Sacred Art - Page 5

Prolific yet unsung, Northern California artist Ray Rice put creative expression at the center of his life
Sacred Art
Rice's 'Tattooed Man,' a 3-D mosaic sculpture, 1956.
Sacred Art
Sacred Art
A long shot and close up of the 138-foot mosaic mural Rice created for the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, 1961.

He also traveled for no particular reason.

“When I was young,” Rice wrote in 1994, “I went out on the road partly for the hell of it,” riding the rails and finding work when he could.

Ray contemplated a musical career but opted instead for art. (A lifelong writer who filled notebook after notebook with journal entries and poetry, he might have considered literature as well.)

He studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and then moved to the student-run Art Students League in New York on a work scholarship, where he met both Gene Tepper and his soon-to-be bride, Miriam Cohen.

Tepper, who was paying for his schooling by working in the cloakroom, remembered his first sight of Ray—who arrived to take on the next shift.

“At 12 o’clock this guy shows up looking like an ad for a bebop musician—porkpie hat, baggy pants, the chain, yellow shoes,” Tepper said. “As I remember it, there he is, a swinging guy from Chicago!”

“When I first knew Ray, he drank a lot,” Tepper recalled. “He enjoyed himself a lot. He became much more subdued.”

In later years, Rice was “very silly and happy and jovial, and he loved jokes,” says his granddaughter, Iana Porter. “But he also had a very serious side, too, a dark side.”

He enjoyed socializing with friends and family—but only to a point. Often he’d retreat to his studio to work on his art or play the viola da gamba.

One thing about Rice never changed, though—his love for the water. From his boyhood he was a boater, and one of Tepper’s great experiences with his friend was a trip down the Wabash River, circa 1938, on a flat-bottomed boat, “ostensibly a painting trip.”

Rice stayed as close to the water as possible, living right on it in Marin, and within a few hundred yards in Mendocino, where, every evening after work, even in winter, he’d canoe the Big River—and often slip in for a swim.

Though he was “very close to being a pacifist,” according to Tepper, Rice served in the Army during World War II, first in Virginia where he supervised African-American bakers.

Then, in letters to his parents from Europe, Rice talked of the “terrible necessity” for the war, “if the sick, old world is ever to get well and all of us with it.” He confessed that, while he remained an unbeliever, “it may interest you to know that I have lately rediscovered the therapeutic value of prayer.”

Ray and Miriam, who’d married as the war was starting, moved to Greenwich Village when it ended, Ray painting and Miriam firing ceramics. They were barely getting by till they found jobs teaching art at the private Putney School in Vermont.