Artist Ray J. Sumser. Rhode Island School of Design 2008, Dual Major Painting and Film/Animation/Video, Academic Concentration in Belief Systems.

Ray Sumser is a multimedia artist whose work explores underlying structural analogies between diverse art disciplines. His current practices include landscape painting, bluegrass mandolin and sketch comedy writing.

In his ten years since graduating art school, Sumser has exhibited his oil paintings in the Bay Area, New York and beyond. He launched and successfully funded six Kickstarter projects and has presented his work at Maker Fairs, Comic Book Conventions and on the Streets. As a contract artist he has overseen and performed all aspects of the processes for video production, children’s books, branding campaigns, theatrical productions, podcasts, art installations and group organization. He is currently at work in his Studio in Larkspur, California. He is enrolled in Piano, Mandolin and Stand Up Comedy lessons, belongs to a Sketch Comedy Writing Troupe and does Yoga.

Audio MP3


John Sumser 0:13
Hey, good afternoon and welcome to a special edition of our podcast. Today we’re gonna be doing an interview with the nearly world famous artist, comedian, screenwriter, Ray Sumser. How are you Ray?

Ray Sumser 0:29
Doing pretty good. I’m on day three of isolation mode and doing pretty good with it?

John Sumser 0:35
Yeah. So where are you isolated and how are you keeping the coffers full in your house?

Ray Sumser 0:42
Well, I am here isolated in San Rafael living with my girlfriend Justice. We both as of yesterday shifted to being full time work from home people. And right now that means for her she’s a full time graphic designer and social media manager for a beauty company and I am a part time teacher. And we have both now shifted to Zom meetings and general telecommunication to keep things moving.

John Sumser 1:11
That’s great. So why don’t you take a moment and introduce yourself? Tell me about Ray a little bit.

Ray Sumser 1:16
All right, I’m Ray Sumser and I’m the host of the podcast’s son, for those who noticed similarity in last name. And my story is basically that I have been a practicing continuous artist in one form or another since before for my memory begins. So I know that I was drawing from age five. And it’s always been just the past time it’s it’s what I do when I when there’s something else and that has taken me through. It took me to art school and it has taken me back and forth across the country several times through several different big projects and very different editions of my life, I currently find myself in a prolonged period of self education, actually, in me becoming more involved in the education of others, if only just as part of it.

John Sumser 2:17
So let’s explore that a little bit. What do you mean by self education? Tell me about your journey there and how you figure out where to go? Because you’ve been at learning beyond the boundaries of the educational infrastructure for a long time, and pretty persistent about it. So, so talk about self education as a value.

Ray Sumser 2:36
Well, so the story that I tell is that I grew up as an artist, and I could, it’s not that I could always draw, but I was always ahead of the curve in terms of drawing compared to any of my peers. And so I had this notion from early on, that there were people who and people who made music and athletes and just everyone having different skill sets that they were innately able to do. And so there was a whole range of things for me that always felt outside of my limits, because I thought that I just wasn’t the type of person who could do that. I thought I was an artist only. And as early as high school, I was really fighting against the idea of being only an artist, but I didn’t really have an accent. But I didn’t have any great success with the other things I tried to do. And it wasn’t until the end of college where I felt that I actually started my active learning process. Because at the end of college, I got my first ukulele and over the course of maybe two years, I became a relatively competent amateur ukulele player and going through that process and being over 20 years old and digging into a skill set, that I had absolutely zero innate talent for and being able to see the process go from zero skill to a relative degree of experience really opened up my mind. To, well, what else can you learn? And what else can you do that that has not been innate to you? And that it’s 2009 I graduated. So that’s going on 10 years of pretty, pretty aggressive prioritizing of seeing what I can learn and how I can improve my knowledge and skill set.

John Sumser 4:38
That’s an amazing sounding trajectory. What are some of the things that you’ve learned?

What are the big categories you’ve explored?

Ray Sumser 4:47
Yeah. I’ve learned so much about the necessity of rules. When I went through art school. It was sort of anything they told me it was my priority to figure it out. The opposite. And to try and do something that beat that system I was being presented with. And what music especially has shown me and it applies in so many other places is that, you know, with them, but you have to kind of master the rules, you have to master the technique before you can break the system, it’s much better to figure out how things work and get really good at how things work than to try and completely reinvent the wheel. And so what’s been really important to me is, you know, an understanding of humility about learning how things are done, but also a sort of a desire for less work in that process. So, yes, there are rules, and there are some really convenient rules in almost any subject that make it a lot easier to start getting functional in whatever the media we’re talking about is.

John Sumser 5:55
So music is a pretty crisp example. But I think you’re suggesting that every topic that you can look into, you can find basic principles to build from. How do you discover that? Right? Because there isn’t always a book that says, Here are the basic principles to start with, in depth psychology, for instance, or the bits of you. I know you’ve spent a lot of time looking at perception and the elements of perception. How do you find those rules in places that are not oriented to give that information away to the casual observer?

