Artist Ray Mack received her B.A. in Studio Arts in 2006 from Bard College in New York where she was mentored by Nicole Eisenman. In 2012, she earned her M.F.A. in Painting from San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Her work is regularly exhibited and published both internationally and nationally.
She makes a living selling her paintings and teaching art at after-school programs and through private lessons in Seattle, Washington.
Joyce Brown: What was like for you growing up in a small town?
Ray Mack: I grew up in Ellensburg, Washington. It’s a bizarre little place with a lot of hay farmers. The population is around 9,000 but goes up to about 18,000 when Central Washington University is in session. I was the weird kid of Marxist-Jewish academics in a rodeo town. It wasn't until I went to college that I realized that I was a stereotype.
I dropped out of high school my sophomore year and started going to college full time through a program called, Running Start. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me with art lessons as soon as I showed an interest in it, around second grade. I had private lessons with one art teacher throughout my childhood, then another in early high school. As a kid, I spent a lot of time drawing, doing stuff by myself, and not fitting in with cowboys.
Joyce: What inspires you to paint and draw?
Ray: I think inspiration a tricky word because that classical idea of being struck by inspiration as an artist rarely happens. It's great when it does happen, but I think the majority of the time when I get things done it's just because I’m motivated by the fear of not getting things done. Obviously, other artists inspire me. Weird moments in life inspire me. I like huffing it out in the studio. I love what I do.
Joyce: What’s the story behind your paintings?
Ray: A lot of work that I'm doing right now is based on the canonical works of Western art history, or basically, I'm ripping off Norman Rockwell paintings. The imagery is sourced in the scholarly tradition, like learning to become an artist by copying old masters who have laid the groundwork. But for me, as a woman, I was tired of copying the work of old men. I like rewriting and toying with male-dominated iconic works and adding my perspective.
Joyce: How important is it to add humor to your work?
Ray: It's very important. I think I've adapted humor as a strategy because it’s an accessible format for difficult issues. Humor makes things relatable. It's hard to say things straight up sometimes and not give off the wrong vibe. I think humor, for me, has become an easy way to bring things up without being perceived as an angry, hysterical woman. Humor makes most things more appealing, which is nice.
Joyce: What's your favorite thing about having your work displayed for others to see?
Ray: I feel like my response should be something like, ‘Oh, I paint with my back to the world, and it's all about not caring what's going on around me.’ But I don't feel that way at all. I'm sensitive, and I care what people think. In this industry, success can happen due to some pretty subjective tastes, so I think getting your stuff out there and having other people look at it is the only way to know if you're playing the game right. You have to show up to your openings and schmooze. I’m a little antisocial and nervous, so I do the best I can. I try to answer questions and be gracious.
Joyce: Is there one thing that makes you decide if a painting works or not?
Ray: It always takes me a long time to figure out whether or not I like things. Sometimes I don't even know until I put it in front of somebody else. Usually, when I finish a painting, I turn it around and come back to it a couple of weeks later and see what I think about it then. I try not to form any immediate opinions. For instance, I just finished a “28 paintings in 28 days” project on Instagram where artists had to post something every day for the month of February regardless of whether or not they thought it was terrible. Some of my paintings that I thought were the biggest cop-outs got more likes — not to measure the success of them based on likes, because I know that's pretty arbitrary.
Joyce: Are you working on any other projects? Any shows coming up?
Ray: At the end of the month, I'm presenting my work and doing a lecture at SFAI titled, On Betsy Ross. I'll be there with the curator, Clea Massiani to talk about feminism and art history. I’m excited about it because artists talks are always pretty fun. And later this year, I’ll be in a two-person show with a friend of mine, Malayka Gormally. We're doing a show on being figurative women painters at the Spaceworks Gallery in Tacoma, Washington.