By Reggie Ellis
The old man stopped his wheelchair and looked over wheat fields stretching as far as the eye could see - but his mind's eye could see much further.
As he stared at the painting he gazed past the field and recalled a fishing hole he was fond of as a boy concealed from the view of everyone else. In keen detail he described how long it would take to walk there and in what direction he would have headed even though he hadn't lived in the area for more than 80 years. He roared meticulous descriptions about each painting, unable to hear questions but answering them in time.
While his hearing and much of his body had deteriorated, his hands and sight are as keen as ever honed by a lifetime of experience. The 99-year-old's hands never shook as he painted a picture in the air illustrating stories to accompany each work of art.
Ray Strong has painted for more than 90 years and hasn't lost one stroke of genius.
"He woke up this morning and started sketching on canvas a scene out the window," said Strong's daughter, Barbara, who was art historian at College of the Sequoias for more than 37 years. "It was a beautiful sketch, as good as anything he has done."
Strong's paintings are the focus of a one-man show at the Courthouse Gallery of the Arts now through September. The show is a collection of oils and other media celebrating the lyrical landscapes of California, Utah, the Northwest and Europe. Loaned by the Strong Family Trust, none of the priceless items were for sale.
Born the fourth of five children on Jan. 3, 1905, Strong began painting at the age of 9 while growing up in Corvalis, Ore. Near the turn of the 20th century, hops and wheat fields dominated Oregon’s Willamette Valley located 90 minutes from Portland. In 1924 he left for California to enroll in the California School of Fine Arts. In 1926 he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City and met his wife, Elizabeth "Betty" Brown, a talented violinist. They married in 1928 and moved to California in 1930, where they had two children - Barbara and Tim. He gave his first one-man show in 1941 at Stanford University at the age of 36. His last was a retrospective show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in 1997 at the age of 92.
"He is really excited about this show," Barbara said. "He hasn't stopped talking since we arrived."
In 1950 he began teaching art at Marin Community College. Barbara said her father still gives private lessons to students and works with The Oak Group.
Recently cited as "the dean of the plein air movement" in Santa Barbara, Strong co-founded The Oak Group in 1985 as a union of open air painters who, through their painting exhibits, have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Nature Conservancy and other environmental organizations to help preserve endangered landscapes. He also co-founded the Santa Barbara Art Institute and Gallery 113. His paintings, dioramas and murals are displayed in numerous venues throughout the United States including the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara, San Francisco's Academy of Sciences, the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History, Lassen, Rainier, White Sands National Park, Keen Valley Parish in New York and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Each of Strong's paintings speaks with poetic perspective and living light. Each painting had its own story and Strong took the time to tell it. He stopped at one painting that looked down on several rocks near the Marin County shore. He gently waved his hands in the air following the contours of the brush strokes that symbolize the flow of the the wind and the sea.
"In tide, out tide. The moon is talking."
For having remarkable resume and being an ageless artistic marvel, Strong is delightfully down to earth. After talking non-stop about several of his paintings he would pause, pull a harmonica from his pocket and play a tune. Strong will turn 100 in January. In honor of his milestone and preservation efforts, there will be four separate exhibits of his paintings throughout Santa Barbara in December.
Barbara said her father was in the process of moving from his Santa Barbara home to live with her in Three Rivers.
"He is already picking out subjects," she said.
Almost anything man-made loses its luster after a century, but Ray Strong is going strong.