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In late 2020, as the holidays approached and the coronavirus continued to spread, the crisp air and the bright colors at the Penn Quarter holiday market across from the National Portrait Gallery were a balm. By the end of the year, the nation was exhausted. Very little was safe. People craved communal, in-person experiences with art, but the pandemic had forced Smithsonian museums and smaller galleries alike to close. Something was missing from art such as music, movies, and television, as helpful as they were during self-isolation. I had already decided not to travel to see family, so I headed to the holiday market, hoping to find gifts that could connect me with loved ones, even though we were far apart.
On those blocks, more than 50 vendors sold repurposed jewelry, imported crafts, paintings, soap, and woodwork. I bought a repurposed necklace for my sister and, of course, two pendants for myself. I kept moving through the market, looking for other small gifts, until bold colors and crafted brushstrokes stopped me in my tracks. The booth showing the colorful artworks had a banner with the artist’s name: Rayhart, the mononym of D.C.-area visual artist Ray Hart. His name was also inscribed on a huge selection of unframed prints and framed acrylic originals on canvas, along with coasters, postcards, and wearable art such as T-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, and purses.
I bought an unframed print, “Good Girl Coalition II,” which pictures three women with brown skin, all different heights and sizes, dressed in earth-tone brown and green, and highlighted with purple, mustard yellow, and red. Green is my mother’s favorite color; the painting reminded me of myself and my two sisters, standing in a coalition despite the distance forced upon us by the pandemic.
I was lost in his art before I noticed Rayhart himself in the background, letting his art “take center stage” and “speak for itself,” as he says. Dressed for the December weather in his warm jacket, hat, and gloves, he greeted me and stood quietly. As we talked, I learned I could find him displaying his work on most Saturdays and Sundays at Eastern Market, which he had been doing, and continues to do, since 2018 and throughout the pandemic.
Sustaining any business—especially an art business—wasn’t easy over the past year. But businesses at Eastern Market had an advantage in the pandemic: an open air setting, which disperses droplets carrying the novel coronavirus and makes transmission less likely.
During the pandemic’s peak, Eastern Market remained a semi-stable cultural and social outlet. According to Keith A. Anderson, director of D.C.’s Department of General Services, in June 2020, Eastern Market was able to bring back all its arts and crafts vendors under a farmers market waiver. “The merchants and vendors at Eastern Market are here day after day,” Anderson says. “And with that consistency, friendships develop between them and their customers. So, even when only essential shopping was permitted in Washington, D.C., Eastern Market was a different type of essential shopping: It was where you could buy your essential foods and at the same time deepen that essential human connection.”
Rayhart began presenting his work at Eastern Market in 2015, but it wasn’t until 2018 that he started setting up an outdoor booth there on a regular basis. He compares his process for arranging pieces for his weekend exhibits to setting up a home. He aims to create a “welcoming, presentable” environment, he says, allowing his “inner voice to guide him” when deciding on how to display his items. His booth is furnished with tables draped in black fabric, covered with a selection of unframed prints. One table features postcards and coasters, and behind them original artworks on canvas hang at eye level. On the other side, wearable art hangs on racks.
Born and raised in Miami Beach, Rayhart came to D.C. in 1995. He was trained as a social worker, but he’s been creating art for almost three decades. Gifted a beginners paint set by a friend 29 years ago, he describes himself as a “self-taught artist, led by self-exploration and a passionate desire to master this thing called art creation.” But he’s not only a visual artist: “I believe that I am first and foremost, a poet, who believes in the preservation of good people, good poetry, and good paintings,” he says on his website. “My art will be poetry put to paint. And my aim is to capture and relay it in a poem visualized as a painting. Hence, painting will become my voice, and through it, I speak only in the language of love.” Rayhart’s website includes examples of his poetic voice: “An angel now, / Covered in dust / Just as my insides have begun to rust / Please surrender the secret, / And I’ll keep it between us.”
