A Purist Turns to Childen's Books

David Ray explains why his new field - illustration - offers freedom, challenges - and fun. ART: INTERVIEW

`ILLUSTRATING children's books is challenging and fun,'' says David Ray. ``I've felt no creative conflicts because of it. In fact, I can do things in illustration that wouldn't be acceptable in fine art. ``The objectives may be different, but the creative energy I put into both is essentially the same. My own work may be more probing and philosophical, but I put the same care and love into my illustrations that I put into my paintings.''

Those who knew Mr. Ray 10 years ago but haven't seen him since would be surprised to hear him talk this way. No one at that time was more serious or more dedicated to the loftiest ideals of art. One often felt, while listening to him talk then, that only art on the level of Leonardo's or Michelangelo's was worth considering, and that to aim for anything less wasn't worth the effort.

I, however, am not surprised. To me - and I've been following his progress as an artist for almost 25 years - his part-time career as a children's book illustrator makes perfect sense. He's now painting colorful, lighthearted pictures of the things that delight young children, but not at the expense of his other work.

In fact, a glance around his studio here indicates his work with children's books has proved a boon to his other creative efforts.

His recent paintings are warmer and more serene, more thoughtfully conceived and composed than those done before 1988, the year of his first first children's project. Spiritual subjects still dominate (a single-figure ``Crucifixion'' was one of his most recent creations), but in more subtle and sensitive ways. And even his two other favorite subjects - his wife, Robyn, and his dog, Autumn - are treated with greater gentleness and care.

I mention this while studying his latest painting, ``Pumpkin Light,'' a charming depiction of a personified Autumn sleeping upside-down on a sofa next to a jack-o'-lantern. Everything in it is calm and serene. Except for a subtly mysterious quality, due primarily to the carved pumpkin, nothing could be simpler or more ordinary. And yet - and it's difficult to tell why - a remarkably warm and benign quality pervades this modest and straightforwardly painted canvas.

``Yes,'' he says, ``the illustration work ... allows me to do things I've never done before and always in my own style. It's an excellent way to solve certain technical problems. I have to remember that I'm working for children, but, other than that, what comes across in these illustrations is as much me as what you'll find in my paintings.

``It only makes sense,'' he continues, ``that all that thought and effort would affect my other work. I know it has, and I think for the good. Doing these illustrations helps me pull things together that otherwise might never be resolved.''

That's also the conclusion of this observer. Just why that is so, however, isn't entirely clear. It could be because his first children's book commission helped end a particularly difficult period in his life.

But I think there's more to it than that. To understand what it is, however, one must be aware of two things: first, the depth and passion of Ray's ambition - not for fame or fortune, but to become an artist of significance and quality; and second, the fact that he is virtually self-taught as a painter.

These two factors exerted almost unbelievable pressure on Ray's emotional and creative life: He wanted to create art that was relevant to his age but could also stand comparison with the masterworks of the Italian Renaissance. And, he had to climb into the ring with these giants without formal training and with the responsibility of supporting a family of four.

Frankly, when I first met him, I didn't think he could do it. What I failed to take into account, however, was the scope of his vision, the ferocity of his integrity, and his dogged determination.

The toll on his creative and personal life, however, was too great. He began to pull back, first by working full-time as a sign-painter and then by painting modestly successful interior and genre pictures.

By 1988, he had had enough and decided to recommit himself to art. He quit his job, re-focused his energies (he says he experienced a profound spiritual re-awakening at this time), and discovered that his talents were well-suited to illustration. His first book, ``The Banshee,'' written by Karen Ackerman and published by Philomel Books, is out and doing well. And his second, ``Greyling,'' will be out sometime next year.

But best of all, his own work has mellowed and improved. Most of the old tensions are gone, and in their place one senses, if not serenity, then certainly a more profound and encompassing harmony. He once again looks forward to the future. ``I take great pleasure in the possibility that what I do may contribute to a spiritual and formal awakening in the arts.''

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