Seth Babcock’s hands are covered in red paint as he works on new paintings in his one-man gallery and art studio, Invoke. Babcock and his fellow second-floor tenants at the Arts Factory have formed a sort of splinter community, self-designated as the “South Wing.” There’s activity up and down the hallway outside Invoke on an otherwise quiet Saturday afternoon at the Arts Factory. Alternative rock and hip-hop emanate from PeaceNart Studio, the noise of hammering and motors occasionally cutting through. This is the sound of blood pumping through the 18b Las Vegas Arts District. “The South Wing is alive,” Babcock declares.
In the midst of it all is one of the newest additions to the South Wing, Dray Studio & Gallery. Although the space is new, having just opened in March, its eponymous proprietor is no stranger to the Las Vegas art scene. Painter and muralist Andre Wilmore—known publicly as “Dray”—was one of the founding members of the pioneering, early-2000s art collective Five Finger Miscount, which brought in big-name graffiti artists from other cities, playing a large role in legitimizing urban muralism in Vegas. The collective, which also helped launch the careers of Mark T. Zeilman, Amy Sol and Casey Weldon, eventually opened a gallery inside the Arts Factory (where Sin City Gallery now resides), further bridging the gap between fine art and street art.
“It’s really interesting to see the Cosmopolitan hire [Los Angeles-based street artist] Retna for their parking lot,” Dray says. “He’s one of the people we brought in to exhibit here in 2005 or 2006. Back then, [street art] wasn’t all that accessible the way it is now, but now it’s a big deal.”
Dray was also among a vanguard of artists in 2004 who set up live-work studios in cottages across from the Funk House on the corner of Casino Center Boulevard and Colorado Street. He adorned an exterior wall of his spot, dubbed “Dray’s Place,” with a colorful mural entitled “The Birth of an Art Scene.” The painting depicted a nude, winged woman with a flower growing from between her legs, situated against a backdrop of the Vegas skyline. It earned ire from conservative members of the community, but represented an important moment for the Downtown art scene, which seemed to finally be gaining legitimacy.
That mural is now long gone. So are the cottages, which were torn down during the doomed mid-2000s real estate boom to clear space for a proposed condominium project (an empty lot remains there to this day). Dray tried for a few years to get other artistic endeavors off the ground, including the cooperative galleries 1218 Fine Art and Art Space Originals inside the World Market Center, but they floundered in the face of an economic downturn. Soon, Dray was gone from Las Vegas, too. But the depression that drove him away wasn’t financial—it was creative.
“There was no growth at the time,” Dray says. “No personal growth, and the city wasn’t growing. It was that point when the Arts District got stagnant. I knew it was gonna pick up, but I didn’t know when.”
Instead of waiting to find out, Dray went to Atlanta for a year, then to San Francisco for three and finally back to his hometown of Los Angeles for about a year. Dray says he used this period to learn more about the business side of being an artist, those lessons learned both from book-study and from living in the midst of some very well-established art scenes.
“In San Francisco, you have to be on point,” Dray says. “There are so many badass artists. You have to step it up a few notches. It made me realize how stuck I was [in Las Vegas], because there were just not enough people challenging themselves.”
Although he resided elsewhere, Dray never lost touch with the Vegas scene he helped shape. In 2010, Sin City Gallery hosted a retrospective show commemorating Dray’s first 10 years in Las Vegas, No Picassos in Vegas, and he made regular trips back to the Valley. “I kept coming back here, doing art exhibits, and I did see change,” Dray says. “I was gradually seeing the growth.”
Just seeing that growth wasn’t enough to pull Dray back to Vegas. He was making a name for himself in San Francisco, working on public murals and teaching art to at-risk youth. It took the urging of friends such as frequent collaborator and former Five Finger Miscount member Shannon Dorn—who runs SolSis Gallery in Downtown Spaces—to convince him to come back for good.
