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 Francis Follette McCray  (1899 - 1960)

About: Francis Follette McCray


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Lived/Active: Iowa/New Mexico / Mexico      Known for: regionalist mural and easel painting, teaching, commercial art

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in the small Iowa community of Schaller, Francis McCray received his professional art training at the Art Institute of Chicago and then specialized in commercial art with classes at the Vogue School of Commercial Art (Chicago) and the Mayer-Booth School of Commercial Art (Chicago). McCray’s art interests carried into several different forms including portraiture, murals, illustration, and church painting.

In his early professional years, McCray was employed by Langenfeld Studios to ornament Catholic churches throughout the Midwest. His murals were commissioned for congregations in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. One particular project at St. Malachy’s Church in Creston, Iowa depicted the life of the Virgin Mary in a series of twenty murals. By the early 1930s, he turned to work as a portrait artist and illustrator and attended both sessions of the Stone City Art Colony, where he became a friend of Grant Wood; he followed Wood to Ames for the Parks Library murals and became the commission’s supervisor.

For the murals project, a section of three panels, titled When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow, McCray created life-sized charcoal drawings from Wood’s initial sketches. The brown paper drawings were transferred to canvas and then painted by a team of seven artists, all supervised by McCray (1936-37). In 1939, McCray completed illustrations for Madeline Darrough Horn’s children’s book, The Log Cabin Family.

McCray received numerous awards for his artwork at the Iowa State Fair’s Art Salon, including a second place in oil painting (1932). McCray began his association with the University of Iowa in 1935 as a research assistant in the fine arts department.  In 1936, he was appointed as a teaching assistant and was eventually named an instructor in 1937. McCray primarily taught painting, life drawing, and figure anatomy; he also advised graduate students working on theses, remaining on the faculty until 1942. He shared a studio in the university’s art department with Grant Wood from 1934-1941.

After Wood’s death in 1942, McCray and his wife, Dorothy, also a professional artist, relocated to Clear Lake, Iowa and established a personal studio. While in Clear Lake, McCray became well respected for his commissioned portraits and book illustrations. He frequently painted on an easel formerly owned by Wood and kept a pair of the famous artist’s overalls. In 1948, the McCrays moved to Silver City, New Mexico for Dorothy’s appointment as an associate professor of art at the New Mexico State Teacher’s College. No longer interested in full-time teaching, Francis chose to accept a position as the college’s artist-in-residence which allowed him to work with students and maintain studio time.

A frequent exhibitor to area and regional art shows, McCray became known for his paintings of New Mexico and won many awards at annual Museum of New Mexico shows (1948-1960). Unlike the regionalist style of his Iowa years, the southwestern artwork revealed a drastically different McCray in image and scheme. A brief sabbatical in the San Francisco Bay area (1954-55) offered exhibit opportunities and graduate studies in color lithography for Dorothy.

Francis McCray died in Silver City in January 1960. Western New Mexico University’s campus gallery is named in his honor; its first showing was a retrospective of McCray’s New Mexico paintings, as well as his sketchbooks and drawings.


When Tillage Begins:The Stone City Art Colony and School, Published online October 2003 by the Busse Library, Mount Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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