Ray Kass came to Virginia Tech in 1976 as a visiting artist for one-quarter. That part-time position was renewed for the spring, and in 1977 he was offered a one-year position as a painting professor in the Division of Humanities. He retired in 2003. For many talented college art professors, that might have been the beginning and end of the story. For Kass, his time at Virginia Tech has been one of creating and collaborating.
The Long Island, NY native comes by art naturally: he is the son of the American Folk Artist Jacob Kass, who died in 2000. He worked with New York art dealer Allan Stone and taught at Humboldt State University in Northern California before coming to Virginia Tech. While at Humboldt, he got to know Morris Graves, a modern artist from the Pacific Northwest known for his mysticism and his use of the muted tones of the region. Morris was an influence on Kass, who, in 1983, wrote a book about him to accompany an exhibit at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, DC.
At Virginia Tech, Kass said he planned how to “make it work here.” He decided he was going to bring in people who interested him. He drew on an idea that was used at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was the last undergraduate editor of the Carolina Quarterly. “I convened things,” he says. “I used a literary format for the visual arts.” He organized panels, brought in other artists and founded the Mountain Lake Workshop at the nearby Mountain Lake resort. In fact, he’s currently writing a book about the Workshops. The Mountain Lake Workshop resulted in collaborations between guest artists, such as John Cage, and the academic and the artistic community in the region.
Works produced at the Mountain Lake Workshop are in the permanent collections of museums in New York, Washington, DC and Richmond, and at The Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke.
At Virginia Tech, he collaborated with other departments and disciplines, mixing art with science, engineering and physics. He used different media. “Big names and little names all came to Tech,” he says. “It exceeded beyond my expectations.”
Kass’ work is based in nature. He has always painted outside. While some of his works are almost completely abstract, his time in California had him wanting to learn more about painting direct from nature. From 1971 to 1974, he says he taught himself “representational landscaping.”
When he moved to Montgomery County in 1977, he says he had no studio, so he painted all around the area. “I had a van and paints.” He did two types of work during that time: large horizontal works and rectangular pieces that are semi-abstract, and depict a more intimate view of streams and rocks and movement.
Kass lives on 58 acres in Montgomery County, land which is on both sides of the Roanoke River and will be going into a land trust. One can stand in his large, bright studio and look out at the scenery that has inspired and influenced him for years.
Though he retired from teaching in 2003, he is a Professor Emeritus of Art and stays connected through his student interns. He is working on a series of new works that combine nature and abstraction. His studio provides a visitor with a fascinating retrospective of the different phases of his work, which, when coupled with the view outside the window, all comes back to nature.
His work is represented by Garvey/Simon: ART ACCESS in New York City and the Reynolds Gallery in Richmond.