Monday, January 10, 2011

Defining Moments: Artist Gypsy Ray Creates Beauty out of Adversity

by Brent Calderwood
reprinted by permission from A&U Magazine, November 2010 

For the last thirty years, Gypsy Ray’s photographs and drawings have exhibited extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Her photographic works are included in collections in the U.S. Library of Congress and at the British Museum in London.
In the mid-1980s, Ray’s widely acclaimed documentary photographs of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS were exhibited in San Francisco and thereafter were included in several group exhibitions and solo shows throughout the United States. Twenty-five years later, their startling intensity and immediacy prove timeless. Courageous, candid, and undeniably artistic, they create beauty out of tragic circumstances. They also challenge notions of photojournalism and art photography as separate categories.
Ray has said that she eschews labels such as “artist,” “photographer,” or “documentary photographer.”  While these are all apt descriptors, they fail to capture the ways in which she blurs these lines, sometimes literally, as in her mixed-media series “Concealment”; inspired by her personal battle with breast cancer, Ray’s black-and-white drawings of bandaged bodies, often hazy and in extreme close-up, obscure gender and color in an effort, she says, to make their message universal.
I recently spoke with Ray from her home in Kilkenny, Ireland.

Brent Calderwood: How did you come to photography and drawing as a career? 
Gypsy Ray: I studied drawing and photography at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.  It was known as one of the very few photography programs within an art department [in the 1970s]. It was an enlightened place to learn photography because it combined the science of photography with the art of that medium. I then did an independent program through Goddard College’s San Francisco office to receive my Masters so that I could teach.

How did living in those different locales affect your work?
GR: First living in Iowa City informed my AIDS work because I started a series on the male nude there, and several of my models were friends who were gay.  Then, living in the Bay Area, I saw the need to work on a visual response to HIV/AIDS, both a personal and political response to what was happening in the mid-1980s press. Also, we—my husband and I—were experiencing the loss of friends through the disease, so this felt very important to do.

The HIV/AIDS photographs seem so intimate. How did you find your subjects, and how did you get them to open up to you?
GR: I almost always work thought an agency, at that time with San Francisco AIDS Foundation and San Francisco Hospice. This lends validity to my presence and helps establish contacts and trust. It is then up to me not to betray that established trust…. It is hard for me not to become involved with the people I work with. I am an artist but also have been a teacher in my working life. So being supportive and often fond of subjects comes automatically.

How is your approach to photography different from—or the same as—your approach to drawing?
GR: Although the technique is different, my approaches to both are similar. Recently, as a response to illness, I combined the two, using a photograph first and then obscuring it with drawing in a series entitled “Concealment.”

What can you tell me about that series? Images like Concealment #30 are striking, and yet it’s not clear what part of the body they show. Is this intentional?
GR: This work was a necessary working out of my own experience with cancer.  But in doing it I realized that I did not want the series to be either so personal or so gender-specific that it couldn’t also be universal. During chemo, I looked a bit like an egg! [Laughs] And in a photograph, [I looked] neither male nor female, so some of the images are myself.  But many are of others and are obscured so that the viewer has to search the images.  Everyone has a trauma they need to cover over to get on with daily living.  Thus,“Concealment.”

In addition to breast cancer and HIV/AIDS, your projects have addressed subjects as various as urban schools and the Special Olympics. Do you see a common link in these projects?
GR: I am drawn to documentary subjects. Breast cancer was a personal response that evolved into a specific, not just female, response to covering up trauma. “San Francisco City Middle Schools from the Early 1990s” was another project I was invited into and embraced. “Special Olympics” began as a student volunteer project when I taught at Cabrillo College [in Santa Cruz County, California] and then extended to my own work with the U.S. Special Olympics and similar work with Camphill Communities in Ireland where I now live…. All of these are, in a sense, educational.  Perhaps their link is a desire to visually teach.

How did you wind up in Ireland?
GR: I moved to the Bay Area to receive a Masters, and I ended up staying. Then I married a man from Ireland and moved back [to Ireland], where we could afford to finally purchase our own home. Working here has changed my work, but so has age. I find that drawing offers me the quiet I need. And yet now, through the Kilkenny County Council, I’m photographing an extended family of Irish Travellers at their halting site, so … I am still doing documentary photography. I am still, at 61, passionate about both drawing and photography.

What’s next for you?
GR: I am heading to the studio full time, retiring from teaching. This is emotional but also exciting.  I have been fortunate to be the arts facilitator for a wonderful group of women in a socially inclusive program. It is hard to leave this but also a wonderful way to end my teaching career…. Going into the studio full time is very exciting. I have so much I want to do and explore.

You can learn more about Gypsy Ray’s work at

Brent Calderwood is a San Francisco-based writer and activist. His essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared widely, including in A&U. His Web site is

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