Joseph Ray (Joe) Gray (1917–2011)

Joseph Ray Gray (commonly known as Joe or J. R. Gray) was a painter, illustrator, sculptor, and graphic designer who grew up in Dardanelle (Yell County). His lasting influence on the art of the Arkansas River Valley grew from his passion for the environment, which defined not only his seventy-five-year fine arts career but also the development of his distinctive and varied artistic styles. Gray designed and illustrated publications and advertising campaigns, as well as creating—to the delight of friends, family, and numerous fans—outspoken political cartoons.

Born in Booneville (Logan County) on September 25, 1917, Joe Gray was the son of Armour Gray, who was a meat cutter and, later, a grocery store owner, and Cena Rea McCorkle Gray. Around 1920, the family moved back to Yell County—Armour was originally from Dardanelle and Cena from Centerville (Yell County). Gray attended Dardanelle schools and graduated in 1936. During his childhood and teenage years, he worked for his father in the grocery store and spent his free time hunting, fishing, and nurturing his emerging talents for illustration, painting, and sculpture.

Gray attended Arkansas Polytechnic College (which later became Arkansas Tech University) in Russellville (Pope County) in 1936–37. By the end of his second term, he had exhausted the fine arts curriculum there and, in fall 1938, enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute, winning full and partial scholarships. He flourished in the art-school environment, notably under the instruction of Thomas Hart Benton, the famous Missouri painter, muralist, and writer. Benton, along with artists Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, created a style of painting in the 1920s that became known as regionalism. Gray also learned the art of printmaking under the tutelage of John de Martelly.

Gray returned to Arkansas and joined the U.S. Army Air Force in November 1941. He completed basic training at Panama City, Florida, and became a flight engineer/aerial gunner as part of a crew assigned to a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The crew deployed to Molesworth, England. As a top-turret gunner, Gray flew on eight missions over France, Netherlands, and Germany. He was wounded in action on May 14, 1943, over Kiel, Germany. Once recuperated, he became a gunnery instructor in England and later in Florida.

During his time in England, Gray completed numerous illustrations/sketches of his barracks mates, some of which were featured in a story, “Combat Rembrandt,” by Jack Denton Scott in the February 14, 1943, issue of Yank magazine. Gray was honorably discharged in September 1945.

Gray returned to Dardanelle and then enrolled at the University of Missouri in Columbia, majoring in wildlife management. After two semesters, he returned to Dardanelle for a short time and married Julia Martha Hughey from Atkins (Pope County). She had just returned from Washington DC, where she had served two years with the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS). The couple moved to Fayetteville (Washington County), where Gray attended the University of Arkansas (UA) and continued with his wildlife management major, hoping to work for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Information Department.

However, when he was offered a position, he turned it down to become an illustrator for the University of Arkansas Medical School (which later became the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences). He created anatomical illustrations for student instruction and for use in the University Hospital Pathology Department. This association led to a position as an art director with the university’s information department, where he created drawings and illustrations for research in atomic energy, food processing, and natural resources. He designed catalogues, brochures, and presentations to foundations to secure grants for army and navy research conducted under university direction.

In 1956, Gray was recruited by Research and Service, Inc. (R&S), a Little Rock (Pulaski County) firm specializing in gathering and presenting information for industries interested in locating in Arkansas. A chief client was the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (later the Arkansas Economic Development Commission) headed by business leader and future governor Winthrop Rockefeller. As creative director, Gray was responsible for all editorial and business presentation for R&S. Other clients included the Little Rock Housing Authority, Little Rock Urban Renewal Agency, and University of Arkansas Research and Extension Center. R&S also served private business firms and companies throughout Arkansas.

In 1961, Gray returned with his wife and children—Joanna (age eleven) and Bob (eight)—to Dardanelle, where he opened Joe Gray Graphic Design, an advertising and graphic design firm serving statewide and local clients. In 1970, he added the Arkansas Wildlife Federation as a client and—in association with Robert Apple, south central representative for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)—was soon illustrating, designing, and producing fifteen monthly NWF affiliate publications in the southeastern United States.

After the death of his wife in 1981, Gray married Doris R. Alewine from Atkins. He moved to her home near Galley Rock (Pope County) on the Arkansas River, where he built a small studio. Here, he focused primarily on painting, drawing, illustration, and paper sculpture. He became active in the Arkansas River Valley Arts Center in Russellville, serving as a volunteer and then as director for one year in the early 1980s. In 1992, he began illustrating a weekly editorial cartoon for the Atkins Chronicle and continued until 2010, when his health began to fail. Gray died of natural causes on December 17, 2011, at the Dardanelle Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. He is buried alongside his first wife at Brearley Cemetery in Dardanelle.

For additional information:
Deane, Ernie. “Artist Joe Gray Reversed the Usual Direction.” Arkansas Gazette, January 16, 1963, p. 1B.

“J. R. Gray: Ability Does Talking.” Dardanelle Post-Dispatch, October 6, 1976, pp. 1A, 2A.

Obituary of Joe Ray “JR” Gray. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 20, 2011, p. 2B.

Bob Gray
Knoxville, Tennessee

Last Updated: 10/02/2019