Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Essay: Edward Rice's Expansive Sense of Place: 1993-2008

by J. Richard Gruber, Ph.D.
October 2008

Looking back from New Orleans to the two cities Edward Rice has called home, both situated on the banks of the Savannah River—Augusta, Ga., and North Augusta, S.C.––I often remember Rice’s intensive appreciation of the history of these two distinctive Southern places. During the fifteen years that I have known him, Rice has maintained a regular routine (except while away on his travels)—driving east in the morning, across the Savannah River, to his South Carolina studio, and returning to his Georgia home in the evening—literally, and metaphorically, bridging the cultural worlds of two historic Southern states. During these same years, reflecting Rice’s larger interests, he and Anna El Gammal have continued their international travels and recently completed the construction of a house in Anna’s native region, County Cork, Ireland. Rice’s work has been exhibited and collected increasingly in Ireland during this time. By choice, however, he always returns home, to the Savannah River Valley, bringing expanded experience and knowledge to the place where he was born, where he addresses an evolving range of artistic issues and subject matter in his studio.

Born and raised in North Augusta, he regularly crossed the river and explored the larger city of Augusta, then went to live there (while maintaining a presence in North Augusta), discovering his artistic mentor and the foundation of his professional career. In unique ways, both cities have been vital to his art and his career, as documented by David Houston, who has known Rice and studied his works for many years, especially his architectural imagery. “Architectural themes, from his most youthful efforts to his recent work, have been a constant concern and most of the buildings he chooses to depict are drawn from a two mile area of downtown Augusta, Georgia, and a few city blocks in North Augusta, South Carolina.” Observing that Rice possesses an awareness of the paintings of artists such as Edward Hopper and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Houston notes that Rice’s works reflect structures that are “at once specific and placeless,” concluding that they “are often so precise in their representation of a particular building, that they transcend their specificity and suggest the archetypal.” (1)

Rice first met his mentor, artist Freeman Schoolcraft, in Augusta at the age of sixteen, when he tried to enter an invitation-only Schoolcraft reception at the Augusta Museum. Schoolcraft, who witnessed the receptionist’s rejection of Rice’s pleas to enter without an invitation, interceded, telling her that the young Rice was his personal guest. Schoolcraft, a worldly and accomplished Chicago artist who moved to Augusta with his wife Cora (an artist and Augusta native) after a heart attack almost ended his career, became a strong role model and mentor to Rice (and, for a time, was his father-in-law). Rice had studied art from an early age—at the home and studio of Edith Alexander in North Augusta and with Louise Mallard at the Gertrude Herbert Institute in Augusta—before enrolling in classes at Augusta College with Eugenia Comer, David Jones and Freeman Schoolcraft. (2) With Schoolcraft (who also taught at the Gertrude Herbert Institute), Rice discovered what he had been looking for--a sense of clear artistic direction--first in Schoolcraft’s Augusta College classes, then in his Lombardy Court home and studio (which Rice helped build) near the Augusta College campus, and later in painting expeditions across the region—with Schoolcraft offering Rice practical and technical expertise as well as first-hand lessons in the process of becoming a professional artist in America. Schoolcraft imbued his dedicated student with the rigors and responsibilities of the artist’s life, offering an understanding of an artist’s place in his community, and impressed Rice with his rigorous and disciplined work ethic, derived from Schoolcraft’s own academic training with Lorado Taft and his varied experiences during the Great Depression. (3)

After studying with Schoolcraft (and marrying Schoolcraft’s daughter Faye), Rice began to teach art and assumed the position of Director at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art (where he had once studied and where Schoolcraft taught), establishing a broader presence within the cultural and social worlds of Augusta. In 1982, he decided to focus exclusively on his art, left his position at the Gertrude Herbert and opened a new downtown studio, where he began painting a series of architectural subjects on 4’ x 4’ canvases.(4) Working at 20 Eighth Street, in an historic brick building near the Savannah River, he established his own rigorous work schedule (maintained to the present day), demonstrating to the leading citizens of the city (and to himself and his mentor), that an artist “worked” and kept regular business hours, just as they did. Although I missed this period in his career, I heard fond tales, from multiple sources, about those days and his daily routines as well as his precise schedule—painting all morning in artist garb, before changing into a shirt and tie to lunch with traditional Augusta bankers and businessmen, then returning to his studio, hanging the shirt and tie on his door, and returning to his easel and work clothes.

