One of the most interesting and compelling areas of study in the field of American folk art is the folk environments that were once great attractions but, owing to time and the elements, are now considered defunct. Often these works exist only in the photographs that visitors had the foresight to take when they could still be taken. I recently purchased two old black and white photographs of a folk environment on eBay and as a result had a whole new wold open up to me.
The photos I purchased are the ones at the top and bottom of this post. The dealer who sold them knew only that the bottom one was from Stephenville, Texas. He did not know where the top one came from. At first glance, they looked similar to me. Something about the style of the concrete, glass, and ceramic pieces that made up the environment.
After some digging online, I found out that these photos were taken at the once-famous Ray's Ornamental Gardens in Stephenville sometime in the 1940s. George Ellis Ray was born in Tennessee in 1881 and married Melissa Gallaher there in 1900. She died in Stephenville in 1932 and that, I believe, is when George began his environment (the dealer mentioned something about the maker doing this project out of grief for his wife).
It was such a local attraction that several postcards were made at the time, two of which I illustrate here. One book on Stephenville even described the popularity and nature of the site, which was a real find:
"A unique and interesting Stephenville novelty was the inimitable Ray's Gardens, which brought people from near and far. There, guests could view the often bizarre and unusual folk art of George Ellis Ray (1881-1957). He made sculptures of concrete, tile, colored glass, shells, and petrified rock. While visiting, guests could read George's homespun, thought-provoking, philosophical aphorisms, listening all the while to gospel music played trough a loudspeaker system."
George died in 1957 and, as is often the case, the environment fell into disrepair. Supposedly nothing of it can be seen today. We can. however, enjoy George Ray's work through these images, and admire his ability and desire to express himself visually and share that vision broadly. That is, for me, the hallmark of great folk art.