Daffodils and Dreams
How William Elrod Bray, founder of the Georgia Fine Arts Academy, teacher-extraordinaire, operator of The Daffodil Farm, and all-around saintly arts supporter changed my life, and the lives of thousands of other artists in this state.
Written by Bowen Craig
Disclaimer: William Elrod “Roddy” Bray is my mentor, my business partner, and my friend. I’m completely, 100 percent biased towards him and his ideas. I’ve been a part of his creation, The Georgia Fine Arts Academy, since I was a teenager and it’s probably the best thing I’ll ever do. As a Roddy protégé, I’m proud to carry the mantle of the ideas he, above all others, has instilled in my very soul. He’s the crazy uncle I never had.
An idea man of the highest order, his views on the present and future of art in America are worth listening to…because he’s been there. His opinions on how we can make this world a better home for future generations are nothing short of genius…because that’s been his mission in life for decades. His dreams are the raw materials that built the pyramids, that launched The Nina, The Pinta, The Santa Maria, that built the Saint Louis Arch, that painted the Mona Lisa, that learned how to master the wind and allow mankind to take wing and sail the skies. He’s seen the highs and the lows of what our country’s last 80 years has had to offer the world in terms of artistic expression. His abiding love for “The Sixties” has not diminished in the intervening 50 years, despite America’s backlash against the freedoms of his beloved epoch.
I first met the man at Thanksgiving one year, but since I don’t remember anything from that meal, let’s start with the time William Elrod “Roddy” Bray took me on an outing to a Scottish Games festival in Stone Mountain. He was the patient teacher, the curious tour guide of the mind. He introduced me to the customs, games, and beliefs of my father’s people. He had researched my father’s family’s clan. I had literally just met the man once, and already he knew more about my ancestors than I did. Granted, I was only twelve, but still, I should’ve been impressed.
He bought me my first, and only, kilt. I paid him back by being a whiny little brat. Despite that, he persevered. Roddy knew that my father had recently passed away, and felt it was his mission to help me learn about my father’s people, even while dealing with a complaining, aloof-to-the-point-that-a-lesser-man-would’ve-slapped-me-and-I-would’ve-deserved-it-to-the-extent-that-even-my-own-mother-would’ve-understood-and-agreed, obnoxious, horribly bratty teenager.
This patient man, this artistic visionary, this consummate teacher showed me more than my heritage that day. He showed me how to take the first steps toward discovering myself, and through that revelation, discovering my art form.
And, I still have the kilt. I’ve gained so much weight since then that I couldn’t wear it as a sock, but it still hangs in my closet.
William Bray has a curious, generous, spiritual, yet intellectual, soul. He’s the kind of natural-born teacher who is willing to teach homeless men the differences between the Impressionism and Neo-Classical Realism while he’s digging in his pockets for spare change. He’s the kind of visionary who can look at a forgotten patch of red Georgia dirt and envision what kind of artistic commune would work best there, and then tell you why. The imparting of knowledge comes as easily to Roddy as quoting the farm report to an Iowa corn grower or gossip to a local hairdresser. Knowing him and being in his presence has changed my life path, and cemented the paths of thousands of young Georgia artists. He’s as close to a saint as many people will ever meet.
In my mind, Roddy’s road to artistic sainthood began as a Baptist minister. That surprised me, too, but not nearly as much as it did his congregation when he quit his job from the pulpit at age 29, preaching a sermon about the rampant lack of morality of his own congregation, lambasting them for their hypocrisy and their racial intolerance in the age of Civil Rights, quoting some of the nastier Old Testament prophets. His fiery convictions kept him from relocating to a less hypocritical parish, and instead, he quit his whole career that Sunday. Other than maybe Julius Caesar, I can’t think of a more dramatic quitting story. His ended a little better than Caesar’s.
He may have shed his ministerial robes, but he could never abandon his life’s mission – to make this a better world for future generations. Bray’s mission command center simply moved from the pulpit to the classroom. And his classroom was everywhere. He shifted focus from religion to art. It’s not so much of a stretch when Roddy explains it. He adheres to the basic Socratic definition of art, as outlined in Plato’s Dialogue, “Ion.” Art is a message from the gods (or God, or whatever martian Hollywood worships). It comes from above. It is filtered through us and onto the page, the canvas, or the guitar, and then absorbed by the audience. They’re the final link in the chain.
Art is divine. That’s why a lapsed-preacher felt so at home promoting the arts in the cultural desert of late-twentieth century Georgia.
He founded the Georgia Fine Arts Academy in 1980 to “encourage and stimulate the development of the arts and humanities in Georgia.” Since then, more than 1,000 students have participated in GFAA programs.
From pulpit to classroom, he has never wavered in his adherence to his mission, despite some pretty long odds and the state of Georgia’s sometimes dismissive and blasé attitude toward the arts.
I love the peach state, but we’re not exactly enlightened when it comes to arts funding. Renaissance Florence we’re not. We’re not even Depression-Era Nebraska. Bray is used to conditions like these, and it has barely even slowed him down. He ran his summer arts program at The Daffodil Farm for ten years longer than any rational man would. He could have sold his family’s land years earlier and turned a tidy profit, but then he wouldn’t have been able to help the hundreds of Georgia’s young artists who would come to “The Farm” and whose lives would be forever changed because of it.