When I arrived in Augusta, in the spring of 1993, to assume the position of deputy director at the newly opened Morris Museum of Art, his studio had moved to North Augusta. He had moved there in 1990--not far, probably less than two miles away--yet it seemed a greater distance, to a world apart, both in place and in time. In those days the Lucerne Street cottage was a basic, flat-roofed structure—with an open studio room with a low ceiling, a hall and bath, and two small adjoining rooms—both former jail cells, measuring 9’ x 11’ (the original metal jail cages were stored outside)--little changed from when it served as the North Augusta jail. His grandfather, known as Chief Weeks, had served as the chief of police in North Augusta for decades when he bought the decommissioned jail building, moved it to Lucerne Street and converted it to his retirement home. Rice works now in an updated version of the North Augusta structure, completed in 1996 to designs he created with his brother, Matthew, an architect and then a professor of architecture at Clemson University.

As described to me, Rice and his brothers grew up visiting their grandparents and often spent weekends on Lucerne Street, less than a mile from their home, at the small house he recently described as “a place of wonder.” He and his brothers loved to roam the neighborhood, playing in the woods and the nearby spring, as well as in the city park that faces his studio, often discovering shards, arrowheads and fragments from the earlier Native-American and colonial cultures that populated the Savannah River region. He treasured those historic objects then, as he does now. He also remembers making some of his first drawings on his grandparent’s kitchen table in this house (works he rediscovered after his grandmother’s death). As he recently noted in describing his memories of this structure, his most recent works (including some in the current exhibition) were created in the same room where he made those childhood drawings, with his grandparents nearby. Rice’s working, and contemplative, studio is a comfortable environment, functional and self-contained, even more so since he bought the small brick house adjoining the studio in 1996 (where his tenant, the librarian at the Morris Museum of Art, has lived for twelve years). Here, he has created a world that feels both traditional and contemporary, one that is distinctly his own, filled with memories and experience.

From my office at the Morris Museum, on the Savannah River, it was a five-minute drive to the studio, a short journey to a quiet, shaded residential neighborhood. After parking in his side yard and visiting on the covered porch, there was always a work or two in progress to view in the studio and usually some new exhibition catalogues or international art magazines to review. In addition to art, there was always something to discuss related to the history of the Savannah River Valley and Rice’s study of the geography and archeology of the region, which informed and inspired his art. It was common to hold a shell, a shard, a broken blade or some remnant of that regional history, a literal touchstone to the past. Some days, as the talk progressed and the day grew long, it felt like a studio from an earlier era. Time passed rapidly in Ed’s studio.

The Morris Museum of Art acquired one of Rice’s iconic early works, Dormer, painted from direct observation of an historic downtown building dormer over a period of three years (1984-87) in his Eight Street studio. From that former studio site, located only a few blocks from the museum, one could still study the dormer and rooflines that Rice obsessed over those years. In this, as in so many other works of this period, it was common for Rice to spend two to three years in the creation of a work, capturing every detail and nuance of light and atmosphere in his architectural and landscape paintings. I asked Rice to show me these sites--and he did, very generously. One such site, located on the Georgia side of the Savannah River, served as the source and inspiration for a painting, The River (1994), a work we acquired for the Morris Museum that year. It was painted over a two-year period, largely on the site, requiring the artist to haul the canvas, his easel and related equipment, by cart, through the rugged woods overlooking the river. (5)

As his career progressed during the 1990s, so did the evolution of the Morris Museum. Rice was an active participant in museum programs from an early date, including his role in training docents and offering public lectures, as well as being engaged in the opening of exhibitions and visiting artists’ presentations. He met, and befriended, many of the national artists we brought to the museum, often for exhibitions and projects I organized, including artists like William Christenberry, Benny Andrews, Wolf Kahn, Robert Stackhouse, Robert Rauschenberg and others. And, he always seemed to observe and absorb lessons from them, gauging his work and vision, watching as they responded to his environment. As he recently affirmed, this was an important period for his enhanced appreciation of contemporary art and the evolution of his own work.