“I mentioned to him that there’s all these new things popping up, that Vegas was booming,” Dorn says. “I told him, ‘It’s a shame that you’ve been involved in the art scene, but nobody knows you because you’ve been gone so long.’ I asked him, ‘Why don’t you come back?’”
A number of changes to the Downtown art scene captured Dray’s attention—the growth of First Friday, the expansion of the footprint beyond 18b to spots such as Emergency Arts and Downtown Spaces, even simple improvements, such as official signage designating the location of the Arts District. But it was the explosion in public art here that, for Dray, signified a sea change in the local scene.
“In San Francisco, murals are tourist attractions,” Dray says. “When I came back here, that’s what I noticed, all the public murals. That’s one of the things that identifies culture in an area. The writing’s on the wall, basically.”
Since moving back to Las Vegas, Dray wasted no time diving into the cultural mix. He’s participated in I.S.I. Group live painting events, a Zappos.com mural project, and a reunion with fellow former fringe artists Zeilman, Dirk Vermin and Danny Roberts during a one-night event, How We Used to Do, in December. With the opening of Dray Studio & Gallery, Dray has come full-circle, returning to the center of the same Arts District he helped shape a decade earlier.
“This is my first time doing my own gallery in Vegas,” Dray says. “It feels good. I’ve always made a living based on my talents, but this is more official for me. To do it this way, it just feels like it’s time.”
Although he’s known primarily for music-influenced abstracts and portraits of beautiful women, Dray’s inaugural exhibit at his new gallery deviates from those familiar grounds. His space is filled with paintings—in various shapes, sizes and styles—all depicting the same subject: the Buddha. They’re just a fraction of the 68 pieces he’s created to date in a 12-month series called Year of the Buddha, which will wrap up on May 30 with a celebration at Dray Studio & Gallery. The series was inspired by Dray’s visit to Sri Lanka several years ago, a trip that profoundly affected the artist.
“It made me find out more about the philosophy of Buddha,” Dray says. “I saw what it brought to a country in chaos. The people have a peacefulness to them. I think a lot has to do with seeing these colossal images of Buddha.”
The pieces in Year of the Buddha range from Cubist-inspired paintings to graffiti-informed, multimedia collages. Dray says that forcing himself to paint variations on one subject for such a long period of time taught him a new kind of discipline, informed by the “calmness and peacefulness” he witnessed in Sri Lanka. “It’s been a challenge to keep [Year of the Buddha] interesting,” Dray says, “but it taught me how to meditate in a more focused way.”
“I just now got to a point where I could express the calmness and peacefulness I felt there,” Dray says. “That’s where I’m thinking I’m at in my life. I think that’s what we all aspire to.”
New galleries and studios are popping up all over downtown Las Vegas. Here are a few of the most recent additions to the local art scene:
The Arts Factory
107 E. Charleston Blvd.
A collaborative gallery featuring the watercolor paintings of Bill Fravel, mixed-media works of Debbe Sussman and surreal portraits by Lynne Adamson Adrian, plus workshops and art classes. Suite 110, Facebook.com/EklecticaGallery.
The Corner Gallery
A multi-room artistic space featuring Nevada and California artists in partnership with Pomona, California-based dA Center for the Arts, as well as sculpting classes and lectures by the nonprofit Las Vegas Desert Sculptors. Suite 220, Facebook.com/ArtistsInBoulderCity.
Invoke Studio & Gallery
A compact gallery featuring mixed-media paintings by proprietor Seth Babcock. Suite 222, Facebook.com/InvokeNV.
Mac Sual Studio
A working studio and gallery for Sheridee Hopper, featuring her colorful, abstract, mixed-media art. Suite 235, MacSualStudio.com.
520 Fremont St.
Run by the husband-wife team of UNLV education professors Chad and Chyllis Scott, Rhizome’s goal is to exhibit innovative work of emerging and underrepresented artists and curators. RhizomeGallery.com.