As a second grade student learning his multiplication tables in 1942, Jim Bray was motivated by the simple urge to draw. If he studied the math, his teacher told him, and he could correctly recite the tables in front of the class, his reward would be the opportunity to draw on the chalkboard anything his heart desired.
With the world around him plunged into World War II, he wanted nothing more than to fill up that board with howling German Stuka dive bombers or strafing Messerschmitt BF-109 fighters.
He studied the math for six weeks, though he had trouble with his 9s. When his teacher told him he couldn’t draw on the board because of his memorization problems, “I was crushed,” he said.
The urge to sketch in front of others was too strong to ignore, however. That night, he begged his mom to help me drill those pesky multiplication 9s into his head. The next day, he aced his oral tests. Soon after that, a corner of the chalkboard was filled with his aerial combat renderings.
“That really made a believer out of me,” Bray said with a smile.
A special exhibition of Bray’s paintings will open next Monday inside Spiva Art Gallery on Missouri Southern State University’s campus. The show will run through Thursday, July 23. It will be a homecoming of sorts for the 84-year-old Joplin artist, who served as the university’s art department head for 10 years.
“It’s an honor for them to invite me,” Bray said, who retired from teaching in 2004. “I was surprised; I didn’t expect it. It’s a step back for me to the environment that I knew and loved for 10 years.”
Merging of artistic and technical methods
Bray honed much of his artistic and technical talents from his years spent as an illustrator for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, creating designs and slogans for bestselling greeting cards.
“The years at Hallmark were very good to me,” Bray said. “It taught me professionalism in my work. I learned how to do precise lettering for the greeting cards and advertising promotions — something I would have never learned in any other profession.” Sadly, most of these wonderful experiences “are obsolete. Nobody uses handwork skills. They’ve been lost in the shuffle; computers just ate us alive. I cherish those skills, although I have no way to apply them.”
He received an invitation to venture back to his alma mater, Phillip University in Enid, Oklahoma, to launch a graphic design program. It was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical from Hallmark, he said. But even those 12 months wasn’t long enough for him to get the curriculum up and running the way he’d envisioned. He ended up staying at the university for 28 years, eventually serving as chair of the art department.
“No, I never wanted to teach. I had no interest in doing that,” he said with a chuckle. “A couple of times I said I was going to go back (to Hallmark), but something would always happen and would redirect me.”
But he was good at developing young artists, and his years spent at Hallmark — combined with his own successful artistic career — brought a bit of some real world practicality into the university setting.
“(Hallmark) provided a background, and it was easier for me to pass that on to the students.”
A trip halfway around the world
Both of his paying professions — teaching and painting — merged when he undertook the first of many trips across the Atlantic to Sweden, where American students got to study alongside Swedish students during the late 1970s. During that trip, Bray traveled to the island of Oland in the Baltic Sea and met the king and queen of Sweden.
“That about did me in,” Bray said. “I don’t think I ever recovered; it was just shockingly exciting.”
The trips helped him embrace teaching. “I became a teacher. I thought this was something that I would never do, but I had so many experiences where I was able to turn students in the right frame of mind, and just in general, I liked the challenge of it. It was just a new world for me.”
When Bray came to Missouri Southern in 1991, he taught courses in watercolor, life drawing, painting and typography. He also taught Scandinavian art history as part of Southern’s Summer in Sweden program, which he helped create in 1992.
The trips across the Atlantic “definitely changed my life, and I hope it changed the lives of the students that went in the program because the exposure is almost indefinable; when you’re living there you want the (American) kids living with the Swedish kids, eating with them, sleeping in the same dorms with them; you’re there all the time.”
Exhibition full of ‘reminisces’
A watercolor and acrylic artist, Bray has established an international reputation with his paintings and collage works, exhibiting in Japan and Scandinavia.
The Missouri Southern show will display a wide variety of his works, covering some of his most beloved subjects: train engines, airplanes and landscapes.
“I paint from memory. My memory paintings are more like you and I just sitting around and reminiscing about the good old days. So the paintings really reflect that, but not in a formal way. There are no pictures. I just make up things. I romanticize it to an extent,” he said. “I know I can throw anything that I want to into that painting, but it’s still a trip back in time. And it’s an adventure in painting for me. I really enjoy that mental process that allows you to see those images in a unique way.”
Before you go
Jim Bray, who served as head of Missouri Southern State University’s art department for 10 years, will offer an artist’s talk at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 9.
Did you know?
Jim Bray’s work has won top honors and awards in national competitions and a number of his collages are featured in Gerald Brommer’s 1993 book “Collage Techniques.” His works are currently shown in Joplin as well as Nashville, Tenn., and Galleri VeBoa in Mullsjo, Sweden, as well as in many private collections in the U.S. and abroad.