Rice regularly joined me, and served as our museum tour guide, in organizing memorable explorations of the Augusta region for visiting Southern artists and their guests. For example, when William Christenberry came to Augusta in 1996, for the opening of his exhibition, William Christenberry: The Early Years, 1954-1968, we rented a passenger van for the artist, his family and guests and planned an extensive day tour, led by Rice, of South Carolina sites including Aiken, Edgefield, North Augusta and Graniteville, focusing on architecture and history, including the small and haunting Graniteville graveyard (where Rice is currently painting again). Christenberry and his guests treasured that tour and their experiences in those charged Southern places, and offered to share their own tours, of their places, with Rice. Christenberry and Rice also shared a specific interest in Southern vernacular architecture, especially the endangered structures that were increasingly disappearing across the region. In numerous ways, Rice gained exposure to significant artists, scholars and curators through the opening of the new museum, and they, in turn, gained access to him and an appreciation of his work.

By 1996, the issue of the extensive periods of time (often years) and intensive labor devoted to his work was a topic we increasingly discussed in the studio. One day, I recall asking, finally, what his “Abstract Expressionist” phase might be like—what would happen if he just painted--fast and directly, without the detailed, carefully measured, heavily labored approach he still maintained. Some time after that conversation, Rice called and asked me to come to the studio, soon if I could. I did. And, to my surprise, there, on a large easel was a new painting, Birdhouse, a gloriously painted and color-filled work, one that was still charged with the energy Rice had invested in it and its heavily textured surface. He completed the work in a remarkably short and intensive period of time, for him, and it had come out full and complete. But he was not sure what to think. Could it be good art, he wondered, if he had not invested months of labor and worry in it? I tried to assure him that what he suspected was true—it was a major breakthrough. It was followed by paintings of shotgun houses and familiar landscapes, some labored, others more rapidly executed—created on site and in the studio.

Recognizing the direction his work was taking and considering the artist’s interest in the repetition of imagery, I offered the suggestion that Rice consider working with noted regional printmaker Wayne Kline, the founder and Tamarind-trained master printer of Rolling Stone Press in Atlanta. In this period, I had organized an exhibition and worked with Kline and a number of his studio artists, and quickly came to admire his seriousness, technical proficiency and collaborative nature. Rice, who had produced only one fine art print to that date—a monotype, based upon his Fig Tree series created with Patrick Lindhardt at the Ringling School [OR: College] of Art and Design in 1990--seemed to have an artistic disposition and technical curiosity similar to Kline’s. After meeting in Atlanta in 1996, they agreed to collaborate, making a print series based upon the painting, Birdhouse. It was an aesthetic and technical turning point for Rice, who enjoyed the collaborative process with Kline, and who learned about the use of color on flat planes in ways that influenced his later paintings. As he recently noted, this experience also opened the way for his later monotypes, a series and process he initiated in 2002-2003 with Phillip Garrett at King Snake Press in Greenville, S.C., and continues to the present date.(6)

In the spring of 1998, when we invited artist Wolf Kahn to the Morris Museum of Art and Augusta to explore the creation of a major painting for the museum, I asked Edward Rice to join us and to help plan our landscape and architectural expedition through the Savannah River region. Over a period of days, following Rice’s plan, we toured the headwaters of the Augusta Canal, where Kahn sketched vernacular wooden gate houses; the historic Ezekiel Harris House, which he sketched in the Harrisburg section of Augusta; Redcliffe Plantation near Beech Island in South Carolina; a range of pecan orchards and peanut plantation facilities in Burke County, Georgia, marked by barns and warehouses Kahn liked; and finally, we discovered his favored subject. It was an abandoned and strikingly organic cotton barn, located in a grove of trees behind the Beech Island Historical Society in South Carolina.

