On the Ray family living room wall there hangs a painting of a young pregnant woman cradling a man’s head to her chest.
Oliver Ray painted that image after a frustrating afternoon of staring at a blank canvas, wondering if he really had what it takes to make it as an artist.
The woman is Christie Ray, who was pregnant with the couple’s first child at the time.
They’ve come a long way since Oliver broke down and created that image.
Their family has expanded to include two young children, Caitlin, and Dylan.
They’ve fulfilled their dream of settling on Prince Edward Island. And Oliver now paints full-time, with Christie handling the business side of the art.
They’ve even caused something of a stir in their adopted community Borden-Carleton — though the reason why doesn’t have much to do with Oliver’s paintings.
A little church on an island
The Rays, who are originally from B.C., first came to P.E.I. on a day trip several years ago.
Oliver was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces at the time and was stationed at an off Island base.
They immediately fell in love with the place and set about concocting a plan to settle here.
They finally took the plunge in 2010.
“It was nothing short of beautiful and spectacular. I was probably in a love haze for the first six months,” laughed Oliver.
“We still take every opportunity we can to drive and explore the island, because we’re completely in love with it,” said Christie.
But finding their dream home was more difficult than they’d expected.
“We came here with dreams and plans of buying sort of a big country house and living the Anne of Green Gables lifestyle. We envisioned a two or three story farmhouse,” he said.
They couldn’t find their dream home that was either in their price range or that didn’t need massive renovations.
Then one of them stumbled across an advertisement of an old church for sale.
It was the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Borden- Carleton, and had been an active place of worship about a year and a half before.
The property was unconventional, but at that point the couple was willing to think outside the box. And the church, in spite of how much work it needed, met most of their prerequisites.
“We didn’t realize how much work it would actually be. But we have a five-year plan, and the church, like Christie said, found us,” said Oliver.
They rented a property in Charlottetown in the summer of 2010 and Oliver traveled back and forth every day to work on the church.
They finally moved in about a year and half ago.
Living in a church is a funny experience, said Oliver, because so many people have a personal connection to the building.
“If you ask anyone in the area, they’ve all got some connection to this building. One way or another, they were either married here or went to a wedding here or a funeral here or something,” he said.
“We’re finding that out as we go along. Lots of people kind of peek in the windows and want to come and visit. Which we’re glad to do. “
To get an idea of what the Ray’s have done to the building, picture the main worship area of any average Christian church: arched ceilings with a cavernous main room, tall and thin windows.
Then take out all the pews until it’s just a big empty room.
Picture a box inside that room, then expand the box until it’s large enough to hold a kitchen, three bedrooms, a washroom and a living room.
That’s pretty much their home.
There’s enough room to add a second floor to the box, and they plan on eventually doing that. But right now, it’s still open space.
The outside of the building has been left largely untouched — for now.
If you’re lucky enough to get a tour of the Ray’s home, you’ll immediately notice Oliver’s paintings hanging here and there.
Or, if you’re too shy to knock on the door or give them a call, you could take a look online at www.oliverray.ca.
Either way you might notice the unique style he uses — just don’t expect a short explanation as to where it came from.
“We have a hard time defining it,” laughed Christie.
Oliver has no classic, or even formal, arts training. So he said he developed his style of painting through various influences, including: west coast First Nations traditions and Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
A lot of his subjects include one, or a small group, of people, usually in an intimate or quiet moment such as a lone man writing, or a couple dancing.
“Oliver is a master of taking little bits and pieces of, either from our life, or from things that we see,” said Christie.
“It’s funny being with him because you’ll see when he’s getting something like that. He’ll be completely immersed in looking at somebody drinking coffee at one side of a café. You can see it in his face that he’s so interested in how that looks,” she said.
But he wasn’t always so keen to observe people.
Oliver describes himself as a life-long introvert. And it wasn’t until he was out of his teens before he felt comfortable enough to let anyone see his drawings.
Christie encouraged him to put his work out into the public, and to eventually make a career out of it.
“When I look back at everything I’ve done, I always think that Christie and my relationship is the nucleus,” he said.
The Ray family intends to keep working on their church — they have to finish their five-year-plan.
They are also intent on expanding their business, which they run almost entirely through their website.
Oliver still likes to sit look at that painting of himself and Christie. He even still wonders sometimes if he’s got what it takes to be an artist.
But nowadays, whenever he stares up at that image, it takes on a whole new meaning.
He sees everything he and Christie have accomplished together, and the promises of everything they’re working towards.