Born in a waterfront house on the Dalmatian Coast of Yugoslavia in 1901, in l909 at the age of eight, he moved with his family to San Francisco, where his father, a shoemaker, opened a shop in the Sunset District, within sight of the Pacific. He had begun drawing and painting almost from infancy but his father, a strict former soldier for the Austro-Hungarian Army, insisted that he give up the idea of being an artist and several times beat him with a home-made cat-of-nine tails. His mother, though, encouraged his talent.
He attended San Francisco School of Fine Arts through his teens and, during summers, while working in logging camps in the Sierra's, began fishing for trout. From then on, fishing was, after painting, his second love. Supporting himself throughout the 1920’s as a free-lance commercial artist and illustrator, he moved about the US and Canada fishing local rivers, lakes, and streams until 1930 when he arrived in New York City and began his long, successful career painting illustrations for magazine fiction in major publications including The Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, and McCalls.
It was also there, in the 30's, that he became a member of the Society of Illustrators, and the clubs Artists and Writers, and The Dutch Treat Club. And it was around that time that, with his second wife, Carolyn Pierson, he began summering in East Hampton.
Ray began surfcasting when he bought his first house in Amagansett. Soon after, he became friends with the haulseiner Ted Lester, following Ted and his crew along the beach, learning from them the art of watching the sea; the crucial, and intuitive prelude to finding fish.
If artists often carry a leitmotif along with them throughout their career, as, it is said, Franz Kline had the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania in his head, Henry Moore had the image of his mother's broad back, Stuart Davis had the New York Beat, then Ray had fishing, and the sea. Moving to Amagansett, on the East End of Long Island, in l943, he before long became known as an inveterate sports fisherman and as the man who used local people as models for his magazine illustrations; the local Norman Rockwell.
During the thirties and continuing into the forties he had maintained studio space at the 10th Street Studios, where he met and became friends with artists such as Julian Levi, Alexander Brook, Raphael and Moses Soyer, and Phillip Guston. In those days the chasm between "serious" painting and commercial artwork of any kind, even the most talented illustration, began to widen, and became deeper even than the rift between representational and the emerging victor, abstract expressionism. Ray was one of the few who crossed that difficult line and became accepted as a fine artist.
When not illustrating, he was busy painting portraits, until, that is, he discovered the East End of Long Island. Then the sea began to demand his attention, and he began to divide his time between painting and fishing. At first his paintings were realistic, rock pools and the driftwood and skate eggs that line the shore, but they became more abstract, more rhythmic, and more involved in the action of fishing. And the more he fished, the more he painted.
WHERE HE CAME FROM:
He came from Muo, a tiny Adriatic fishing village on a cove of the Bay of Kotorska, in the town of Kotor, on the Dalmatian Coast, in what would become Yugoslavia. In 1909, when he first came to this country, ( he was then eight years old, ) a school teacher had changed his name from Gratia, which meant Grace in Serbo-Croatian, to Raymond. He loved his mother and thought of her as a “saint.” He was her only surviving son, after many, perhaps ten, miscarriages. He grew up in San Francisco, where his father was a shoemaker. He had two younger sisters, the younger of which was born in the U.S.
A MIRACLE AT SAINT GRACE:
Though he had few memories of his childhood in Montenegro, Ray told one story, whether remembered or handed down to him by his beloved mother, that was important in shaping his life. Muo, little more than a neighborhood on the road from Kotor to the next town of any size, has it’s own Patron Saint. On a small plateau halfway up the mountain range that rises directly behind the houses along the shore, there is a small, one room chapel dedicated to that Saint, Saint Gratia, or Sveti Gratia, ( Grace, in Serbo-Croatian.) Like many children from his village, Ray had been named for Sveti Gratia. (The photo at right is the chapel, and the figure standing to the side is Louis Adamic, well known Yugoslav-American writer of the 1930's and friend of Ray's.)
