The fascinating world of Enos Ray

Artist Enos Ray (his painting is on the wall behind him) explains his motivation. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Enter the world of Oak Bluffs painter Enos Ray and you will discover two parts soft-spoken Southern gentleman, three parts volcanic imagination and five parts artistic talent. It’s a recipe for one of the Island’s most original artists. His work is on display at Ruth Adams’ Tree House Gallery in West Tisbury through Labor Day.

Using swatches of intense primary colors, Mr. Ray has developed a series of portraits of Black musicians matched only in distinction by his genre paintings of rural Black community life as vibrant as a Pieter Brueghel. His work ranges widely in style from surrealist to detailed realist to abstract impressionist.

If one quality characterizes all of Mr. Ray’s art, it is vitality. Movement animates both his Black musician portraits and the people inhabiting his picnics, horse races, and swimming holes. His abstract paintings vibrate with color and motion. His pen and ink drawings — completed with extraordinary fluidity and filled with intricate geometric patterns — of artists at work, and phantasmagoric bestiaries, dazzle the eye.

Even though he was only days out of a hospital stay for unexplained aches and pains that have the doctors puzzled and speculating about chronic Lyme disease, Mr. Ray fairly bubbles over with ideas and allusions. A recent project he was eager to discuss concerns a book of his work he’d like to see published. He’s already had copies made of another small book about an artist at work in which fish, streams of water, and other magical images pour out of his paintbrush.

His grandmother was a genealogist, and genealogy has fascinated Mr. Ray since he read “Excuse Me, Your Life Is Waiting” by Lynn Grabhorn. He was so taken by the late Ms. Grabhorn’s ideas about the laws of attraction that he taught himself how to use a computer so he could learn more about her.

That new skill led him to and other Internet genealogy sites. He was amazed to discover he was related to Sir Isaac Newton, at least six American Presidents, outlaw Frank James, actor Raymond Massey, writer Aldous Huxley, and singer Frank Sinatra, to name a few.

How does he explain the fascination with genealogy? “It tells me who I am,” says Mr. Ray.

The most fascinating genealogical connection of all for Mr. Ray is Elvis Presley – he has an Elvis clock in his kitchen, and he listens to his gospel music while he works.

A Virginia native, Mr. Ray comes from a family who arrived in America in the 18th century, acquiring property through a land grant. One of his “found” relatives is Booker T. Washington, and another is Jane Ray, who he believes was the nation’s first mulatto schoolteacher. “I want to get this Jane Ray recognized,” he says.

While Mr. Ray grew up in a socially prominent Washington, D.C. area family – his father was a surgeon – he has identified with the poor Black rural community since childhood.

“I liked the country boys,” he says, and Mr. Ray spent a lot of time in childhood on his grandfather Elwood Ray King’s farm near Middleburg, Va. Although sent to private schools including St. Albans Academy, he preferred to hang out with his friends in Frogtown, a Black community on the Shenandoah River.

From the age of 10, he would “borrow” a flat-bottomed johnboat, used for poling and jigging, and spend two or three days camping and fishing with his buddies. His grandfather King meted out punishment for bad behavior by making Mr. Ray – fortunately a crack shot – shoot out the stone the older man held up in each hand. Mr. Ray describes his grandfather as “a southern Craig Kingsbury.”

Mr. Ray’s stories of life in Virginia, where the athletically proficient young man learned to ride horses at an early age, continue in an almost unstoppable stream. His career as an artist began late – he was 30 when he decided that the caricatures that became so popular on his travels would lead him into his life’s work.

He arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in 1979, selling his art in what was then called Gay Head, then traveling south to peddle his artistic wares as a street artist in the off-season.

As the stories tumble out of this prolific artist, their connection to his art is clear. “I don’t think when I paint,” he says. Instead, he turns on some Elvis, goes into a trance and produces his unique and original paintings, sketches and drawings.