For Don and Jessie Gray, Art Is a Family Affair

HUSBAND and wife teams of equal talent and accomplishment are rare in the visual arts. Most couples who paint or sculpt discover early on that success will not come equally to both, and that one or the other had best withdraw or assume a secondary, supportive position. That is not the case with Don and Jessie Gray, two painters at mid-career who are not only creatively well matched but whose careers have been inexorably intertwined from the time of their marriage, over 30 years ago.

But that isn't all. Both write professionally about art, and both have played host to radio and cable television programs on the arts. Don still does.

All parallels and similarities end, however, when it comes to their work. Although both are representational painters, their styles and approaches differ dramatically.

Jessie (who is known professionally as Jessie Benton Evans) paints in a style that's overtly expressive and romantic. Her colorful, exultant landscapes are all-out celebrations of light, color, and energy. Her images and intentions are always positive, always life-affirming. She says, ``I feel a spiritual presence in nature. Immense beauty is always there, even as the backdrop for the starkest of realities.''

Her approach is direct and uncompromising. ``I paint with thick paint, because I like its succulent, juicy quality. ... Each moment is changing, and, somehow, plunging headlong into my painting gives me the same feeling of the surging sky, earth, wind, and sunlight that I see and feel all around me. ... I feel most alive when I paint. All of my senses respond, and I feel pulled out of myself into something larger. It's as if one works through inner and outer restrictions into a free sense of being and a state of exhilaration and expectancy.''

If Jessie shares something of Van Gogh's and Burchfield's nature-saturated enthusiasms, Don finds himself more in line with C'ezanne's and Manet's well-ordered painterly visions. This orderliness permeates his portraits, landscapes, urban scenes, and still lifes. At times, it leads to genuine monumentality. Some of his most impressive works are huge, complex still lifes, in which reproductions of paintings by such artists as C'ezanne, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Gauguin nestle among numerous everyday objects. These are compositions of remarkable formal and thematic effectiveness. Much of their special quality derives from Don's ability to share his love of paint with his viewers and from his desire to place whatever he sees and experiences within a cultural and art-historical context.

Both Jessie and Don are mavericks, not in their work, but in their relationship to the art world in general. Born in Arizona and educated at Arizona State University, they headed for New York in the early 1960s.

ACCORDING to Don, ``When we arrived, art was at the height of the Pop, Op, Minimalist, and subsequent movements. To two people dedicated to seeing and reacting to the living subject, the artificiality of such art was a rude awakening. ... My artistic identity was forged in this experience. I was forced to decide for myself what my art would be. I did it by linking myself with life and reality as I saw it, by painting people and still lifes in the studio and by taking my art materials onto the streets of New York.''

Life was difficult, but the Grays' dreams never wavered. When things became too hectic, they moved 60 miles north to a smaller community. Except for substantial periods of time spent painting in Arizona, they've lived there ever since.

The Grays returned recently to New York after a two-year stay out West. They came back for their joint exhibition at Western Images Gallery here, and to make plans for the future. Both feel good about the show and about their latest work. They believe this exhibition marks turning points in their careers.

And indeed, it appears to. Their work has entered a new and more dynamic phase. Jessie's latest paintings, while no less enthusiastic than before, are now more structurally solid. And Don's casein and pastel studies of Western landscape elements are consistently more on target than anything he's done before. One is tempted to say that the mountains, outcroppings, rivers, cactus plants, and forests of the West have given him his truest and most meaningful subject matter. That, at least, is the impression these works give - just as Jessie's recent paintings project a note of grandeur and serenity seldom seen in her work before.

The Grays have every reason to be pleased with what they've produced so far and with the way their careers are progressing. Recognition for their art is growing. They live entirely on sales made directly or through their galleries in New York; Carmel, Calif.; and Scottsdale, Ariz.

They have achieved mastery of their art, and yet they feel as challenged as ever by what lies ahead. And finally, they have the satisfaction of knowing that they've remained true to their ideals - that whatever success they've achieved has come from their lifelong dedication to art and their efforts to embody those ideals in a wide variety of provocative and life-affirming images.

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