The ceremony included his mother and Godmother, many older people from the village, several priests, and the area Bishop. The Chapel bell, when someone pulled too hard on its rope, fell from the peek and narrowly missed both the Bishop and the little boy, who was holding up the Prelate’s trailing gown. The event, which was proclaimed a miracle, and his mother’s conviction that the proclamation was true, were at the core, at least in Ray’s mind, of his ability to see and feel God in nature.
“His mother continued to tell him he was in a state of grace, as he grew up. Perhaps for that reason, for good or for ill, he always felt blessed. Blessed, charmed and lucky. Years later, when I went off to college in my late teens and my mother called to say she had talked him into getting married in the church. Though his mother was born Sebian Orthodox, she had married a Roman Catholic, and had become R.C. Therefore, my father was Roman Catholic. My mother was from an Episcopal father and an Irish Catholic mother. She had converted to Catholicism in the eighth grade, during a short lived period of intense religiosity. I was surprised by their sudden concern with the spiritual, and doubtful that he would go through with it. When the priest told him he would have to go to confession and communion, he said matter of factly that he had no sins, the priest let away with it. He charmed his way straight to Communion and a quick ceremony and was back in his studio in a couple of hours.” [ Quote from T. Prohaska ]
1935 YUGOSLAV TRIP - Tony Prohaska
Putting together a show of my father’s work at the East Hampton Town Marine Museum gave me reason to look again at his photographs and paintings of Yugoslavia done on a summer trip in 1936. The show, of which the Yugoslavia pictures were only a small part, stirred in me the conviction that I could revise my own history; go back and listen again to my parents and the elders of my youth. I felt I could look for messages other than the literal or commonplace; and that in fact, coded messages could exist, ( subtext, ) in art and photographs; anecdotes, myths, old letters, gossip, and the style and context of their lives. This idea, as well as the influence of several writers whose books I had recently read, including Black Lamb Gray Falcon, by Rebecca West, The Native’s Return, by Ray’s friend, Louis Adamic, and Family, by Ian Frazier, pushed me toward a deepening exploration of my own family history.
Ray's House in Amagansett, NY
Ray bought this house on Main Street in Amagansett, N.Y., in the summer of 1945 for $4,500 dollars. The house had been built in the mid-1800’s by an offshore whaler, who’s son sold it to a man named Cartwright, who ran a blacksmith shop and carriage making business next door.
Cartwright’s son built a house on part of the business property and lived there until he died in the 1950’s. Ray’s studio was in a wing that had been added sometime earlier in the 20th century, and that had been used as a studio for The Amagansett Art School in the 30's, run by the artist Hilton Leech. Leech had several visiting instructors, including the famous illustrator Mac Clelland Barclay, who died in the Pacific, during WWII.
Ray took over the studio in the summer of 1945 with the proviso that he could use the studio and take over the rest of the house after a group of European painters and other returning expatriates occupied the main house for the summer, paid for by Peggy Guggenhiem.
The expatriates included Max Ernst, Stanley William Hayter, Jean Hellion, and Lionel Abel.
"Combing beaches, fishing, observing and drawing, from Shagwong Point to Cow Neck is a life style that is my Dalmation heritage. As I walk the sandy beaches, climb slippery rocks and wade the shore I am reminded how privileged I am to be here. I feel the beauty of this environ- ment and know that while I live I can never feel loneliness in this boundless exhilaration."
The East End has always been attractive to artists, but few artists have immersed themselves in the environment to the extent that Ray did, and produced such a competent and prolific body of work.
He had begun fishing in the Sierra's as a teenager, fished all over the United States, and began surfcasting on the East-End when it was still something of a gentlemanly sport. The men he fished with, from fishing spots called Shagwong and Caswell’s and The North Bar, in Montauk, to Cow Neck, in Southampton, were almost fanatic in their zeal to catch fish. They would get in their cars and chase the bass up to Provincetown or down to Hatteras, or take the Orange Blossom Special down to the Keys for Tarpon and Bonefishing.
This photograph, by renowned photographer Gary Winogrand, appeared in a double page spread in an issue of Sports Illustrated in the late '50's and shows Ray battling a big Striped Bass in the surf off Caswells, a favorite fishing spot southwest of the Montauk Light, one of Ray's favorite spots.