Stephen Ray jokes that his affinity for barns comes partly from a belief that “when I was born I went home with the wrong parents—city folks—instead of my farm family.”Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Stephen Ray is a man with 45 barns, give or take.
And each morning as he sits down to paint, Ray works to bring forth, from tubes of acrylic, another one of the “old gray ancients,” as he calls the spare, iconic barns that shimmer under his brushes. With an estimated 10,000 barns in Connecticut alone, he’ll never run out of subjects; however, “I tend to concentrate on the northeast and northwest corners of the state, where they’re most plentiful,” he says. Worn and dusky, melancholy but dignified, they stand like sentries on the hillsides, looking over the land. “Sky, grass, barn—that’s what I paint,” he says, with a smile.
Like the orderly world within the barn of a conscientious farmer, Ray’s studio, just off the kitchen of his Waterbury, Connecticut, home, is a study in practical organization. Today, the large draft table he works on is almost bare except for a few Masonite panels painted a deep shade of blue—the kind of blue that makes you want to go outside, lie down beneath it, and listen to tall field grass blowing. “New England sky is the most incredible blue sky you’ll ever see,” Ray says.
Sky this blue doesn’t come easy. Ray builds layers and layers of color, but quickly, as acrylic paint dries fast. Four, five coats go on, and by the time he’s finished you can’t see a single brushstroke—the surface is smooth as glass, just waiting for the next barn. Ray chooses his model from a stack of photos he’s snapped from miles of travel, then does a pencil sketch. A sheet of white carbon paper behind the drawing allows him to trace the outline directly onto the Masonite. “People used to ask me, ‘Why no trees?’” Ray says. “I didn’t know how to paint trees in the beginning!”
Behind Ray’s main work area, a standing easel holds the occasional painting he feels like tackling vertically. The gentle warbling of four tiny finches accompanies quiet classical music—Vivaldi, Mozart—or public radio. Beside the birdcages, a door opens to a deck overlooking the small suburban backyard dotted with bird feeders.
“Birds are definitely my thing,” Ray says. “It’s a nice soft sound in the background when I work.” On cue, from the living room, comes the insistent cooing of Jolie, a white dove that marked Ray’s wedding to his wife, JoAnn, in 2004. The sweet, mournful sound conjures an old-time farmhouse feel. “When Steve comes home, she won’t stop,” says JoAnn. “She’s addicted to him.”
And here is another barn echo: rows of multicolored show ribbons strung over the north-facing studio window, but representing art shows, not livestock competitions. Off to the side of Ray’s work desk, massive crates are stacked along the wall, evidence of the latest exhibit, a wildly successful show in Atlanta.
But before he painted barns, Ray built stairways, lots of them. A skilled woodworker, he spent decades in the building industry, first installing kitchen cabinets, then stairs, all over the state. How did he make the leap from carpenter to fine artist?
Ray points to a crucial influence when he was 8 or 9, growing up in Monroe, Connecticut: his family’s proximity to and friendship with artist Gary Barsumian, who also painted barns. At 18, Ray reconnected with the Barsumians and saw how Gary’s work had changed. “I was blown away by it—so clean, crisp, just the feeling it had,” he recalls. “I thought, Someday I’m going to paint like him.”
So here and there, as years went by, Ray picked up a paintbrush, and once or twice got semiserious. Whenever he did, he painted barns. “It was the feeling they had, of solitude,” he says. “I had that feeling all my life. I’d struggled with addiction until I got sober in 1999. I could understand them—out in the field, getting no upkeep, taking the weather, not falling down. And that’s how I felt. That I was going to take life, and not fall down. And as a woodworker, I respected how they were built.”
But in 2008, the market crashed. Construction dried up, and, at 53, Ray was laid off. At that point, JoAnn told him, “You always wanted to be an artist. This is it. It’s time to paint.”
“I drew and painted every day that year,” he remembers. “I was really enthusiastic, but it was scary, too. We had bills and a mortgage. But my work was to teach myself to mix, draw, and paint. And at the end of the year I had a dozen really crummy paintings, but one or two that were pretty good.”
The next year, Ray started doing shows. The first was a homecoming of sorts, in Monroe. “Since then, it’s been my full-time job,” he says, the wonder still surfacing in his voice. But there’s confidence, too, when he speaks of his work. “My colors have gotten brighter. There’s a panoramic look to my paintings. And something else—I don’t know why some of them work, but there’s an internal light, and I don’t know how I do it.”
He points to the painting of an “old gray ancient” in Cheshire, a barn that’s no longer there, being rebuilt somewhere else. This one has that light. “I chase it in every painting.”
Prices range from $400 for an 8″x10″ painting to $6,500 for a 30″x60″. For more information, call 203-565-6315 or go to barnsbystephenray.com.