot of his drawing to himself until his mother encouraged him to bring samples show artist Terence Romaine Duren, also of Shelby.  Terence is known for his work in mural and landscape painting, illustrating, and stage production.  Terence said he was impressed and commented that James' work reminded him of Vincent Van Gogh.  James had never heard of Vincent Van Gogh, so he bought a book with reproductions of Van Gogh's work.  This was also the beginning of a very large collection of art books that James accumulated.  What James calls cartooning, actually developed into a talent for a sophisticated caricature in rendering people.  He depicts these local, everyday people in genre’ style as they are involved in local environment and events.  James, his mother, Waunita and a group of other local artists took art lessons under Terence in Shelby, Nebraska.  James also studied under David City, Nebraska, native Dale Nichols.

James enlisted in the Navy 1942 and served in the Medical Corp, South Pacific as a Pharmacist Mate.  He left military service in December, 1945.  

Eventually, an art instructor viewed James' work and encouraged him to attend school on the GI Bill.  James attended courses at the Omaha Art School, the Dale Nichols School of Art in  Arizona, the Chouinard Institute in Los Angeles, Doane College, Peru State Collage and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.   

James has studied under James Eisentrager, Richard Trickey, Susan P. Puelz, Barbara Kendrick (printmaking), Roger Carlisle, Augustus Dunbier and Michael Nushawg.  James works in many mediums.  His approach to watercolors is to draw the subject he desires to paint on the spot and to document his subject with a photograph for reference.  He lays the main areas on the spot but renders most of his paintings in his home studio.  He also has a habit of sketching stacks of preliminary subjects, such as houses and churches to paint later. 

James has been drawing, painting and exhibiting in Lincoln, Nebraska, since the 1950s.  The strength of his work can be seen by grouping his work in to categories; flowers, trees, landscapes, intimate places such as gardens, nudes, people in genre’ scenes, houses, churches and grain elevators.

James worked as an art occupational therapist at the Lincoln Regional Center from 1957 to his retirement in 1986. 

James' exhibitions include the Joslyn Art Gallery, Fred Wells Show, Cornerstone Gallery, Association of Nebraska Arts Club, Lincoln Artists Guild, Eleventh Street Gallery, Haymarket Gallery, Marxhausen Gallery, Plainsman Museum, Burkholder Project, The Coffee House, Milestone Gallery, Unitarian Church Gallery, Serendipity Gallery, University Place Gallery, Wildwood Center, Gallery 9 and Noyes Art Gallery.

James' awards from the Association of Nebraska Arts Club include; Honorable Mention, Omaha, 1989; Honorable Mention, York, 1992; Award of Excellence, Wesleyan University, 1994; Purchase Award, Fremont, 1996; Honorable Mention, Fremont, 1996; Honorable Mention, Grand Island, 1997; Award of Excellence, North Platte, 2001; and Honorable Mention, Norfolk, 2003.

From the Lincoln Artist Guild, James won Best of Show, 1992; Award of Merit, 1997; Honorable Mention, 1997; Award of Merit, 2000; Award of Merit, 2001; Award of Merit, 2002; Best of Show, 2004 and Honorable Mention, 2005. 

James' permanent collections include the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, Nebraska, and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, NE.


James' artist's statement:  "My first motivation is a subject matter that lends itself to good composition and design.  After initial incentive, process becomes as important or perhaps more important than subject matter, and my work takes on a decidedly abstract quality.  Much of the excitement and thrill of creation is in the process itself.  I have not abandoned subject matter, however, and I'm hoping to communicate not only to those knowledgeable in art but also to those less knowledgeable.  It is my feeling that art is for all of the people.  This does not mean that I will lower my standards, but will try to enlarge the visual vocabulary of all.  I not only want to share my feelings about the subject matter, but to share the process of creativity itself."


In November 2008, at the age of 87, James Ray moved to the Grand Island, Nebraska, Veteran's Home.  He is still creating art.

Information courtesy of Cynthia Hartley, friend of the artist.

James Wallace Ray passed away at age 88 on June 14, 2009 at St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island, Nebraska.

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