The Daffodil Farm was nothing short of a magical utopian arts wonderland. The land, near Calhoun, Georgia, had once been in Roddy’s family. His great-aunt, Minnie, had turned it into a daffodil farm, growing and cultivating rows upon rows of flowers which she would then sell to vendors in Atlanta and around northwest Georgia. By the late 1970s, Minnie had been forced to sell the family home place. Roddy’s father, a successful bedroom slipper manufacturer in Dalton, was, unbeknownst to him, in the process of being talked into buying it back. Calling on the forces of family ties, ancestral strength and sound investment strategy, Roddy waged a ten-year persuasion campaign to convince his father to repurchase the land and bring it back into the family. Roddy assumed that his family had been the first settlers on the land. He was wrong about that one.
It turns out that the family land, this grand piece of bountiful Earth, had once belonged to a royal family of the Cherokee Nation. Roddy’s family who occupied the same land later had no idea that they were walking on the faded footprints of some of the most prosperous and famous Cherokees.
I walked that land with Roddy while serving as a volunteer for the last year that The Georgia Fine Arts Academy held programs at The Daffodil Farm. That year, three different regional school districts loaded their special needs students onto buses and brought them out to The Daffodil Farm for arts and nature programs.
Roddy would write a play a week about famous people throughout history who had harsh upbringings and had overcome adversity and had then gone on to do wonderful things for the world (in the vein of Fredrick Douglas or Alexander Hamilton). We would divide the kids up into two groups, one being the actors, the other being the audience. They would perform the play and garner the appropriate applause and adoration, something those kids sorely lacked. Then we’d all go for a walk in the woods, usually making up adventure stories, and slowly morphing from a milady-organized school field trip into The Lost Battalion from World War I or a wagon train heading West across the plains. After the adventure, we’d return to the studio and reverse roles, perform another play, with the other half of the kids being the acting troupe this time.
Seeing those amazing kids gradually come out of their protective shells, shedding their defensive skins, and opening up to creativity, optimism and hope – some for the first time in their lives – was one of the best experiences of my life. One day, after the walk, we all stopped at the picnic table and one of the kids began to drum on the table with his little hands. Soon everyone joined him in a makeshift picnic table drum circle – Roddy, the school counselors, and myself included. After that one of the counselors turned to Roddy and said, “You know, if these kids could do something like this every day, they wouldn’t need medication.”
That line summarizes what Bray has done for the world better than anything I could write. Most saintly visionaries have this in common. They all strive to change the world, to make it just a little bit better, to leave this Earth just a tad bit more magical than it was when they came on the scene.
Art doesn’t have to be only corralled into galleries and shoved into dusty corners of museums. It can be everywhere. At certain times and places in the history of the world it has been everywhere: Renaissance Florence, Surrealist Paris, Greenwich Village in the 60s. Sadly, those are the exceptions, not the norms. However, they don’t have to be. That’s one of Roddy’s big ideas.
Roddy is the guy who tells the nurse in the doctor’s office how much their waiting room would be improved by more dynamic paintings. Most don’t take his advice, but think about the mood of patients having to wait the standard hour-and-a-half in those third-circle-of- hell waiting rooms. Wouldn’t something as simple as better art on the walls improve the experience for everyone involved? I went to the dentist recently and found that they’d, in their own way, taken some advice I’d given them last time, some very Roddy advice. I’d told them they should turn the news off their screens and put something more calming on. People are already scared of the dentist. How is hearing about a car bombing going to help the experience? At my last visit, they had revolving screen savers of bucolic nature scenes instead of some idiot yelling at some other idiot, and, guess what? It was a better dental experience. Also, I didn’t have any cavities. I’m not saying cable news causes cavities, but I’m not totally sure that it doesn’t.
The psychology of architecture, like so many of his big ideas, is clear and obvious in retrospect, but is still one of those things which almost nobody thinks about. Architecture is an art form, but since it’s ubiquitous and necessary (in a food, clothing and shelter sense), most people don’t even consider how it affects them. Take a minute and consider how much better you feel when you’re in your favorite room. Think about how religious buildings make you feel. Now think about how depressing it is to walk inside a Burger King.
These are such simple ideas, but once you think about them, they are easy ways to change the world for the better without too much effort.
And, the world is changing. Technology is crowding out original thought, which Roddy seems to notice every time he’s at breakfast and sees a family hunched over their phones or an outdoor festivals with people wandering in beautiful sunshine, lost in their “hand toys.”
He is concerned about computer technology and its negative impact on conversation, language, and human interaction. It not only seeps into our social DNA, but is finding its way t creative thought and innovative artistic endeavors.
When Roddy searches for artists with paintings to show at a gallery in Atlanta, he says much student art seems as though students are just trying to be different with form, color or content, rather than have “power” come through them that can change the lives of the viewer.
He thinks some of the problem is that we teach the arts as a way to get to get a job and make money, rather than as an extraordinary way to change people’s lives by taking their consciousness to a higher level – that’s true of paintings, architecture, music, or theatre.
“Art is food for the soul.” Roddy says. For decades, he has nourished young souls through GFAA and cultivated artists on the farm.
Floriography is “the language of flowers.” I always assumed they speak French, but apparently they have a language all their own, and yet they manage to communicate so much to us by saying so little. According to the Flowers & Plants Association daffodils stand for “esteem,” “chivalry,” or “regard.” Watching Roddy instill a sense of daffodillitis into behaviorally challenged kids, those forgotten souls turned their lives around faster than any disciplinary method the Georgia public schools had tried up until then. Field trips are important for student growth, and, since they’re already called “field trips” Roddy brought them to actual fields.
That’s where the flowers grow.