Ray Sumser 6:31
Well, it’s interesting, I don’t think that those rules are actually even there in music, except, you know, with the exception of a few really specific teachers I’ve worked with, it’s basically the way I’ve come to any universal understanding in any of the media is by reading a number of different perspectives, and then seeing where the overlap is and whether that’s in neuro linguistic programming, or in screenwriting or in painting composition, there’s something about seeing what different people have said about it, and seeing where the overlap is, and seeing how one model of looking at a subject relates to another model. And I think that’s where the rules are, is you look at the two different interpretations, and you see how they might be the same, or you see where there’s overlap. And you do that with enough. You know, if your collection of interpretations is big enough, then you can start to see Oh, the same shape shows up here, here, here and here. And it starts to become somewhat unavoidable, if this all seems abstract now, but it’s, the principle seems to kind of emerge out of collection of different perspectives on the issue.

John Sumser 7:54
So it sounds sort of like you find enough introductions to the topic, so that you can see what’s common across the introductions. Can you do that all the way through mastery? Or does this framework that you’re talking about finding serve as a base for giving functional mastery is something that you discover as the result of having built a foundation?

Ray Sumser 8:22
Yeah, I’d say that’s true. I think I might be I don’t know if I would consider myself masterful at any specific medium other than I might be becoming a master at picking up new media. But I think that I think that mastery is possibly another way of saying that the skill set has become unconscious. That the that what you’re trying to do has become automatic, and is something that you don’t have to consciously consider each action in order to complete the task. And to me, that is basically where the really why wonderful stuff happens. You figure out the principles, you learn them, and you train them in on a muscular level. And then when you don’t have to think about it, that’s when there’s this possibility for spontaneous generation. That is, maybe it looks like mastery from another perspective, but it really just looks like the ego getting out of the way. From my point of view.

John Sumser 9:24
Yeah, I can’t I get that. I wonder if anybody ever feels, I think it would be almost the kiss of death to believe that you’ve mastered something. But the appearance of mastery, the smoothness, the ability to handle complexity and surprise in the discipline is, I think what I’m talking about is mastery. It’s a facility it’s a facility rather than an end state. Mm hmm. So what’s a typical day for you look like? I mean, this is this is a big learning adventure that you’ve just laid out here. How do you organize your time what does a Day look like?

Ray Sumser 10:01
Well, it’s pretty amorphous. My general state of being is a balance between that thing that I really want to do right now, and the most pressing expectation of another person. So I usually am bouncing back and forth between on a list that says, What who do I owe something to next? And can I complete that so that I can go back to the thing that I actually want to do? I would say that’s pretty much 99% of my life is and it’s great because I found out that actually, the expectations of others is a great way to motivate and more work out of me because it actually causes me to do the work, even if I have to do it, kicking and screaming, but a typical day to me is generally around my house in studio and I’m generally producing some kind of creative work and The more money that it’s likely to generate, the less I’m enjoying it. Presently I’m not so disciplined in mornings but over the past five or so years, I’ve landed at the ability to launch a routine and keep it rolling for a while. And that routine most recently has taken the form of gotta go for a one mile run with my girlfriend justice, do a watercolor painting, write a page of dialogue in the screenwriting program, and then do my daily indoor exercises and practice. And practice math mandolin is the last one. So I basically have 10 boxes that I try to complete every day and they shift based on what I’m most passionate about and feeling I need to learn at present and I can if I can get myself to check all three boxes for about three days in a row. I’m pretty likely to have a month long run of touching those items every day, and not a deep way, but I found that it’s much, much, much better to do sort of a constant grazing type of work with learning and creating media than it is to do a big deep dive or cram.

John Sumser 12:13
Got it. So how do you pick the things that you’re going to learn next?

Ray Sumser 12:17
Exclusively by interest? I really have, I really do have a hard time motivating to things that are not internally compelled. And I think I think of it better at doing work. That is not what I am most passionate about. But it’s essentially, I look at things and think about how much time I could spend doing them without having to be externally motivated. And the way I make my choices is that I if something excites me, I give it that attention. And I see if it’s something that I can build and if the practice of actually investigating and investing time And in that interest further, you know, the interest grows from that, then that means that there’s something there that I should put more time into.

John Sumser 13:10
So when we’re talking the other day, and you said, if you’ve got to learn a new instrument, always start with a crappy instrument. And I’ve been thinking about that ever since. So tell me a little bit about that. What is what does that mean to you?

Ray Sumser 13:24
I was thinking about that, because you responded so strongly to that. And I think it’s actually nothing more complicated than I think the best tools you can possibly hope to have can be a total barrier to entry. Because if you can give me a really like a, you know, a $5,000 violin, it’s kind of intimidating. I don’t really I don’t want to break it. I don’t, I don’t know if I’m worthy of such a thing. But to have something and I learned this from ukulele to have something that you can throw in your backpack. If it gets run over by a car. You’re down. 20 bucks and it’s it To some non imposing instrument. And I think that there’s, I think that there can be a real intimidation, I’ve found that it’s easier to teach people ukulele because it’s not, it’s not an intimidating thing. It’s not very serious, you know, even a cheap violin can be intimidating, because it’s a serious thing. And I think a junky instrument or something you got for free, or that was a hand me down as a great thing. Because there’s really no pressure to it. And so it can just be fun.

