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A Gypsy At Heart

[whitespace] Gypsy Ray The Proof Is in the Sheet: Gypsy Ray studies a negative in her darkroom.

George Sakkestad

The human heart is always in focus in the photographs of Open Studios artist Gypsy Ray

By Mary Spicuzza

FATHER AND SON Billy and Brendan grin proudly from the center of their black-and-white portrait. They gaze directly at the viewer, Brendan's massive hand draped around his tiny son, looking dignified yet completely real. Those same words embody their photographer, Gypsy Ray.

Local artist Ray has participated in dozens of national and international shows, contributed to just as many publications and had numerous articles written about her work. She has pioneered new directions in documentary photography, whether it be her series of male nudes in the late '70s--at a time when the word "nude" was synonymous with the female body--or a project in the mid-'80s aimed at breaking stereotypes about AIDS.

Sitting with Gypsy Ray in the kitchen of her Eastside Santa Cruz home, as her cat nestles in my lap and Ray excuses herself to check a friend's birthday cake baking in the oven, it becomes instantly clear that none of her success has gone to her head. Ray, who also teaches her craft at Cabrillo College and UC-Extension, is no more pretentious than she is predictable.

Drawing the Dark Room

STEPPING DOWN into her darkroom, Ray leads me past her pieces hanging on the workspace walls. The photographs are black-and-white, like almost all of her work, but the series doesn't include any photography. These detailed graphite drawings in simple black frames depict common things in nature, such as chestnut shells and flower stalks.

"They're photographs disguised as drawings," Ray joked in a recent interview with KUSP-FM about the pieces. The series, which was on display this summer at the Chaminade Conference Center in Santa Cruz, at first seems like a departure from her previous work. But Ray says it's actually a return to it.

"I had planned on being a science illustrator when I was younger," she explains. "I drew constantly as a child."

As a drawing major at the University of Iowa, Ray considered photography just another required course. Maybe it was fate that at the time Iowa had one of the only photography departments in the nation. After just one class, she was hooked, and an excellent photography instructor inspired her to spend an extra year in school, solely devoted to her new-found medium. Afterward, she moved on to graduate school at Goddard College in Vermont, where she completed her thesis, a study of the male nude in photography.

Ray's thesis project with male nudes has had a profound influence on her work. For one thing, it quickly taught her the challenges of presenting unusual subject manner.

"Imogen Cunningham did male nudes of her husband in 1925, and many people were outraged," Ray remembers, "and in 1977, the reaction was pretty much the same." Ray says Cunningham was a major influence in her early works.

Most reviews of Ray's traveling show centered on critics' shock at seeing men naked, rather than exploring the quality of the works themselves. Despite the show's gallery exhibits in more avant-garde cities like San Francisco and New York, people couldn't seem to understand the concept of seeing naked men as art.

Because many of Ray's subjects were gay men, her master's work also led directly to what has become one of her most famous projects: portraits of people living with AIDS. By the mid-'80s, Ray was living in San Francisco and was moved to give back to the community that had contributed to the success of her previous work.

"AIDS hit that community so hard. In 1985, I started working with the San Francisco AIDS Project," Ray says. "I was angered by the way the gay community was being portrayed by the media. It was a pretty reactionary time--the coverage of the disease was so sensational, rather than humane."

With each work in the series, which includes those living with AIDS, family members and loved ones, and people who care for them, there is a statement written by the subject of the photograph. What results is a compassionate collaboration that provides a voice for people living with the disease.

The portraits, which are anthologized in the book Living With AIDS: Collaborative Portraits by Gypsy Ray, have toured nationwide and internationally for more than a decade. Over the years, as more is learned about the disease, the series has expanded to include a growing diversity of people--working with those subjects to show that there isn't any one type of person who gets AIDS.

"When my photography works the best, it is a collaboration," Ray explains. "That relationship was essential in working with AIDS."

Ray brings her compassion and humanity to whatever image she focuses on. During her frequent trips to Ireland since her first journey in 1980, she has taken the mandatory idyllic Irish countryside shots. Ray, however, goes beyond the predictable pretty pictures to include many of her neighbors.

Although her photographs are undeniably charming, they are above all humane. Most of them are portraits of people like Nonie and Nellie. The pair of elderly sisters are dressed in everyday clothing and aprons, standing outside their home as if taking a quick break from making dinner.

In 1994, Ray also began working with an Irish Camphill community, a self-sufficient center for people with disabilities. Again, her subjects are never pictured as passive or victims. They are just people going about their lives, facing whatever challenges come their way with dignity. Few of her photographs incorporate color, yet they have a way of capturing her subjects that seems more genuine and intimate than any bright, bleeding colors could.

"I just spend a lot of time with people, get to know them," Ray says. A perfect example is Portrait of John. The photograph shows an elderly Irishman in square glasses and a cap, holding a bent pot and a bundle of kindling. It is clearly posed, like many of Ray's portraits, yet there is nothing artificial to be found in John's puckered smile, pronounced dimples and mildly amused glance.

"John passed away some time ago," Ray says. John had lived next door to the thatched cottage where Ray and her husband lived during one of their many stays in Ireland.

Corn Dogs and Animal Hats

RAY SMILES DOWN at each photograph as if it were an old friend. Chances are she could tell stories about each of her subjects. For several she does, until she slips into her bedroom and returns with an armful of her other projects.

"I suppose I should show you my children's books," she says with a laugh.

Her first book includes brightly colored animals pictured with the shoes that would best suit them; the second work-in-progress is about animals and their hats. Ray also lays out a scattering of whimsical photographs of her American home: Santa Cruz. Shots of a Seabright Beach lifeguard's stand, a family munching corn dogs at the Boardwalk and a woman with braids looking out toward the ocean are among the mix.

"I haven't really officially started a new series," Ray says quietly. "I've just been photographing things around here that strike me. Does that seem totally flaky?"

Looking over her several-page résumé as Ray talks about her preparations for this year's Open Studios and her Cabrillo students, I'd say taking a break before delving into another series sounds anything but flaky. It's more like well-earned rest.

Open Studios 98 continues this weekend, Oct. 17-18, 11am-6pm. A $15 catalog admits two to the studios of 261 participating artists throughout Santa Cruz County. For information, call the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County at 688-5399.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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