I grew up in a log cabin hand built by my father in the woods of rural South Carolina. During college I moved around from Charleston, SC to Columbia, SC, to Richmond, VA. Today I live and work in a cabin adjacent to Pisgah National Forest in the Black Mountains of NC.
What necessities do you require when making your art?
If I’m painting indoors, music is essential. The playlists tend to change with the season. This summer has been a lot of Bibio, Julianna Barwick, James Blake, Beach House, rocksteady and early reggae, especially Phyllis Dillon.
Do you see different musical styles relating to how you paint?
Absolutely. I play music of varying styles depending on whether I want to loosen up my paint handling or work more carefully on a certain area. Every song seems to have its own color palette and environment.
Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?
I often draw parallels between painting and time spent outdoors. In both experiences I find responding to the situations that arise to be more interesting than the plans I started with. In my paintings, this might come through by holding the brush in a less controlled manner, moving the brush at varying speeds, or loading up several colors in the same brushstroke.
How do you choose your materials?
Sustainability has become an important factor in choosing materials. While I’m just one person using a relatively small amount of supplies, I honestly want to be in love with my materials. The best choices are not always clear, but I feel good about using materials produced closer to home, paint with naturally derived binders, and wood from responsibly managed forests, while simultaneously trying to maintain archival quality.
I find responding to the situations that arise to be more interesting than the plans I started with.
— Danna Ray
Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?
I’m not sure I’d be an artist today if it weren’t for a terrific elementary art teacher (thanks, Ms. Merett). Something clicked the moment she showed me Robert Rauschenberg’s “Monogram”.
What about the work stood out to you? Do you relate to Rauschenberg today?
I’m sure as a kid I was immediately drawn to the stuffed goat, but I know it also expanded my understanding of what art could be. I was excited about the unusual format and the idea that art could be commentary on modern life. In art school, I went through a phase that was majorly Rauschenberg-inspired where I worked in collage, layering paint with objects I found on the street and photo albums from thrift stores. I’m not sure if my work relates as much today, though I think I will always be interested in looking closely at seemingly mundane subjects.
What are some themes you find recurring in your pieces, intentional or not?
During college, I had a job taking care of tropical plants in commercial spaces. Then, after graduating I spent a couple years working as a horticulturist at a zoo. As much as my work has evolved, it’s clear these early experiences continue to influence the forms I’m drawn to paint.
I think I will always be interested in looking closely at seemingly mundane subjects
— Danna Ray
Where do you feel you create your strongest work?
I don’t believe there is a hierarchy in landscape. I think all places can be interesting if we look closely enough. When I lived in the city, I was just as inspired by the woven carpet of pine needles by the front door as I was awestruck during trips to Yosemite. I’ve been more productive since moving to the mountains almost two years ago. I’m especially grateful for the solitude and wealth of subject matter found in the national forest near my studio.
How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
In earlier work I was drawing much more from memory and symbolism. A few years ago I started meditating while walking and running and this practice has fundamentally changed my work. Today I’m interested in movement, presence, and environments in constant flux. I’m also enjoying painting outdoors, which I had completely sworn off when I was younger.