At first glance, the works displayed in "Impressions of Arthur Rayford," the current exhibit at the DeLand Museum of Art, echo the style of the "folk art" that is in vogue, which may be one reason the DeLand native's work has been exhibited at museums and galleries in Boston and New York.
A few minutes spent with Rayford's work, however, reveals a deeper sophistication. Techniques borrowed from pointillists make the paintings shimmer with a light of their own. Chaotic movement comes from his cubist deconstruction of subjects like a symphony conductor or sailboat -- simultaneously showing them in multiple positions.
Rayford has been influenced mostly by other African-American or Caribbean "self-taught artists. It's very hard to do bright colors and do them well," he says. "It can come out looking like a bowl of fruit salad." The "masters in their time" -- Picasso, Monet and El Greco -- have also made their mark on him.
Still, while he has borrowed techniques from others, the result is distinctly Arthur Rayford's.
For inspiration, he says, he looks to "great writers like Shakespeare, and great music"; a steady soundtrack of Beethoven and Duke Ellington fills his studio and underscores the movement of his paintbrush across canvas. A small, wooden Buddha looks on, its arms rising, palms up, over its head, a reminder of Rayford's connection with his true inspiration: The great artists "all got their information from headquarters -- from God," he says. "I'm not talking about God like the pastors do; those guys are mainly just trying to make a living. The better your work is, the closer you are to headquarters."
Rayford the man is as distinctive as his art. When he was 2 years old, his family moved to DeLand from South Carolina. He became a builder but spent time in prison off and on from the 1930s to 1960s. His published collection of stories, poems and essays, "Quality Time," chronicles those decades. He began painting in childhood, but never considered it "seriously" until 1981, when he retired from his job as a building inspector in Boston and returned to DeLand.
Since then, his paintings have sold for up to $30,000 and inspired at least one critic to call him "one of the greatest living American artists."
But money and recognition are secondary for Rayford.
"The artist is here to show man the little things he overlooks and takes for granted," Rayford says. For example, he says that a great composer can create a simple song that shows the listener profound truths that "were already there, but you just didn't check onto it until the songwriter put them in order."
Impressions offers a retrospective of Rayford's works, some dating back to the 1950s. The subjects include still lifes, landscapes and sailboats, but much of his best work shows people. Men in Rayford's paintings pick oranges or change the tires on a race car. People dance, gamble and gossip. Some portray jazz musicians like Gillespie, Mingus and Parker in fantasy jam sessions.
A few paintings comment on racism, which Rayford still encounters. Some people, he says, "won't take you seriously in the fine arts. If you're black, you're supposed to be dancing and playing basketball."
The idea for his newest painting, a portrait of three Klansmen, came to him while watching a television show comparing the Holocaust to post-Civil War America. He was disturbed by photos of spectators at a lynching, "the good people of the town, standing there watching like it was a ball game."
Rayford has earned a reputation for being uncompromising. "When you are doing something that's truthful, what is there to compromise?"
At times he's refused to sell paintings. "It doesn't matter if you offer me a million dollars," he says. "I have to like you before you can buy a painting from me.
"I don't believe in ‘great men.' I don't care what kind of job a man does or position he holds; I respect intelligence and have no tolerance for ignorance. But if you can walk on water across Lake Eola, I'll be on my knees to you when you get to the other side."