Like so many who once called Provincetown their year-round home, I was saddened by the death of Ray Nolin, at 55, whose body was found in 2015 under a dense thicket of Japanese knotweed on the bayside beach at the end of Gosnold Street. Since Norman Tierney, his partner, died five years earlier, Ray had primarily been unhoused, with some months spent here and there at different locations. Norman and Ray had lived together for over three decades on Harry Kemp Way in one of the smaller units of a six-condominium complex that Norman had built. Ray had lived with schizophrenia since his late teens or early twenties, according to his youngest sister, Glenna, and abused alcohol and drugs at various times, which may have contributed to his death.
Ray, known as “Beaver,” grew up one of eight siblings who moved with their parents between Connecticut and Cape Cod. In Connecticut, when he was ten, he worked on the small farm of an older German couple, with whom he became very close and whose horse he cared for (he was known as a “horse whisperer” to a few Provincetown confidantes). His mother was a nurse who had given up her career to raise her children. His father was a concrete salesman. Ray’s relationship with nature, the ocean, and beaches would infuse and inform his prolific artistic career for the rest of his life. Although he had studios at different times—one in the Bullring Wharf in the nineties, another, later, on Old Ann Page Way, he painted primarily en plein air, and his vast output included seascapes, dunescapes, and other subjects, including numerous honest, unflinching self-portraits, using oil, gouache, or watercolor on paper or canvas, pastels on sandpaper, and cigar boxes. He also made charcoal drawings, found-wood assemblages, collages, and monoprints.
Ray was a strong, slender man, over six feet tall, with unruly strawberry-blond hair and penetrating blue eyes that flashed with intelligence, gentleness, humor, or, at times, a frightening zeal reflecting his devout Catholicism. Ray frequently walked or bicycled up and down Commercial Street, wearing a string of beads or a cross, his trademark beret or a rolled bandana around his head. He became friends with many shopkeepers, gallery owners, and artists and would appear in their stores and studios or stop them on the street to ask them to buy his work so he could, as Sandy Crouse—a longtime friend who collected and exhibited Ray’s work (and owned 213 Art & Antiques in Provincetown from 1996 to 2003)—said, “live where he stood.”
Sometimes he fell out with these friends, or they became unwilling recipients of his religious admonitions or crossed the street to avoid his sudden, haunted glare. Others only experienced his generosity and warm, true friendship. Marcia Mello, a musician who has been a busker on Commercial Street for decades, was one of these friends, and said that when she encountered Ray singing and playing guitar at Monday Night Open Mike at the Mews Restaurant & Café, “he was the coolest thing I ever saw. He had a voice like Cat Stevens.”
Jonathan Morrill, a preparatory elements engineer at Deluxe Entertainment in Los Angeles, met Ray in 1979 when they were dishwashers at the Red Inn. He remembered Ray as “caring and gracious.” He recalled how they would smoke pot and hike to High Head and Race Point beaches, where Ray would pull out stashed easels, brushes, and cups in various places in the sand and mix crushed berries and other natural materials with salt water to make his paints. A decade later Ray was filmed painting a self-portrait in the dunes, for Johnny in Monsterland (1990), a beloved cult movie co-written by Morill and David Bishop and directed by Morrill.
“There was nothing mad about him,” Paul Resika, renowned painter and longtime Provincetown summer resident, said from his New York studio, “when he painted simple landscapes from nature.” He was, ninety-four-year-old Resika noted, “one of the best plein air painters Provincetown has had.” Resika was a regular patron of Ray’s, as was restaurateur and art collector Napi Van Dereck. Julie Heller of Julie Heller Beach Gallery and Julie Heller Gallery East became friends with Ray in 1981. She, too, purchased and exhibited his work, and bought him his favored Canson paper and oils and sometimes gave him money for dog food (he had several Jack Russell terriers over the years) and other things. “He really was an innocent,” she said, “like a little boy.” She described him as a gifted colorist and “one of the best painters of his generation,” whose work reflects his “honesty, spontaneity, vision.” He studied with Henry Hensche, Philip Malicoat, and Joan Pereira, a beloved mentor and friend. Heller said his best advice to other artists was “Just look! Really look at what you are painting.” He also beseeched artists to “just get Hawthorne’s book on painting!”
When Chris McCarthy, CEO of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, visited Ray at his studio on Old Ann Page Way, she found herself surrounded by walls covered with “brilliant” enormous charcoal drawings, some exact replicas of well-known Charles Webster Hawthorne paintings, such as Refining Oil (After Hawthorne), 1997—now in the permanent collection of PAAM—while other large drawings such as Boy with Fish were slightly altered homages to Hawthorne’s masterworks. “They were so tonal,” she said. “The way he achieved light and shadow was absolutely incredible.” McCarthy said he had an innate talent that was “technically spot-on, but truly beautiful.”
Ray had other friends and supporters, notably Jerry Swartz, owner of Glass Half Full, a wine, liquor, and cigar shop, who gave Ray cigar boxes and paid him up front for the finished work—usually striking spare seascapes in oil. One of Ray’s last close friends was Günter Hanelt, owner of Exuma Fine Jewelry, with whom he shared a companionable, easy understanding. For the final three years of his life, Ray had the free use of Günter’s basement shop to exhibit his work and the paintings of Ada Rayner (1901–1985), Hensche’s wife, which he had inherited from Norman. Ray had been happy, too, to have a place to store Norman’s ashes, which he kept in a cooler he always carried with him. Just before his death, Ray made a sign for his gallery, which never got hung: NATURE’S LIES, a darkly comic twist on Hensche’s familiar reference to “nature’s truths.” “He had made some money,” Günter said. “Things were looking up. For the first time in his life, he would have his own gallery.”
Pamela Mandell is a fiction and nonfiction writer living in southern Vermont, whose work has been published in Provincetown Arts, Arts New England, artscope, The Los Angeles Review (which received a notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016), La Piccioletta Barca, FEED, and elsewhere. She is on Instagram: @pamela_mandell_writer and can be found at http://pamelamandell.squarespace.com/.
Ray Nolin's art can be viewed locally at Exuma Fine Jewelry.