Smithfield Herald

Artist pays a visit to Johnston Community College

Artist Eric McRay paints in front of an audience at Johnston Community College in Smithfield.
Artist Eric McRay paints in front of an audience at Johnston Community College in Smithfield.

Artist Eric McRay of Raleigh placed an unfinished painting on the floor, held a tube of paint over the canvas and squirted out a large glob. He then brushed the paint into the canvas like an eraser on paper.

His movements appeared to lack precision or purpose, but when McRay placed the painting back on the easel, what had been lines of paint was a picture of three jazz musicians playing a gig.

“I’m just wondering what makes him think so fast about what to do,” Nynfalee Cantos, a junior at Johnston Community College, said as she watched McRay paint Tuesday at the college.

McRay’s style seemed to be messy and unmeasured, Cantos said. “It’s crazy because it does come out to look good,” she said.

McRay came to JCC as a visiting artist, the fourth to visit since the program began in January. Bill Gregory teaches fine arts at JCC and oversees the college’s Frank Creech Art Gallery. He said his aim is to bring in an artist each month for a day.

The artists don’t come to lecture, Gregory said. Instead, they work on a current piece and answers questions as people watch. Admission is free; financial support from the community brings the artists to Smithfield.

“People have truly enjoyed it because a lot of these programs are not here in Smithfield and not as accessible in the Smithfield area,” Gregory said. “Rather than tell people to go see somebody, I’m doing my best to bring (artists) here so that they can come and see them themselves.”

McRay is a professional artist with a studio in Raleigh’s Artspace. On Tuesday, students, faculty and community residents came to JCC to watch him work and to ask questions. This was not McRay’s first visit to JCC; his artwork was the second exhibit featured in the Frank Creech Art Gallery in 2011.

A messenger for art

McRay said he tries to be a messenger for art. “A lot of the public has no real idea of what an artist is like,” he said. “Who better than myself to show people an artist?”

McRay explained his technique as he painted, in black and white, three jazz musicians – a saxophonist, bassist and drummer – in the middle of a song. He often took breaks to sit with the people watching and answer questions, talking about his journey to painting fulltime and what it’s like to be a professional artist.

He said artists are often overly romanticized, but “not all artists choose to be clichés,” he said, noting that he hasn’t taken a vow of poverty.

McRay said he likes coming to community events because he gets to interact with the public. Even though he loves painting, the work often involves being locked away for hours in a room. “That solitude can become a loneliness,” he said.

McRay said he also goes out into the community because he wants to show “that the arts aren’t just for the elite.” Anyone can delve into art, explore and enjoy it, he said. “I’m trying to open that door to people, how amazing this can be,” he said.

Elizabeth Sawrey, 84, of Smithfield said she is a novice artist who attended the event to support the college’s art program. “I have not painted for a while, and I’m just trying to get inspired again,” she added.

Gregory said students like the program because they get to talk to and watch a professional artist. The event also serves as a networking opportunity – students make connections with professionals in the art world, he said.

Students receive lessons and advice from their instructors, Gregory said, “but as soon as it comes out of an artist’s mouth, it means the world to them.”

Gregory said ceramic artist Tanya Casteel will come to JCC in October.