Throughout this research and sketching project, Rice watched as Kahn worked rapidly and directly, responding to the landscape and architectural subjects he encountered. We watched as Kahn’s pastels moved at great speed, creating images capturing the color and spirit of a lush spring environment in the South--a landscape that was familiar to Rice, but now was seen through the eyes of an American master. Kahn readily discussed color, color theory, technique, art history and American history, described his love of vernacular architecture and the South, all while working in a focused, highly productive way. From this field research, Kahn produced a body of pastels and painted studies, culminating in a major painting acquired by the museum, Cotton Barn at Beech Island, SC, which served as the focus of an exhibition and publication documenting the process Rice had witnessed. (7)

Ten years later, in the fall of 2008, Edward Rice still recalls the importance of those experiences with Wolf Kahn, and remembers how they influenced the evolution of his own work. He was impressed by Kahn’s direct response to the historic Ezekiel Harris House, a familiar subject for Rice, particularly how Kahn “went straight to what needed to be done.” He was taken by Kahn’s assured hand, and his abilities with color, form and sense of marking a surface. It was, above all, the immediacy and directness of his approach that he recalls today, including the older artist’s use of light, color and shape. (8) And, though never mentioned by Rice, there may have been some reflection of the assuredness and skill he learned from the hand and field experiences taught him by Freeman Schoolcraft in and around Augusta. For Rice, one direct response to his experience with Kahn was his creation of a series of nine rapidly executed barn studies, each a variation on the same subject matter, dedicated to exploring color possibilities.

Rice, who had studied as a child at the Gertrude Herbert Institute, then later became its Director, retained a close association with this historic Augusta art school and gallery. When my wife, Sharon, was appointed to serve as Director there in 1995, assuming the position once held by Rice, he was expansive in his support and willingness to share his understanding of the institution and its history, including its role as one of the primary teaching institutions in the region. In 1998, in recognition of Rice’s seminal role in the art world of Augusta, and at the Gertrude Herbert, a retrospective exhibition was organized by David Houston, then Director of the Rudolph E. Lee Gallery at Clemson University, for presentation in the Lee Gallery at Clemson, at the Gertrude Herbert and at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston (a city where Rice has worked extensively). Houston then noted that “Rice’s mature work may be understood as the synthesis of representation and subjectivity,” and offered the following conclusion. “Ultimately, the subjectivity of these works undercuts their ascendancy toward the archetypal, resulting in paintings that are precisely what they appear to be, yet also undefinably something else.” (9)

The art of Edward Rice was marked by a series of evolutionary transformations in the years from 1995 to 1998, reflected in the range and nature of the works featured in the Gertrude Herbert exhibition, Edward Rice: Architectural Works, 1978-1998, as well as in his approach to printmaking and his less formal, more rapidly executed works of this era. Looking back to this evolving period in Rice’s work in 2003, David Houston, writing for the exhibition catalogue Edward Rice: Recent Monotypes, observed that in “the late nineties, Rice was painting his most confident work ever. Working primarily with architectural subjects and landscapes, his new work was more spontaneous and luminous than ever, and it successfully struck a balance between the accumulation of small details and an overall formal generalization.” (10)

After leaving Augusta and the Morris Museum of Art in the fall of 1999 to assume the position of director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, University of New Orleans, I continued to follow the evolution of Rice’s career. His respect for Freeman Schoolcraft and his mentor’s under-appreciated career had touched me as well, as had visits with Cora Schoolcraft in the Schoolcraft home and studio, when Cora was still living there. In 2000, after settling in New Orleans, I completed a research and exhibition project with Edward Rice, Morris Museum of Art director Keith Claussen and research associate Karen Klacsmann, titled “Freeman and Cora Schoolcraft: A Tribute,” featuring the paintings and studies Rice and I had selected from the family home and estate, with support from Faye Schoolcraft and Ann Schoolcraft Cook. This exhibition, with accompanying publication, opened at the Morris Museum of Art in June of 2000.(11)

