Susan Van Dongen
M. Rice (www.stephenrice.net)
finds emotional sanctuary in the artwork that emerges from his
"Woman with Birds," acrylic on masonite, by Stephen
of the central ideas in Buddhism is that life is a classroom and
the main subject is suffering. As much as we don't like it, without
these challenges we don't gain the wisdom to graduate to the next
level of consciousness.
why you won't find any happy little trees in the paintings and
drawings of Stephen M. Rice. His works are more likely to reflect
his thoughts, surroundings and emotions, expressed through muted
colors and enigmatic subject matter.
don't talk about or explain where my paintings come from, I let
other people figure out what they mean to themselves," says
Mr. Rice, 47. "If someone else is suffering, they'll recognize
the same feelings I've had."
like the yin and yang symbol associated with Eastern philosophies,
Mr. Rice is a study in opposites, yet has found a way to integrate
his very different interests. In addition to being an artist,
he is a dedicated student and practitioner of Buddhist meditation.
He is also a commercial truck driver who works an average of 60
hours a week. Thus, the time he spends drawing and painting is
something I need to do, it's a passion," he says. "That's
why the paintings I make are so personal. If I'm going to take
the time to paint, it has to mean something special to me."
many of Mr. Rice's works, the mysterious figures seem to float
against a rough-textured background. The paints look like they've
been applied with vigor and thickly, an optical illusion, according
to the artist.
actually thin layers of acrylic on masonite," he says. "I
prime the surface with gesso and other polymer products to give
it that texture. I also use color as a directive more so than
a decoration, which people sometimes don't understand. Color can
distract, and I'm more interested in people seeing what I'm trying
to say with the subject matter."
in 1955 near Chicago, Mr. Rice lives in Rockaway in North Jersey.
He says he always had an interest in art and was especially moved
by the simplicity and passion of Ben Shahn's paintings. After
moving east, Mr. Rice studied art at Monmouth College but prefers
to say he is mostly self-taught.
realized that studying under established artists was actually
detrimental to my artistic development," writes Mr. Rice
in his artist's statement. "At college I was heading down
a conservative path, studying and trying to replicate the American
Impressionists, for example, which really didn't satisfy me."
"The Bath," acrylic on masonite.)
says he appreciates the fundamentals learned at school but prefers
to explore his emotions and inner world through his art, instead
of copying the masters. He believes this personal expression makes
his art more provocative.
first Noble Truth of the Buddha is that there is suffering,"
Mr. Rice writes. "Essentially, I developed my artistic style
from this concept. We are either scratching to get in or clawing
our way out in a desperate attempt to find sanctuary."
of Eastern philosophy and meditation know the substantial connection
between the mind and body, and learn to listen to their intuition
when something physical is out of balance. For Mr. Rice, his soul
began to "tell" him that something was suffocating him
a few years back.
was going through a rough divorce, but I couldn't talk about it
to anybody and I ended up developing asthma," Mr. Rice says.
"I was leery of medicine, psychiatrists and talk therapy,
so I decided to use my painting as an emotional outlet. It didn't
take long before my personal story was taking place right before
my eyes. The paintings weren't pretty or decorative, but they
were provocative. When I showed people what I was working on,
I sensed I was striking a nerve — not theirs, but mine."
the asthma disappeared, but not all of my problems, which gave
me fertile ground for creativity. I wasn't looking to solve my
problems through my art, but realized I was on my way to becoming
the kind of artist who could mine subject matter from the innermost
depths. I liked the discovery of this place."
Rice has been practicing transcendental, Zen, Vipassana and other
forms of meditation for more than 25 years. He has been on meditation
retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., and
at Joshua Tree National Park in California, where he married his
second wife, Audrey.
was all silent meditation," Mr. Rice says. "I would
sit anywhere from 10 days to a month. The idea is that when you
slow the body down, the mind speeds up. When you meditate, you
really focus on and see the essence of things. I began to draw
and paint there, which also became a kind of meditation for me
and helped strengthen my technique and subject matter."
11 inspired Mr. Rice to paint a series of solitary bagpipers,
placed in the depths of a forest or contained in a jar.)
of the most cryptic elements in his recent work is the jars in
which he places people who appear to be protected rather then
trapped. Mr. Rice says these works are his way to remark on the
Buddhist concept of stopping time, and that most of the jar paintings
came after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York.
walked around for months, feeling the sadness," he says.
"We live very close to New York City, and in fact one of
our neighbors was (at the World Trade Center) when it happened.
It seemed like everyone knew someone who was affected."
jars represent a kind of containment, the way you want to hold
on to something — your loved ones or a moment of time. We
go along and don't realize how precious life is and it takes a
tragedy like (Sept. 11) to bump us out of our security. With the
jars, I tried to say, 'Wouldn't it be great to have these cherished
feelings in a jar, right there on the shelf where you can always
11 also inspired him to paint a series of solitary bagpipers,
placed in the depths of a forest or contained in a jar. Anyone
who remembers the funeral coverage of the police and firefighters
last year can recall how the musicians with their strange, mournful
instruments became symbolic of the sorrow.
Rice sketched many of these and other paintings while sitting
in traffic jams in the cab of his truck.
try not to waste my time, so I draw a lot when I'm stuck in traffic,"
he says. "I always have my notebooks with me and I draw in
them constantly. Sometimes at the end of the day, I'll have 10
pages of drawings."
a truck driver as well as an artist both tickles and troubles
him, especially the bad behavior he sees every day on the road.
see the worst in people when I drive," he says. Mr. Rice
is philosophical about his life circumstances right now, though.
He does, indeed, drive a truck for a living, but his profession
doesn't define him.
might be driving a truck, but at the same time I can create this
world of painting."