John Sumser 14:31
Got it. So let me switch gears a little bit. You’ve been doing this watercolor project for well over a year. Now, tell me about that. And tell me how you find the motivation to do a different watercolor everyday.

Ray Sumser 14:45
Well, I will admit that I last year, I’ve been basically about every single day, I would get up and do a watercolor painting in the morning this year has been much slower. And I actually I think, I think I think I was set up for the winter. So I’ve only done about 35 of the days this year so far, that comes from I was living in work. And I was trying to make a name for myself as the painter of these big, complex cartoon pictures. And I started to just get tired of the identity. I didn’t always feel that I wanted to be simply associated with pop culture, or what I might, I guess, I guess, low art. And I hadn’t actually a lot of experience with traditional painting practices. And I’ve ran into an art teacher of mine a few months ago, and she made me realize that watercolor painting is like the ukulele of Fine Arts. You know, for the longest time I wanted to have the music be something that I could carry with me and be a non imposing and be a casual practice. I was working on these big giant oil paintings that were acquiring a studio and And all sorts of preparation and aeration and expensive media. But now I can actually have a daily practice as a visual artist and know that I’m building my skills in a traditional practice. And it’s something that can live on my desk or right next to my desk and I can pull it out and it’s no big challenge the landscapes themselves, I actually think it’s just an opportunity to have a bit more organization to the same abstraction I was working with, from the end of college on into the cartoon period, because essentially, once I finish that what you’re looking at is a hill and a lake under a sky. If I’ve effectively community, a nation, the rest of it can be abstract play, and can just be kind of the joy of working with the media, because I’ve given you that identifiable well. Here’s what that says and who Now I’m going to enjoy myself in the rendering and abstraction at all.

John Sumser 17:06
That’s really interesting. So if somebody wanted to see this project live, how do they find it?

Ray Sumser 17:12
Well, presently, it’s RaySumser.com. And @RaySumserLandscapes on Instagram, neither of those is really a satisfactory outreach. And especially in this current climate where we’re, we’re all trapped inside, I’m feeling a great need to build a bigger platform. And so there’ll be thing emerging there soon. And I suppose that the Instagram and website will not be updated when that emerges at them at the moment. It’s at mostly static and daily posts on Instagram.

John Sumser 17:44
So you’re talking about an interesting dynamic, and that’s you built a really sturdy reputation for doing a particular thing. And then you started to run into the constraints caused by having that reputation. Do you think that’s where learning about a specific arena takes you all the time? Or is that just an accident of a particular kind of beginning? Is that right? I remember we once went to see Van Morrison and Van Morrison bitched and moaned about having to play his hits.

And let’s see, seems to me that it’s kind of an analogous problem where the audience or the world saw him in one way and he was busy trying to develop and progress in other ways. And he was furious that he was being drawn back to things that he’d already done. Is that what is that what you’re talking about?

Ray Sumser 18:39
To some extent, yes. I know that before I, before I wanted to be an artist. I knew that I didn’t want to have a traditional job. And I didn’t want to have to show up and be accountable and do the same thing on repeat every day of my life. And I’ve heard plenty of other are When I felt when I tell that story, I’ve heard a lot of other artists say, Yeah, well, you know, once it once it becomes a job, you’ll lose your love for it. And I think that there’s something to that. But I know that there are many artists who are successful and do what they love and are satisfied with it. So I don’t think it’s inherently, that once you get locked into your style or your path, that it’s necessarily a bad thing. And I think I also had, you know, there were particular hang ups with that type of work that I did not want to be and didn’t always want to be serving people nostalgia, and always want to be having to include references to pop culture in my work, you know, it’s a one I also wanted to have something that could be fully my own. So I don’t think that I think that there’s certainly art and success in art that you can have and the happy with I don’t know what you If you’ve been playing Brown Eyed girl for 40 years, and nobody wants to hear the album that you just released, but I think that’s probably a pretty good problem to have.

John Sumser 20:08
It sounds like a really good problem to have. So this has been a great conversation would you take a moment and reintroduce yourself and tell people how they might find you again?

Ray Sumser 20:20
Sure thing, my name is Ray Sumser. I am an artist working in landscape painting, sketch comedy, and mandolin presently. And you can see my broad general Instagram at @RaySumser and that’s inclusive of everything that I do from teaching to going on walks to playing music and all the art that happens therein and to get a specific feed that is just my landscape paintings. You can go to @RaySumserLandscapes, and to see the ongoing collection RaySumser.com is the website.

John Sumser 20:59
Thanks Ray it’s been great talking with you. Thanks for taking the time to do this today. We’ve been talking with Ray Sumser who is a multimedia artist whose work explores underlying structural analogies between diverse art disciplines, you can learn more about Ray at RaySumser.com and thanks for tuning in today. We’ll see you back here sometime soon. Bye Bye now.

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