Lela Wright Ray, retired art, drama and speech teacher from Russellville City Schools, has been painting Christmas ornaments of houses for years – at least 12 a year for the past 25 years.
Ray said when it comes to her creations, she has to notice all the little details most people wouldn’t see as casual observers. While it’s a time-intensive, highly-detailed process, it’s one she enjoys and also takes very seriously.
She said she got the idea for the ornaments in 1996 while visiting an area craft fair, when she saw a snow scene painted inside a clear plastic ornament ball. “I told myself ‘I could do that!’ and I did,” said Ray. The story only grows from there. Ray decided it would be an interesting project for the students in her advanced art class at Russellville High School, and during their annual student art exhibit, RHS counselor Judy Pounders saw her snow scene ornament and asked if she could paint a house with Christmas decorations in an ornament ball. With a photograph to go on, Ray decided to give it a try. That’s how her new hobby transformed into a side business that has brought joy to dozens of homeowners who have purchased her works.
“My ornament will be my favorite forever,” said Tamera Lane. “It’s of our first Christmas in our new home. She painted our ‘forever home’ – the home our children will grow up in. I leave mine out year-round in my bookcase.” Lane said everyone who sees it comments on “how beautiful and detailed” it is. “She painted every last detail of our home,” said Lane. “It’s something I will always cherish.”
Beth Page Gilmer has been collecting Christmas ornaments since she got married in 1984. “I have many that I love,” said Gilmer, “but none is as special as my Lela Ray original. She captured the look of my house perfectly from just a couple of photographs. I hope to go back and find pictures of other houses we lived in and get her to paint more.”
Ray explained it’s deeply meaningful for her to know how well received her ornaments are. “I feel so honored to be part of people’s memories in this way,” said Ray. “I’m not just painting a house. I’m painting a memory, creating something special that can be handed down through families. The details are what makes each one so special – painting the little dog on the sidewalk or a special tree in the window, making sure the shutters are the right kind.”
For Beverly Fuller, her ornament is extra special. “Lela is my very best friend in the whole world,” said Fuller. “We raised our children together, and we’ve had lots of adventures. It’s wonderful to see her using her tremendous talent in a way that is so meaningful for people. Lela has created lifelong memories of loved homes and families in her Christmas ball ornaments.”
Fuller said one of the first ornaments Ray painted was of the Fuller home – and Fuller considers the ornament her most treasured possession. “So many people have seen it and asked about it and told me how special it was,” said Fuller. “It’s our family home, and we lived there 35 years. The house in the ornament is my Russellville homeplace, and I leave it sitting on the mantel for everybody to see.”
Ray said she has learned a lot about bricks, shutters and columns over the years of painting more than 300 ornaments. She explained shutters are not all the same, and even the smallest of details is important to get right. “I love architecture,” said Ray. “It’s very satisfying to include all the little details.”
“My favorite part about painting an ornament is the reaction when a customer sees it for the first time,” Ray added. “I ask them to hold it up to the light to see the special details, and they are always excited to see it looks like the Christmas tree is lit.”
Ponda Gordon’s ornament shows the first home she and her husband Elliott Gordon built together. “It’s something I treasure. She’s so talented. It’s very special to me,” Gordon said. “Lela was there when we were building our house and even helped pick out some of the colors. We have numerous things she has painted that we treasure.”
“I’ve known Lela forever,” added Elliott Gordon. “The ornament is part of our lives. It’s special because she painted it for us. Not only is it a nice ornament for a memory of the house we live in, but it’s also the fact that she took the time to do it. I grew up with her, and it means a lot to our family to have one of her ornaments.”
The Gordons daughter, Katelynn Gordon Thompson, also has one of Ray’s ornaments. “It’s such a beautiful piece,” said Thompson, “and I love having it out during the holidays. Everyone always talks about how beautiful it is. It’s a lovely ornament that perfectly depicts our first home. I’ve known Lela my entire life, and it’s so special knowing she painted this ornament just for me.”
Ray’s trusty studio assistant, a black cat named Bob Ross, often keeps her company as she works, frequently sitting in her lap as she plans and draws and paints during the various steps of the process of going from idea to finished ornament.
The price of a “Lela Ray original” has varied based on the cost of supplies and the difficulty of the particular project. Nowadays, since Ray is retired, she said she uses the funds to save for her travels and to spend on her grandchildren.
“I feel very blessed that God has given me this talent,” said Ray. “I always say a prayer when I start my house orders each year. My lines have to be precise, and I have to get the perspective right. It’s a challenge, and there’s tremendous gratification in accomplishing the final result.”
She has now painted homes both old and new, near and far – including not only those in the Russellville area but also a number of other cities in Alabama, as well as in Tennessee and Mississippi and one in Breisach, Germany.
Each ornament is about six inches in diameter, and most people display them on a special display stand instead of on a Christmas tree.
“I try to finish orders by Thanksgiving when I can because some people place an order as a gift for family or friends who might be visiting at that time,” said Ray. “I had COVID last July, and I thought I’d never be able to do that delicate work again, but I’m so pleased that I can. I’m still behind, but I have plenty of people who are all too happy to wait until I can get their ornament painted.”
Ray said she includes the same note with each ornament: “Hand-painted, just for you, A Christmas House Ornament. Hold it up to a bright light, and you will see lights in and around the house, maybe a sparkling Christmas tree!”
Ray said she has rarely painted the same house more than once; she’s not a machine and has no desire to mass produce products. “I have to enjoy the challenge,” said Ray, “and that comes from having a new house each time.” When possible, she likes to visit the house first, sit in her car and “take in the character of the house” and make her own photographs. Often, Ray said, those who are not artists don’t take the kinds of photographs she has to have to do what she needs to do, so she’d rather take them herself.
When people are ordering for themselves, it’s easy to explain that’s part of her process; however, for gifts meant to be a surprise, she has to take more care to try not to be noticed. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m up to something bad,” explained Ray, noting how it could look if an observer didn’t know what was going on. When she can, she likes to visit at night to see the home with lights on.
One customer ordered an ornament of her grandmother’s old house. It was about to be torn down, and she was anxious to preserve its memory in a special way. Another ordered an ornament for a friend, which she sent instead of flowers, to commemorate a family home after a death.
“I love painting my ornaments,” said Ray, “but I have a lot of other interests, too, like playing Bridge and traveling and otherwise spending time with family and friends, so I make sure not to let it take up all of my time.” She said she typically doesn’t start painting until October and then paints for three months. Usually, she doesn’t start until after supper, though she might paint until 2 or 3 in the morning. “I need perfect silence for my work,” said Ray, “and there are special challenges, such as having to use curved lines instead of straight ones because the house is being painted inside a ball.”
Though Ray admires many artists, among her favorites are Vincent van Gogh because she finds him relatable and Norman Rockwell because she wishes she could be more like him. “My favorites are not so much for their work but for their lives,” said Ray.
She said she would love it if some day all of her ornaments could be exhibited together, though she acknowledges that’s not likely at this point. “In the beginning, I was afraid,” said Ray, “but now I’m proud of the work I have done and continue to do. We all have a gift to share. I hope my story will encourage someone to just pick up a pencil, draw some lines and color in the shapes. I can’t believe I’ve gotten to share my talent for more than 25 years. It’s been a true joy.”