Crystal Clark

Many college students struggle to figure out what they want to do with their lives after graduation. One local artist decided to take the road less traveled, and hasn’t looked back sense.

The work of artist Eric McRay is currently on display in the art gallery of the African American Culture Center (AACC), and on Monday, February 8, students and faculty were able to view his pieces and meet the artist himself at a reception following the exhibition.

Prior to the art showing, McRay spoke to visitors about his background and how he began his profession. This Washington, D.C., native said he realized at the age of seven, that becoming an artist was his destiny. After making a collage in his first grade class, McRay said he saw the awe in his teacher’s eyes as she praised his work, and at that moment, he realized his art could have value.

He went on to earn a scholarship and Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and after moving to North Carolina in 1998, he became a part of the esteemed Artspace in downtown Raleigh.

However, McRay said he struggled to enter the art world after leaving college. “I began working more traditional jobs, like graphic design, computer sales and insurance,” said McRay. “It started burning me out, and I realized it was taking me off of my path. I became wrapped up in just living,” said McRay.

At 34 years old, he got serious. “If you’re in love with something, you have to put together a regimen and be disciplined,” said McRay. For months, he worked tirelessly to complete his pieces. He went to work during the day and dedicated nights to his art, often painting until three o’clock in the morning, going to his job with little sleep, and then doing it all over again the following day. Eventually he completed enough pieces to put together a package and applied for a studio space in Raleigh. Out of over 20 applicants, two were awarded studio spaces, and Eric McRay was one of them. After hearing the good news, he left work, telling his boss, “I won’t be back,” and he “hit the ground running” with his art career.

For McRay, making art his fulltime job meant he could not be passive or wait for success, because his family’s wellbeing lied in his hands and his paint brush. “It’s all about time. Art takes time, and the money I make from the pieces I sell buys me time,” said McRay.

He aggressively worked to make his name well-known, and today, his collectors include the American Tobacco Campus, Duke University Medical Center, NC State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, SAS Institute, and Western Wake Hospital, in addition to numerous private collectors across the world.

In 2001, he was named one of the “Artists to Watch” by the Raleigh News & Observer. Southern Living Magazine ran a feature story on him in June 2002, and in 2008, McRay was named “Best Local Artist” by Metro Magazine.

His pieces are colorful and abstract depictions of black people, and could be compared to the work of Picasso. McRay’s work on display in the Culture Center ranges from acrylic-painted canvasses to paper collages.

A series of his work entitled, “Jazz, Rhythm & Blues,” which shows African American musicians playing instruments, attracted the most attention from guests, because of the explosive colors splattered eloquently across the canvas, and so much expression in the faces and bodies of the characters in the pieces, that one could actually hear the music coming from the painting. McRay shared his tricks for making these pieces, saying he likes to play jazz music, lay his canvas on the ground, and stand over it, letting his creative mind tell him where to let the paint drip and splash onto the work.

“Eric McRay’s paintings gave me an appreciation for black art,” said Taylor Clawson, a junior in psychology. “I’ve never been to an art exhibit on campus. I didn’t know we had one, but I think it’s something that everyone should take part in,” said Clawson.

His collages are created from magazine cutouts, hand drawings, and paint. One of McRay’s themes included a portrayal of the original woman, Eve, through his pieces, “Eve: Mother of Man,” “Eve’s Paradise” and “Eve by Moonlight,” all depicting a curvaceous black woman in the nude, in a tropic paradise with lemons, limes, and apples growing from the trees, pink flowers scattered across the grass, and a peaceful stream.

According Marquis McCullough, a senior in science education, McRay’s work was encouraging for black students. “I was really amazed by the way he made the collages from so many little pieces. I’ve never seen that type of artwork, “said McCullough. “We hear about big-names, but it’s nice to see that great artists like this can be the person up the street,” said McCullough.

McRay mentioned that his work in graphic design actually end up being beneficial for him before becoming a self-employed artist. “I produced 89 press packages before quitting my day job, so I was able to brand myself before coming into the creative arts industry,” said McRay.

His advice for students was to stay focused and take control of their own “emotions, activities, and where [they] want to go.” “What you do is something you have to determine…You have to be hungry for your art or whatever your passion is, and determine your own destiny,” said McRay.

Eric McRay’s works will adorn the walls of the AACC art gallery until February 26, 2010. More of his work can be viewed or purchased at Artspace Studio 205, 201 E. Davie Street, Raleigh, NC, 27601, or through his website,