After David Houston left Clemson University to move to New Orleans, where he became the chief curator at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, we encouraged Rice to expand his sketching trips to include New Orleans, a city he had studied in the past. That led to trips to New Orleans, where Rice sketched and photographed the architecture of the French Quarter and other historic neighborhoods. In 2002, his work was included in an exhibition at the museum’s Julia Street gallery, Art in the South: Recent Acquisitions and Projects. When the Ogden Museum celebrated the grand opening of its new building, Stephen Goldring Hall, in August of 2003, Rice was a featured artist and an active participant in the week-long series of programs, artist conversations and related events.(12) Over the course of the next year, Rice returned to New Orleans, including an extended stay in the studio of New Orleans artist Amy Weiskopf (then working in Italy), completing studies for a 2004 one-man exhibition of his work at Marguerite Oestreicher Fine Arts in New Orleans. This exhibition, devoted to the architecture of New Orleans, brought increased attention to his art in the city.

The understanding, appreciation and collecting of Southern art has undergone a profound transformation since Edward Rice began his path to becoming a professional artist in the South during the 1970s. Augusta, a colonial city, did not have a fine arts museum until 1992, when the Morris Museum of Art opened, the first museum dedicated to the art of the South. In the fall of 1999, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art opened a transitional gallery on Julia Street; its permanent home opened in August of 2003. The growth of collecting and exhibiting Southern art became increasingly evident during the 1980s and 1990s at South Carolina’s Greenville County Museum of Art, the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C.,the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Ga., and other institutions across the region. Rice is now represented in the permanent collections of most of these museums, as well as in private and corporate collections across the South.(13)

From 1993 to 2008, the art of Edward Rice achieved growing regional, national and international recognition. Exhibitions at museums and galleries, accompanied by catalogues and critical reviews, documented the evolution of his career. During these years, he traveled nationally and internationally, actively sketching, studying and photographing the cities and regions he visited. He spent an increasing amount of time in County Cork, Ireland, where he and Anna El Gammal built a house and studio, and his work reflected a growing appreciation of the architecture of Ireland. They also traveled regularly to cities including London, Rome and Antwerp. During the past decade, as Edward Rice’s travels and vision expanded, his art began to transcend the specific realities of his earlier work—striving for mood, memory and emotion—rather than the exact details, precise draftsmanship and historic accuracy that once marked his work. Despite the frequency and extent of his travels, Rice always welcomes his return home, to Augusta and North Augusta, to the studio where he expects to work, as he recently noted, “until the end of my days.” Back where he started.

J. Richard Gruber, Ph.D.
Ogden Museum of Southern Art
University of New Orleans

1. David Houston, “The Architectural Works of Edward Rice,” in Edward Rice, Architectural Works: 1978-1998 (Augusta: Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, 1998), 13.
2. Ibid, 13.
3. For a more detailed consideration of Schoolcraft and his career, as well as his influence upon Edward Rice, see J. Richard Gruber, “Freeman Schoolcraft: Chicago, Santa Fe and Augusta,” in Freeman and Cora Schoolcraft: A Tribute (Augusta: Morris Museum of Art, 2000), 3-23.
4. Houston, 15. He also divorced Schoolcraft’s daughter, Faye Schoolcraft, in this same year, but always maintained close ties to the Schoolcraft family.
5. See J. Richard Gruber, “The Twentieth Century: Selected Acquisitions,” in 5th Anniversary: Celebrating Southern Art (Augusta: Morris Museum of Art, 1997), 33-34.
6. See Edward Rice: Recent Monotypes (Augusta: Morris Museum of Art, 2003), 5, 9-10, 11-12, 13.
7. See J. Richard Gruber, Wolf Kahn: Painting the South (Augusta: Morris Museum of Art, 1999).
8. Interview with Edward Rice, October 12, 2008.
9. Houston, 21.
10. David Houston, “Edward Rice,” in Edward Rice: Recent Monotypes, 11-12.
11. See Gruber, “Freeman Schoolcraft: Chicago, Santa Fe and Augusta,” in Freeman and Cora Schoolcraft: A Tribute.
12. See J. Richard Gruber and David Houston, The Art of the South: 1890-2003, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art (London: Scala Publishers Ltd, 2003), 6, 73.
13. Ibid, 9-21.

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