William Wray | Beauty and the Blight

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Doughnut shops and convenience stores. Shabby hotels and old drive-ins. California painter William Wray relishes painting places like these along the back streets of metropolitan Los Angeles. Wray proudly declares he is a painter of blight—a chronicler of the fading urban remains of a bygone era. He wants to capture these scenes on canvas before developers replace them all with strip malls.

Although he has been accused of having a depraved sense of humor, Wray is not joking about his artistic commitment to finding beauty in the blight. Indeed, his mission is to consider places most people don’t think are worth remembering and turn them into works of art. “Anyone can paint the Empire State Building,” he says. “I pick less dramatic subjects. And when I can get a good painting from the banal, I know I have succeeded.”

Wray describes himself as a founding member of the L.A. River School of Urban Impressionism. But he confesses that the “school” refers merely to a loose-knit group of artists who paint the area around the Los Angeles River and eschew traditional picture-postcard landscapes.

You are unlikely to see Wray set up his easel along the Pacific Coast Highway to paint seascapes of waves crashing against craggy rocks—he leaves that to other artists. The painting he entered in the recent California Art Club Gold Medal Show says something about his vision: AT THE BEACH features a coastal scene, all right, but it spotlights a corpulent woman seated in a plastic beach chair at the edge of the ocean.
Wray’s painting stood out in a room full of elegant figurative works and traditional landscapes. But then again, he himself stands out to onlookers when, wearing a bandana on his head and a tank top that reveals bulging biceps, he hops on his bicycle to go in search of new painting locations. Dressed this way, the former body builder looks like one of the superheroes from his other line of artistic work.

Film animation and comic book illustration fill Wray’s hours when he’s not painting. In fact, it was only in 2004 that he began to devote himself seriously to fine art. But with a successful illustration career that includes animation work for the Ren and Stimpy Show and collaborating on the comic book Hellboy Junior, Wray is hardly a stranger to the art business.

In 2006, just two years after coming onto the art scene, Wray won the Artists’ Choice Award at the San Luis Obispo Plein Air Painting Festival, and last year he won a top honor at a Laguna Plein Air Painters Association show.

With his history in the film industry, it’s easy to associate him with the California Scene Painters, many of whom worked as background artists for Disney Studios in the 1930s and were also fine-art painters who depicted Southern California’s urban and rural scenes. But they were watercolor artists, Wray points out. He more closely identifies with the early California Impressionists, with their emphasis on light and drawing. However, he notes, there is one difference. “I don’t want to be a timeless, classic artist,” Wray says. “I want to comment on my time—even if some of the buildings I depict are pretty old.”

His brushwork and style have evolved over the past few years, he says. In the beginning, he didn’t want a single brush stroke to show. But after reviewing works by artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Payne, he began educating himself about how to paint with more bravado. “I like that crazy, crawly brushwork on everything. And I wondered how to do that.” Classes and workshops with painters Carolyn Anderson, Jove Wang, and Ray Roberts helped show the way.

These days, a camera is Wray’s constant companion, supplying the source material for his paintings. His photo forays around L.A. may be planned “expeditions,” as he calls them, or spontaneous “adventures,” as was the discovery of an obscure alley he eyed one day on his way to a Pasadena restaurant. The light hit a white-washed building in an intriguing way, and he liked the feeling of the scene. Wray clicked the camera button and the image eventually turned into the afternoon streetscape PASADENA ALLEY.

Wray’s home and studio are located in Sierra Madre, about half an hour from downtown Los Angeles. A town of about 10,000 people, Sierra Madre is nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Wray boasts that it has no stop lights and only one chain restaurant. And that’s the kind of place he likes to call home.
His 600-square-foot studio sports vaulted ceilings, making it seem larger than the numbers reveal. It’s no surprise that the space is packed with art books, old toys, and an array of characters from Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Amid this creative nest, he also keeps the photographs he sorts through looking for beauty amid the banal. But he doesn’t adhere strictly to the photographic images when creating a painting; sometimes he adds a touch of his own, as in SOUTHERN CONNECTOR. His photo of the San Gabriel River Freeway didn’t have a blimp in it, but he decided to add one. “I felt like it needed a surreal element,” Wray says. “Blimps have a magical feel. They are majestic and yet there is something comical about them. They also have a nice, simple shape. And they are a window to the past.”

The source material for BOY was actually a photograph he bought on eBay. The photo reminded him of himself at that age. The youngster portrayed in the painting appears isolated and a little lost. But perhaps that is reading into the image after learning more about Wray’s background and that fact he was an Army brat who moved constantly.

His father, a lieutenant colonel in Army intelligence, uprooted the family many times, moving to places like Germany, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. Early on, art became a comfortable refuge for Wray. He often drew scenes that reflected the World War II era he was growing up in. “There were lots of bombs and blowing things up,” he recalls. “I was always drawing because I was lonely.”

He was 10, Wray says, when his family moved to Costa Mesa, CA, and he finally began to feel rooted somewhere. By the time he was in his teens, he was already working in the animation business and drawing comic strips. After high school, Wray attended a community college for a while, but his art teachers hated academic, representational art. “They mocked me for wanting to draw and paint traditionally. Putting TVs in sandboxes was their taste,” Wray says.

In 1983, on the advice of a drawing teacher he respected, he applied for and received a scholarship to the renowned Art Students League of New York and headed east. Wray found a cheap apartment and supported himself with comic book and illustration work. In the early ’90s, L.A. call him back with an offer he couldn’t refuse—animation work on the Ren and Stimpy Show, a cartoon that featured a hyper Chihuahua and a clueless cat. Wray is currently working on Mighty B, a children’s cartoon that features Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler as the star voice over—another offer he couldn’t refuse. But he also continues to scour the rough edges of L.A. by bike, foot, and car.

The obvious question is: Why would a successful animator and illustrator want a second career in fine art? “I like comics, animation, and painting equally,” Wray says. “But I wanted one field where I have the personal freedom to paint what I want. Fine art is that.”

These days his fine art is taking a new direction as he incorporates more figures into his urbanscapes. He keeps noticing people that intrigue him, that he wants to put in a painting. But first, he says, he has to overcome his fear of violating people’s personal space with his camera. He wants to feel more comfortable taking candid pictures of complete strangers.

Recently he looked out the window and saw a beehive of little girls playing a game they call Runaway Baby. They snuggled a doll in a carriage and then gave the buggy a big push. The carriage veered madly until it crashed and the baby fell out. The game intrigued him, and he wished he had snapped a photo for a future painting.

As this story went to press, he was waiting for the neighborhood girls to gather and play the game again. Perhaps viewers at next year’s Gold Medal Show will see a painting by William Wray titled RUNAWAY BABY. Stay tuned.

Vault Gallery, Cambria, CA; Anne Irwin Fine Art, Atlanta, GA; www.williamwray.com.

Featured in July 2009