When asked to talk about the subject matter in one of his paintings, local artist Ray Duke prefers to turn the inquiry back to the questioner. He enjoys it when his work evokes a response from viewers.
“It’s not important to me that people get what I intended in a painting. I like hearing what my images make them think about,” Duke said.
Duke has converted a small bedroom at the back of his home on Wohlwinder Avenue in Cynthiana, Kentucky into a studio for his painting.
He has sold a few of his works here and there, but the majority of his paintings lie against each other against the rear wall.
Thumbing through the collection, one is struck by the range of subject matter that he has painted. One of the pleasures of looking through these works is tracing Duke’s development as a painter.
Even to people who do not have much of a background in the visual arts, it is still possible to recognize the development of a highly individual style. There is a great deal of movement and energy captured in these images. Thick strokes invite viewers to touch the canvas and appreciate the tactile sensations in the paint itself.
“I like the way the paint dries on the canvas,” he said. He has re-purposed some of his old canvases, with images he was not satisfied with, to new work. An unexpected benefit of this practice was the way his oils interacted with the older paints, creating a work that invites touching as much as it invites viewing.
Duke has been a practicing artist for decades.
“Growing up, I have always been able to draw and work in clay,” Duke reflected. Yet, he is a relative newcomer to oil painting.
When he first began applying himself as an artist in his spare time, his first devotion was to sculpting, which he had begun in earnest as far back as 1996 while he and his wife were living in San Francisco.
In his living room are impressive examples of his skills as a sculptor. Among them is a detailed scene of two baseball players falling over themselves to catch a fly ball. He’s a fan of baseball, particularly of the San Francisco Giants.
Another is an almost mythic depiction of a beautiful woman with her arms open, an inviting expression on her face, and a scorpion’s tail and pincers seemingly ready to strike.
Duke would have happily continued creating bronze sculpture, but it is a very expensive endeavor.
“It’s not just that bronze sculpture requires a lot of money in materials to create the molds, it also costs a lot to reproduce the works for people who like them. Bronze sculpture is cost prohibitive as a hobby,” Duke said.
He started to take painting seriously around November 2006. From an economic standpoint, it made better sense. A 4 x 5 canvas can run anywhere from $20 – $100.
If the subject matter calls for it, Duke uses wood canvases which are also not very expensive.
But in 2006, when he decided to switch his preferred medium to oil painting, there was one small hitch. He really didn’t know that much about it.
But things were going okay for he and his wife, Karen, – enough so that he decided to leave his job and spend 17 months with a friend in Mazatlan, Mexico to teach himself to paint.
The city proved to be fertile ground for inspiration. The rich culture gave him numerous subjects to depict on campus.
Carnivale in Mazatlan, Duke said, is one of the best known in Mexico. Though it does not have the tourist crowds associated with those celebrated in Rio De Janeiro or New Orleans, it is a vivid spectacle.
One of the works inspired by the celebration occupies a space in their master bedroom.
He has several others in hispersonal collection in the studio. What captures the attention most in his work is the individual detail in the faces.
One of the more vivid examples of that work is one of his early paintings of a struggling family. The fatigue in the face of a mother raising a family alone stands in contrast to the belligerent expression on the face of her son, a toddler who is already adopting a sense of the false machismo that is a bane of male culture in that part of the world, Duke said.
“I found that there was a steep learning curve when it came to developing skills as a painter. It took some time before I produced anything that I thought was worthwhile,” Duke commented. “It may have leveled out a bit more, but the curve continues to go upward.”
His development is like leaping from one rock to another to cross a stream, he said. “I can see the shore ahead of me, but I never get there. It always recedes.”
The 2008 recession was an economic setback for Ray and Karen Duke. Relinquishing their home in San Francisco, the Dukes came to Cynthiana to where his wife’s family resides.
“We’re like Okie’s from the Grapes in Wrath, but in reverse. We’re economic refugees from California,” Duke said.
But even in the midst of re-establishing themselves here in Cynthiana, Duke has found plenty of material to inform his paintings in Kentucky.
A source of enduring inspiration has been a series of nudes that he has interpreted in numerous ways. Recent experiments, which found their way to his living room wall, cast his nude model in the forms of two famous marble statues — Venus De Milo and Michaelangelo’s David.
Two other works that have been displayed in regional art shows are powerful images of a female boxer preparing for a bout.
As with many artists, he hasn’t sold many of his original works. But then again, he describes his work as more an avocation than a profession.
“It’s something that I enjoy doing,” Duke said.
Interestingly, the pleasure that he derives from painting is in the completed work, not in the process itself.
“I find that the work can be enervating. It saps a great deal of energy. I usually just work about two to three hours – about the length of a playlist on my iPod – then I stop and rest,” Duke said.
But when he finally comes to a point where a work is complete, there is a sense of release.
He’d like to sell more of his work, but the market is not the reason he commits time to creating his art.
Ray Duke is always glad to meet new people and share his art with them. During art shows in the region, he is glad to break out a few examples from his growing body of work for people to see.
“I have known that I have talent to draw and create. I don’t want to live my life knowing that I have an ability and never used it,” Duke said.