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SOVA: Art Beyond Boundaries

Prolific artist and Professor Emeritus Ray Kass keeps Virginia Tech and Southwest Virginia in his soul … and in the spotlight.

Artist Ray Kass in his home studio in Montgomery County. An exhibition celebrating his career runs through March 31 at the Moss Arts Center. Kass, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, has long been an influential champion of Southwest Virginia.

By Marya Barlow, CAUS communications director. Photos and video by David Franusich.

Legendary artist and Virginia Tech Professor Emeritus Ray Kass is having a productive year in an already prolific career. In the past few months alone, he’s held multi-gallery exhibitions, co-written a book, directed a series of performance pieces in Europe, and produced colossal paintings that evoke Southwest Virginia’s terrain as abstract landscapes, using natural materials from his Montgomery County farm.

One recent painting stands over 11 x 27 feet. Another is 8 ½ x 25 feet.

“I don’t know where I’ll show them. I’m painting them just for myself,” Kass said, gesturing at a massive multi-panel watercolor spread across the floor of his home studio.

Kass’s underlying need to create work for himself may well be the key to his success. When he first arrived at Virginia Tech as in 1975 as one of just a handful of art professors, he drew inspiration from being an outsider in a sea of scientists and engineers.

“I loved it because I was treated like an engineer, scientist, or researcher,” Kass said. “I had an inclination to do collaborative projects with the unique nature of the Virginia Tech culture early on and started seeking out ways to do interdisciplinary projects with people who didn’t associate themselves with the arts. I had to create my own culture.”

The native New Yorker also fell in love with Southwest Virginia. His passions for the region and collaborative art led him to found the Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop, which drew art world intelligentsia, academics, researchers, and members of the Appalachian community together to forge unique works and performances. The pairings included international composer John Cage with Virginia Tech mycologist Orson Miller; waste management artist Mierle Ukeles with Virginia Tech microbiologist James “Greg” Ferry; and kite-art virtuoso Jackie Matisse with supercomputer scientists from the University of Illinois.

“I believe communities should make their own art,” Kass said. “That’s the strategy and basis of the Mountain Lake Workshop. A lot of people don’t feel connected to art at all, but this connects them. They own the art, both psychologically and spiritually, and also become the primary, meaningful audience. They grow to love it and it has a ripple effect in the community.”

Kass’s exhibition at the Moss Arts Center runs through March 31.

Kass’s current Moss Arts Center exhibition runs through the end of March – the culmination of a three-gallery mini-retrospective at Virginia Tech highlighting exemplary work from his career. The works range from his large-scale, multi-panel Polyptych paintings from 1989-2014 to his most recent Topo and Still Lifes (2015-2018). One of the most notable works is the monumental 60-panel, 8-by-30-foot-long painting, Broad Channel:Vorticella,1991, from the permanent collection of the Nevada Museum of Art.

“Ray was taking Virginia Tech ‘Beyond Boundaries’ before the university even developed the terminology,” said Margo Crutchfield, curator of the exhibition for Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Gallery. “He doesn’t stop; he keeps producing exemplary work. Ray Kass brought the spotlight to Southwest Virginia and continues to do so.”

He’ll shine the spotlight on the region once again this spring, with the publication of “The Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop: Art in Locale,” co-authored with retired Virginia Commonwealth University art history professor Howard Risatti. In photos and essays by participants, the book recounts the workshop’s groundbreaking collaborations fusing art, science, technology, and community. The book will be published by Longwood Center for the Visual Arts at Longwood University and accompanied by an exhibition organized by Longwood University. Starting at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design in Raleigh, North Carolina, the exhibition will travel to the Pinkard Gallery at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and end at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts in Farmville.

Earlier this year, Kass was invited to Germany to direct 17 performances of STEPS, A Composition for a Painting – a theatre piece that he first co-directed with John Cage in his Christiansburg studio in 1989. The piece was published by Edition Peters Group, the renowned European publisher of musical scores by composers including Cage, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven.

Kass greets guests at the opening reception of the Moss Arts Center exhibition in January.

In his sunny studio overlooking Montgomery County mountain vistas, Kass is still paying tribute to his beloved home. He collects sycamore bark and other objects that catch his fancy while walking his dog by the Roanoke River, and then uses them in his latest creations – enormous multi-paneled watercolor paintings made from distressed “smoked paper,” stencils, and a coating of beeswax.

He also serves on the School of Visual Arts’ Advisory Board and employs the art school’s “wonderful” students as assistants and collaborators in his studio.

“Art is the life of the imagination,” he said. “The life of the imagination is the only endless life we’ll ever know.”

Read the Roanoke Times article “’A fascinating world’: Ray Kass says he’s still learning about art.”