Guiding Light: Neil Donnell Ray

At Paddy’s Pub, 2017. photo credit: Tony Murnahan

In planning for 2021, I had an idea to (for now metaphorically) sit at the knee of our local artistic wise ones and learn from their processes and experiences. They are truly Guiding Lights for our community.

You can’t be in the Fayetteville art scene for very long and not hear the name “Neil Ray.” I wasn’t in town two weeks before witnessing his brilliance at Java Expressions, the open mic night he created and has hosted for 22 years at The Coffee Scene on Morganton Road. He serves as MC, recites poetry both pre-written and improvised, and jumps on the cajon to accompany many of the singer-songwriters. Somehow, he both exudes warmth to his audience and artists and is the epitome of cool at the exact same time.

What does success look like for you? “Accomplishing a particular purpose,” he said, which in Ray’s case is not only pursuing his art of poetry and music, but also encouraging the artists around him to “see they’re stars in their own right.” He’s candid about the ups and downs he’s witnessed or experienced, which builds trust with his audiences and artists.

What change do you seek to make with your art? “I want to inspire others in the community.” Ray shares a story about a young person who attended a Java Expressions one night, then came back the next week and braved the mic to share a poem that started as a suicide note but then wound up being a life-saving piece of art. There is literal truth in his catchphrase: “If no one else will listen–the page will.”

How have you constructed the bridges of your practice? “I find every day life inspirational: the people and the action around me.” Ray became smitten with writing poetry in elementary school. He wrote while serving in the military, created custom pieces while working as a flower salesman, helped students as a teaching artist, and all the while works to make a community more inclusive using his art. “Practicing gives you a better understanding of your craft.” Getting up on stage or getting away to an artists’ retreat to write and record music both contribute to Ray’s continued longevity and growth.

Who is in your artistic cohort? “I look at [my community] like a buffet: my eyes get wide and I take all I can now.” Ray is not one to shy away from naming names. He pulls dozens of people into his art network: from early mentors Lt. Colonel Bill Bailey and poet Glen Carter to musicians Erik Smallwood (with whom he toured all over the Southeastern USA) and Puncho Forrest to next generation hyphenates like poet/performer/coach El’Ja Bowens, author/musician/teacher Shane Wilson, and poet/coach/designer Yolanda “Yogii with 2 iis” Barnes. He talks about theaters, poetry groups, the Writers Ink Guild, drum circles, jazz bands, Southeastern Regional NC Poetry Festival, and more.

It is one thing to watch Ray give away more ideas and inspiration than he keeps, encouraging poets, songwriters, musicians, and authors to work through creative concepts and build new shows, albums, books, or organizations. But the real blessing is to watch the love come pouring back. Over and over I’ve watched and listened to artists give credit, give adoration, even give money to help cover medical costs after Ray had a stroke in 2019. Ray’s generosity in both word and deed is truly an act of wisdom. May we all continue to be blessed by this elder.

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