What makes Marion County thrive? Dynamic arts scene


Ray Matthews grew up in Newport, Ark., as the son of a rice farmer. But from a young age he dreamed of different landscapes than those he saw in south Arkansas.

“From the time I was 4 or 5 years old, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t drawing or painting something. I just didn’t know to what level my art could take me,” he says.

Making money in the 1960s in a small town was hard for any high school student but Matthews found a way to put his art to use and make a little money on the side.

“The Beatles were the biggest thing going on at the time, and I had them memorized perfectly. I would draw pictures of them and sell them for $1 each. It wasn’t big money, but it was more than I had at the time. And I had a chance to do what I loved at the same time.”

There was no doubt Matthews was good. Really good: Out of high school, he was offered an art scholarship to college. The unfortunate part of the situation was it was only a partial.

“It being a partial scholarship didn’t do me much good. I had to work, too. This was a volatile time in our nation’s history and the draft was just starting. In 1965 I made the decision to join the Air Force. I did two tours in Vietnam and was painting and drawing a little bit here and there but life was so busy. I got married a short time later and had a daughter so my passion was put on the back burner because life happens.”

That business career is perhaps why many people don’t know Matthews because of his art but rather as the smiling face as Columbia’s Walmart manager for 21 years. But his introduction into the big business world didn’t start with the company.

“I actually started my retail career with the JA West Company. I was transferred to a small town in Louisiana called Amite. I was going through a divorce at the time, and that’s where I met my lovely wife, Paula. She was also working for the same company and was going through a divorce as well, and about six months after we met, we started a relationship. Just before this, my passion for drawing and painting had come back strong and the landscapes in the swamps there became some of my favorite to draw and paint. To this day you will find this theme in any of my paintings.”

Within a year of meeting the love of his life, the JA West Company transferred Matthews back to his home state, this time to Mountain Home.

“There was no hesitation on her part to pack up and move with me, and I knew then she was the one for me,” Matthews commented, a smile of contentment on his face.

The JA West Company wasn’t meant to be in the Matthews’ lives forever though. They went out of business in the mid-1980s and Matthews soon found himself an assistant manager at Walmart in 1986. Just 18 months later, he was promoted to store manager, a position he retained until his retirement in 2013.

“I was the store manager here in Columbia for 21 years, and if I didn’t have my art to fall back on, I don’t know if I would have ever retired. But I had a deep yearning to paint, and there just wasn’t time to do that when you’re working 60, 70, 80 hours a week,” he said. “So when I turned 67, I finally took that big step and I have been painting full time since then.”

In other words, Matthews retired from one busy sector and immediately went full time in another.

“People had been asking me about teaching classes since I was at Walmart and there simply wasn’t enough time. So when I did have the time, I started teaching them almost immediately. I started out with 18 students and quickly realized that was way too many to try to help in one setting. I had the perfect place for the class, but unfortunately Mother Nature served us with a change of plans,” Matthews stated, reminiscing about the Dec. 23, 2014, tornado that destroyed the building they were using.

“The second building I found to teach in was perfect, but we knew going in it was listed for sale so we didn’t know how long we had. About a year after moving in, the building sold and I decided I would just move into my wife’s building on Meak Alley where she does her quilting and split the area with her. It’s worked perfectly ever since.”

Since then, Matthews has been teaching art classes to students from ages 5 to 75 and in a class setting of five to six students. They meet on Tuesdays and work on their projects under his guidance and supervision.

“Everybody is good at something. They just don’t always allow it to blossom,” he said. “I hope this class allows some of the students to do just that, reach goals they never thought were possible and have a fun time doing it.”

Students work on their projects until they are completed and choose another one and begin immediately.

It’s no secret that all artists find inspiration in a variety of places. For Matthews, Bob Ross was the one that seemed to impact his artistic life the most.

“I was so impressed by his ability to have such an easygoing and relaxed attitude to each of his paintings. He inspired me with his smooth way of wet-on-wet painting and how he mixed his paints. I think I was initially drawn to watch him because he was big into landscapes and that was my favorite thing to paint, too.”

But there is one painting style Matthews just can’t enjoy: “I’ve done several portraits through the years, but they just aren’t as enjoyable to me as the other styles. For instance, when you do a portrait it has to be perfect because you’re painting somebody. With landscapes, I can let my creativity flow and do whatever I want, taking liberties where I wanted to. My art is never perfect, but it’s exactly what I want it be each time, enjoyable. One of my favorite things to do when I need inspiration for a painting is to just go find a tree I really like and take a picture of it. I can pick and choose elements that will turn into my landscape painting when it’s done. If I can capture it on my camera, I can remember and see why I loved that element so much.”

In addition to teaching classes, Matthews has also been working on a few projects at Columbia Academy, murals in downtown Columbia at Jan Marie’s and a 20-foot mural at Temple Baptist Church in Hattiesburg.

When Matthews tires of painting full canvases, he will pick up anything from an old piece of wood to a bottle to try his hand at. In the last couple of years, he has turned to gourd art more frequently and has truly turned these strange-shaped plants into some of his most spectacular art. His paintings and gourd art can be found for sale at Artwistic Revolution on Second Street in Columbia, and he is currently accepting new students to classes.

“If I had to give any artist advice it would be this: Don’t be afraid of someone judging you. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. A true artist has to complete that art for themselves and not for anyone else. Sure there will be people that don’t like your style, but there will be more that thoroughly enjoy it."

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