He’s rather unassuming and largely quiet—until he starts talking about his art. As he discusses his work, he becomes talkative and passionate. He tells me about pieces ranging from landscapes to human figures, sharing the background of and inspiration behind his paintings. With the inquisitiveness of a former museum docent, I ask him how he conceptualizes his painting. “Life itself is the theme,” Rayhart says, comparing his art to “feel-good” music. His art depicts something personal: “My appreciation for life,” he says. “My life itself.” He sees inspiration as “coming from the universe.” In addition, “It significantly honors the people who have sacrificed for the lives we enjoy today,” he adds.
Zita Cousens, owner of the Cousen Rose Gallery in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where Rayhart’s work was shown in July, says his work is especially human. “He depicts musicians, women, family, and children, all subjects that appeal to people because of how he portrays them,” she says. “There’s motion in his paintings even if someone is just sitting on a chair. He also doesn’t have defined faces on his paintings, so that the viewer can see himself or herself in his paintings, or relate to a moment in time that he has painted, such as a woman playing the piano or a woman strolling on a path.”
Recently, the National Institutes of Health, coordinating with the National Institute of Mental Health, sent postcards to D.C., Maryland, and Virginia residents asking them to participate in online questionnaires to ascertain “how stressors related to the COVID-19 virus affect mental health over time,” according to the website. On the front was Rayhart’s artwork—women and a girl wearing vivid colors, pink, purple, yellow, blue, orange, all joined together—titled “Get Behind Us.” The commission came after a couple of NIH colleagues came across his work, like many others, at the holiday market in Penn Quarter downtown and Eastern Market.
Though he’s frequently seen at Eastern Market, his work can be found at other regional outdoor spaces—the Reston Market, spaces in Annapolis, and more. Barbara Luke, a Virginia native and retired bank executive who has collected his art since 2010, first encountered him at an F Street marketplace, she says. She’s been collecting African American art for about two decades, and meeting and interacting with artists such as Rayhart is one of her favorite parts of that process. “I am attracted to the color and vibrancy of Ray’s art,” she says. “Not only are the figurative images in the forefront of his paintings appealing, but the use of color in the background offers the feeling that I am actually purchasing a dual piece of art showing both figurative and abstract art on the same canvas.”
Most notably, his wearable art—T-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, and purses—serve as traveling art exhibits. “Rayhart meets the two most important criteria of a successful business owner at Eastern Market: He creates beautiful artwork that truly touches people, and he has a personality that matches,” says Anderson. “On top of that, he is an extremely astute businessman. This third element becomes clear when you meet one of his fans who owns a wardrobe of Rayhart apparel.”
Barbara Stoney and her daughter, Yolanda Cousar, who met Rayhart at Eastern Market over a year ago, are now regular patrons of his art. Rayhart is “talented and personable,” Stoney says. “I feel he possesses a sense of familiarity when communicating with his customers.” Although Rayhart’s art appeals to a wide variety of people, for Stoney, the art has cultural and racial significance: It evokes a sense of pride. She’d owned Black art before, but never Black wearable art; now Stoney wears the “Ms. Sunday Morning” jacket and Cousar matches her in “A Morning Solo” jacket. Stoney wears Rayhart’s art when making trips throughout the area: “The sales associate in Home Depot wanted to know who and where was the artist located,” she says. “Rayhart’s wearable art is so powerful and mesmerizing.”
Donna Wiseman and her husband, John Norris, have acquired at least five originals on canvas over a period of four to five years. Wiseman and Norris, both academics, have collected oil paintings, watercolors, woodprints, and sculptures over the past 30 years. “We were walking down the sidewalk at Annapolis First Sunday and his artwork pulled us into his tent,” Wiseman says. Like Stoney and Cousar, the couple believes that Rayhart’s personality comes through in his work. “We can say all the typical reasons why we like his art—colors, subject matter, themes, styles, etc.—but the overriding reason is Rayhart’s spirit and approach to life that is also depicted in his art,” Wiseman says.
In the past year and a half, those connections have been as important to his work as the practicality of his open air booth. Next, Rayhart plans to “continue to serve the people through his art.” But for now, he’s continuing to connect with people at Eastern Market.
Rayhart’s advice to those pursuing art as a profession? “Be patient and consistent,” he says. “All which is good takes time. If it’s overnight and successful, you must know, that day came after many nights of enduring work.”