I kept returning to one piece in particular, a small colored drawing glued on a cardboard square. It was left undated and titled lightly in pencil at the bottom, “Negroes, Churches, Stars.” Ray had done it while at BMC. I had to lean in close to see a tiny landscape of mountains made up of primitive figures that gave way to churches with tiny crosses and a star-filled sky above. The African-style figures and the churches morphed into mountain-forms through a network of obsessively penciled-in bricks and stripes. Hands appeared as trees, folds of cloth became mountain ridges. The coloring—dark blues and earth-tone red and brown stains—added another layer to the miniature landscape. What I liked best was how Ray used the jagged edge of the paper to suggest a mountaintop. Having spent close to a decade up in the very same mountains, I appreciated the accurate “feel” this ad-libbed ridgeline carried.
Bill has written about the piece in an exhibition catalogue, remarking that Ray “pin-pricked the paper to make holes which represent a field of stars. The holes are not the first or last time he reifies nothingness, that is, he uses something to represent nothing, and uses absence to conjure up presence.” 5 For me the presence is Ray’s deep-seated awe for nature, for tradition and for the dark power of magic. Simply put, a northern flatlander like Ray was bowled over by this Appalachian mountain culture. He had been transplanted into a small garden of wild exotics but was looking out at a vast range filled with rhododendron.