It Goes On: A Conversation with Fay Ray
By Ella Viscardi
“I'm eight months pregnant and have two scary studio deadlines that will take me right to my due date. Let's make this happen!” While scheduling an interview with Los Angeles-based artist Fay Ray, this candid email foreshadowed the sincere, outspoken woman whom I would soon encounter face to face.
Ray creates artwork in a variety of media, including sculpture and painting, but the heart of her practice lies in collage. She photographs objects encountered in her day-to-day life and combines them into visually rich, black-and-white collages. By fragmenting and reorienting elements of her everyday life, Ray's collages spark reflection on how specific objects can be described in terms of both their arbitrary and uncanny qualities.
When I spoke with Ray in September, she opened up about the multiple layers of her collage practice, artistic evolution, and life in the studio.
Ella Viscardi: Have you always liked making things?
Fay Ray: I always loved taking photos. I remember getting a roll of film developed at a very early age and taking pictures of things around my house. It took until I was probably 17 or 18 to really start thinking about being an artist—with my very limited knowledge at that point of what an artist was. I think organically I was always going to be one. My conception of myself as an artist is something that keeps getting stronger and keeps changing and keeps getting added to as the years go by. I have so much respect for the pursuit and especially [for] people who stay with it their whole lives. I always feel like I have to earn the ability to call myself an artist.
EV: Did you study art in school?
FR: I went to Otis College, an art and design school in California. I went in thinking I was going to do landscape design, and then I got pulled into fine art through New Genres, a conceptually-based art curriculum. I didn’t really see myself as a photographer or [a] strict painter or sculptor, and Otis had this program, so I started taking classes in it and switched my discipline. I majored in New Genres in graduate school at Columbia University as well. I went to Columbia expecting to make a lot of sculpture and performance, and I left Columbia making a lot of two-dimensional work. I’m so glad that I have the context of that grad school experience; the collage work in my practice is something that is so essential, and I can’t imagine being without it now.
EV: Did it feel like becoming an artist was your inevitable career path?
FR: I wish there was an easier answer for you on that one. There were moments when I was like, “Columbia's over, so I'm an artist.” I was working with other artists in their studios, piecing rent together, doing group shows, blah blah. Then there was the market crash of 2009. I remember thinking at that time, “What did I do? Why did I choose this? Is it too late to become a psychologist?” Then I kind of lost my grip. That had to happen to me a couple times out of school—time to accept that there was no alternate reality. For richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, 'til death do we part: I'm an artist. I felt more settled in that about seven years ago, right when I made the decision to leave New York and move back to L.A.
EV: What drew you back to Los Angeles?
FR: So many things. It was drawing on that commitment to never stop making work. Like I said, for richer or for poorer, I'm an artist and I can't shrug it. I'd indebted myself so deeply in money and time; there wasn't any going back. Knowing that, I took a hard look at my live/work ratio. I wanted more space, I wanted more money, and I wanted more comfort, so I moved back to L.A. It was a time in the market where I wasn't really making any money off my work. I felt like nobody was looking and would give a shit if I stayed or left, so I wanted to make it easier on myself. And that's what I did. I'm really glad I made that choice, because so much for me artistically bloomed in LA.
EV: Did returning to L.A. have an influence on your practice?
FR: Content-wise, absolutely. In just speaking about the collages, I used to appropriate images directly from magazines and create these really dense compositions that were a little claustrophobic and anxious. In the last five years, I've moved almost entirely away from appropriating imagery and shoot everything myself. I don't know if I would've gotten there in my practice in New York at the same time. When I moved to L.A., I was able to look inward just a little bit more than I did when I was in New York, but that was also me maturing and getting deeper into my 30s. With this new maturity and being back in a familiar space, I started to feel so much more comfortable with my own things and the objects and spaces around me. I started to think a lot more about John Miller's books and approach to art making, and elements of the uncanny in everyday things—stuff that I was thinking about at Columbia but kind of picked back up. The essences of simpler objects seemed to be louder and stronger, and I started to become more fascinated with that.
EV: Where does your creative process start?
FR: I just start shooting things that are around me—it's definitely visual and textural and what's accessible. For instance, I started to really want to shoot pinecones. The texture of pinecones just looked different to me than it had in the past, and I started to want to collect and shoot them. I also shoot my own jewelry; sometimes that'll float in there. I have been eating a shitload of almonds in this pregnancy, and so sometimes, there will be almonds. I want to use stuff that I'm eating, looking at every day, stacking up by my bills. I'm trying to make it as easy as possible on myself. I don't think you have to look too far out of your own surroundings to make a piece that talks about something universal and personal.
EV: A lot of your work features objects that are conventionally gendered as “feminine.” How does femininity play a role in your content and process?
FR: There was a point where I wanted to chase it out of the work. It keeps showing up—it is the thing that I am fascinated by. Finally I came to a point where I accepted it. I needed to run right into the eye of this female-stuff storm and find my artistic marrow or some juice in it. I do try and incorporate ideas I have of masculinity into the work; it's more of a pace or an attitude with which the work is made. It's not necessarily reflected in the imagery you see. I have very strong male artist mentors in my mind; they help me move quickly through ideas. I love that collage is a part of my practice because the only way to do it is to make a shitload. I get to choose if they get made and finished—that's it. This aspect of my practice allows me to work through imagery and ideas fast and loose, in a nonjudgmental way. I think it's important to not be consumed with what's not in your power… I don't think you get a choice to make [your work] good or bad, I really don't. I'm open to having a conversation with anybody who thinks they can actually make good artwork. Production for me is the bottom line. I'm not an artist if I'm not making anything.
EV: As a soon-to-be mother, what advice about creativity and creation would you like to pass down?
FR: That's a really big question. Not every artist has this hang-up, but take that good and bad off of your mind. If you're making something, you're doing all that is expected of you. If you're making art and you're showing it to people, that is enough. I don't think being an artist is something that anybody really chooses to do. It's not easy. There's so much time where you get so little back—all you get is what satisfaction you can muster in your own studio. If that's good enough for you, then you're an artist. But that's not fun and inspiring. I don't know, I don't have a good...
EV: That's okay! We don't need a grand finale quote.
FR: Maybe that's the theme of this whole conversation: It goes on. You get on, you stay on, and you try to stay on as long as you can. ★
This interview has been condensed and edited.