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Making Her Mark

A WNMU retrospective celebrates the life and career of Silver City artist Dorothy McCray.

By Cathy Goodwin

Dorothy McCray's small gallery in Silver City hums with light and energy. Each painting seems to project a life force that glows beyond its frame. So visitors may be surprised to learn that McCray's forthcoming retrospective, which opens Jan. 21 at Western New Mexico University's Francis McCray Gallery, will be called simply

Dorothy McCray

"Making Marks."

"It's the answer to a child's question," McCray explains. "What are you doing? 'I'm making marks on paper.' Or marks on clay."

The title fits McCray's artistic philosophy. She doesn't create themes and she doesn't work in series. "I'm a very intuitive painter," she explains. "Some artists are intellectual painters who use their skills to present what they want to say. I'm an abstract expressionist and an action painter."

McCray doesn't use art to make political or social statements, either. "Art should speak for itself," she says. "Paintings can be hung sideways or upside down--I don't mind." McCray enjoys watching viewers react in their own way, as I discovered when I saw a spider in Zephyr, a painting about the wind. "I hadn't noticed," she says, "but now I see there's a web, too." 

Some of McCray's paintings do tell a story. For instance, Philemon is half of a diptych that represents a legendary couple who turned into trees when they died. First Light shows the WNMU bell tower emerging from clouds blown by the morning wind. "It's the view from my house," McCray says. "It's what I see every morning."

In From the Patio, Akhnaten and Nefertiti, two "very special" Siamese cats, stare out of the canvas. "I wanted to paint a cat's eye view of my patio. It doesn't really look that way, but to them it does." So she painted passion vines, hummingbirds, snakes, lizards, rabbits and foxes.

But can McCray explain a painting such as Apotheosis? "Viewers can find their own meaning," she says.

      McCray grew up in South Dakota and studied art at the University of Iowa. She earned an MFA from California College of the Arts in Oakland, Calif. Her husband, Francis ("Mac") McCray, taught briefly at the University of Iowa and the couple had their own studio in Clear Lake, Iowa. Seeking her own teaching career, McCray sent her credentials to one of the employment bureaus that matched professors and colleges in those days. The university in Silver City hired her as an associate professor in 1948, at "a nice salary for the time." And they invited Mac McCray to join the faculty as a paid Artist in Residence.

McCray remained at WNMU until 1981. Along the way, she gained international recognition, including a mention in five Who's Who collections: Who's Who in America, American Art, Among American Women, World of Women and International Art and Antiques. Her work appeared in shows held all over the world, from Cincinnati and Chicago to Switzerland and Mexico. The university further honored her with a Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2001.

She says she loved teaching, especially "the stimulation of seeing artwork develop." She taught students what she practices herself: find ideas everywhere. One exercise asked students to "walk one block and see how many ideas you can find to paint: a crack in the sidewalk, maybe the way a shadow moves, or the shape of a bicycle wheel."

Don't use what is obviously beautiful in nature, she warns: "A sunset is beautiful. God did that." Instead, she says, "we need to see things in a new way. And artists who paint from their photographs have one strike against them. Use your imagination, not the camera."

So where do her own ideas come from? "Life is full of surprises. It's a matter of reacting to those surprises. I'll have a cup of tea with a friend and see the bracelets on an arm, a set of bathroom fixtures, a memory of an experience. And I might combine them--use the shapes of the bracelets or the bathroom fixtures, or put the cat in the bathtub." She points to a wavy pattern in the hardwood floor. "You could sketch that if you wanted to."

McCray worked on her own projects along with the students, a model she believes was most effective for her own development. "An artist can learn from everyone and students learn from a working artist," she says. "And, thanks to teaching, I could paint what I like. I never painted to sell, although sometimes I sell what I paint."

She acknowledges her academic, classical training, although art "just happens" now, she says. And she allows her projects to unfold naturally. "I can't say I'll be finished next Tuesday--I might finish tomorrow or in 20 years."

McCray's independent views may have begun early in her life. Her parents encouraged her to paint and work in clay, even building a detached studio when she was in junior high school. As a child, she attended Minneapolis Art Institute, staying with friends of her parents. 

"I was fortunate," she remembers. "We lived in Madison, South Dakota, where a small teachers' college allowed high school students to register for classes. So I was able to study tennis and art in the summer." McCray also remembers a good art teacher from high school, whose friendship lasted many years. "When I came home from college, we'd go painting together."

      McCray has enjoyed watching the growth of Silver City's art community, and local artists look up to her as teacher and mentor. "Dorothy was a great influence on me," says local artist Patricia Clayton. "She encouraged me to take print-making at the university."

This month McCray will be honored in a retrospective at WNMU's Francis McCray Art Gallery, named after her late husband, which is in the McCray Building, named after her. The exhibit will be set up in two parts. "Francis McCray: Art of the Fifties" responds to requests to show the work of Mac McCray, who died in 1960. "Making Marks: A Retrospective," features Dorothy McCray's works, mostly from local private collections.

Mac McCray's art, rarely exhibited in Silver City, has a more whimsical, narrative quality than his wife's work. Dark Legend, for example, is based on the region's tendency to turn Billy the Kid into an idol. He's up on a pedestal in harlequin costume, while a sheriff looms in the background. The forms come from Old Tyrone, including the railroad tower. City Form was suggested by contrasting the flat desert with city shapes from Hurley and the Deming skyline, as seen by Mac McCray 40 years ago.

"Francis and Dorothy McCray were the original power couple for the visual arts in Southwestern New Mexico," says Paula Geisler, the exhibit's curator. "They set the artistic tone--professional, not amateur or self-taught--for the entire region through their own work. Dorothy's work continues to uplift and inspire--ever-evolving, always full of passion and vitality."

Today Dorothy McCray always has two or three pieces going and five or six ideas for new work. Her son Peter McCray, a retired engineer living in Tucson, has taken up drawing and "has almost caught up to me," she says with a smile. She also stays in touch with her two grandsons and two great-grandsons. She reads "non-selectively," visits her large circle of friends and enjoys her three cats: Floradora, "a goodness-knows-what who looks like a Motherwell painting"; Didi, a classic tabby; and Loki, a Siamese mix. "The cats are interested in what you're doing when you paint," she says. "They climb on my easel and bat their paws over the work. Sometimes I think they could have done a better job."

A typical day? On one morning she glazed a piece of pottery and looked up frame sizes, then "worked" awhile in the afternoon. "I'm not on a schedule," she says, sounding very pleased. "I tell myself, 'You don't have to if you don't want to.' Maybe I'll read a book instead." 

But most likely she'll return to her studio and continue her lifelong passion of "making marks."


Dorothy McCray's gallery, Atelier 108-McCray on Broadway, is located at 108 W. Broadway in Silver City, 538-9538. It's open Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

The dual McCray exhibit opens Jan. 21 with a reception from 5-7 p.m., and closes Feb. 11. McCray Gallery hours are 12-4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

While choosing work for this exhibit, McCray discovered that one of her works, Promenade, was stolen recently from the Dona Ana Branch Community College in Las Cruces. Michael Stewart, Art Committee chair, describes the painting as a rather large (3' 10" x 2' 8") abstract scene of Venice with a handmade frame. This work once belonged to popular WNMU art professors Hazel Sechler and Inez Rhodes. Anyone with information should call Stewart at 527-5782.


Cathy Goodwin is a freelance writer and business/career consultant (www.cathygoodwin.com).


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