An unexpected metal artist pay homage to the railroad workers of the old west
July 18, 2011
Ray Carrington will tell you that he is not an artist. However, the 81-year-old retired math teacher has metal sculputres on display throughout the nation, and continues to work on pieces to give away.
Carrington downplays his artistic ability, it’s not that he’s being falsely modest, he’s being honest. Carrington doesn’t put up much of a fuss when people refer to him as an artist, but in a deeper conversation with him he is sure to make known his discomfort with the label.
“Every time I go to the Louvre [Museum in Paris], I realize I am the most nonartist that ever tried to make a piece of art. You look at the stuff there and you say, ‘Now, these are artists.’”
But as much as he tries to fight it, the 81-year-old is indeed an artist. But that’s not all he is. Carrington is also a former U.S. Air Force officer; graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in forestry; a one-time assistant sales manager for a lumber firm; a former television news stringer who once did a story on what it was like to drive an MGB cross-country; an avid world traveler who spends extensive time in France; and a retired high school math teacher who taught more than 4,500 kids during his tenure.
“I’ve had a lot of adventures in life,” Carrington recalled.
Today the adventures continue, but most revolve around metal art. Art has not always been at the forefront of Carrington’s mind. As a kid, he taught himself how to weld while living on his father’s California ranch. He was immediately hooked on welding’s ability to act as “instant glue” for metal. Then he bought his own welding power source and found ways to use it whenever he could. It didn’t occur to him to use welding for metal art purposes until 1966, when he was in his late 30s. Joked Carrington, “A little old lady dared me to enter an art show. I entered it, and won. After that I thought, ‘Gee, how easy can this get?’” A year later some of his works were on display at an art show in San Francisco.
In spite of Carrington’s regular jabs at his artistic abilities, there’s no denying that he has a talent for artistic expression. The heart of his metal works are his railroad sculptures, which are made of old hand tools, railroad spikes, track plates, and other items he has collected from abandoned Northern California railroads and saw mills. Each unique piece displays various labored movements that pay homage to the men who built the railroad thoroughfares out west a century ago.
“I try to put a lot of motion into them, as if you were in the piece yourself doing the work. You try to bend the body and twist it so it’s looking the right direction rather than it just being a stick figure.”
His works also preserve a piece of railroad history.
“All of these artifacts are saved, and they are the hand tools that people had used in the olden days, as I call them. They’re disappearing now, going to scrap piles, and you’ll never see them again. There’ll be pictures, but now you can actually see them preserved in a piece of art,” Carrington explained.
His collection of sculptures that he built from items he found at an abandoned Sunkist Groves sawmill in Hilt, Calif., serve as a tribute to the railroad workers of that era and the town, which has since been bulldozed.
“I found a pile of railroad spikes, which to me was a pile of gold. They had been there since 1934 when they stopped railroad logging and started truck logging. A lot of my plates are from Santa Fe and Colorado railroads, and a lot of them are so overwrought with rust. It’s really incredible what time has done to them. It’s an adventure to put it all together and try to save the pieces.”
Carrington’s metal art sculpting endeavors are not driven by dollar signs. He is driven instead by creating pieces that preserve historical artifacts, like his railroad sculptures, and providing a means of inspiration. His drive to create and donate sculpture was sparked in his travels through Europe, where metal sculpture in municipalities is a staple. He’d like that same dedication to art to be shared by the U.S.
“People want to know how I make my money. I’m a retired teacher, so I’ve saved my money and my brother left me with a little so I’m very comfortable. I don’t need to make money—it’s a pain in the fanny.”
That’s a large part of the motivation for The Carrington Foundation for Public Art, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to placing metal sculptures in public venues. Along with donating art, the foundation provides grant money for schools to use for their art programs.
Through his foundation Carrington also donates sculptures to cities and museums. They are also on display at various locations at Travis AFB, Fairfield, Calif., where Carrington spent time as an officer; at the University of California Berkeley’s Carrington Gallery, where he is the curator; and the California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento; just to name a few.
The self-proclaimed “nonartist,” Carrington has garnered a passion for art and wants to see more people embracing their own artistic abilities, particularly welders. If one welder is inspired to give metal sculpting a go, he would consider his efforts a success.
“You don’t have to have a great talent to do art, apparently. There are a lot of people out there with tremendously good welding skills that probably should consider welding at least one piece.” n