As a printmaker and painter, the Pennsylvania-born artist captured the outdoors in its glory.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1873, William S. Rice set out westward across the continent for California in 1900. The Golden State’s vast terrain would become his primary artistic inspiration. He particularly loved to create outdoors in its “glorious woods,” but wherever he went — the Southwest, Alaska, or Europe — Rice photographed, sketched, and painted landscapes and seascapes. Later in his studio, some of those images would become the basis of block prints, etchings, and other prints.
The exhibition The Nature of William S. Rice: Arts and Crafts Painter and Printmaker shows an artist-naturalist skilled in distilling nature into simple and compelling graphic forms. The works epitomize the era’s Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized the ideals of simplicity and harmony expressed through fine craft. C&I talked with guest curator Marie-Clare Treseder Gorham and Diana L. Daniels, curator of contemporary art at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, about Rice’s work and the lasting impression he left on the landscape of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Cowboys & Indians: What in Rice’s bio is important with regard to his art?
Diana L. Daniels: It is unique that in coming to California from the East, Rice was able to expand so greatly upon his original ambition to be a commercial illustrator. There was ample opportunity to grow with the burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement in the West. He was able to explore and develop all aspects of his talents due to the lack of rigidity. Ultimately, he became a versatile printmaker.
Marie-Clare Treseder Gorham: Though he is known primarily as an artist, Rice was additionally occupied throughout his career as an art educator to thousands of students. During his tenure, Rice imparted to his students an earnest appreciation for the democratic inclinations of the Arts and Crafts movement.
C&I: What are some basics we should know about his art?
Daniels: That there is a relationship between his drawings, his watercolors, his photography, and his printmaking. The interconnectedness emerges in one series in the exhibition. It begins with a pencil drawing of oak trees, a composition that Rice then drew again on a copper plate to make a drypoint print. It is notable that the composition is reversed in the print. In a third print, this time a block print, you see the same composition, with bolder outlines and printed in color, now with the same orientation as the original drawing. The bolder shading that progresses through the series suggests how his photography practice helped him to see forms not as hard and fast lines, but as being made of highlights and shadows.
Gorham: Rice is primarily known for his block printing, an art form designed to weed out the weak-willed. The artist must first design a piece to be executed in reverse, then carve their design into the potentially treacherous mediums of wood or linoleum blocks, carving a separate block for each color included in the design. The artist only then may align the interlocking blocks for printing. Rice executed every aspect of his block prints himself — occasionally completing an entire block print in one sitting — a rarity among his peers and predecessors.
C&I: How does a sense of place figure in to his work?
Daniels: [You see it in] his attraction to intimate moments in the landscape. For example, a viewpoint of a mighty redwood is close up — the vantage point being the artist’s, as he sits and works near to his subject. The same for his orchard scenes, clusters of California oaks, surf crashing on a craggy coast. It’s an appreciation of being in the landscape and describing it as it is that makes his work different from earlier artists who embraced being mythmakers.
Gorham: Rice was, himself, a transplant to the West — having relocated in 1900 to Stockton, California, from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This wide-eyed sensibility affected his work not only by making him acutely aware of his surroundings, but also allowing him abounding access to the richness of the Western landscape, which he referred to as “one vast, rare mosaic.”
C&I: Describe some accomplished aspects of a few significant pieces in the exhibition. ...
Daniels: The evening sky in the print Borghese Gardens shows how he achieved the gradient effects of color invented by master Japanese printmakers. This print almost appears to have been painted in watercolor because of the background wash of a rich blue that fades into a silvery greenish-blue.
Gorham: There is a dark allure to a work like Night — Yosemite. The piece is expressive of the simultaneous influences of the ukiyo-e Japanese masters — Yosemite truly is the Mount Fuji of the West — and the soft delicacy Rice was able to evoke out of an eruption of mountain and ice. The evening sky here seems to literally twinkle — I’m reminded of the Roy Rogers film classic Under California Stars. The work Ancient Oak — Mt. Hamilton personifies the personal aspect of this exhibition for me. The piece was given to my father, Carl Treseder (the artist’s grandson), and its craggy calligraphic branches have marked the walls of my life ever since. I emphasized this piece as the crux image in the installation of the exhibition for the Crocker Art Museum — it is, after all, a family affair.
C&I: Rice seems to have had an interesting mix of aesthetics, drawn as he was to the Japanese art form ukiyo-e — “pictures of the floating world” — and also to the Western lifestyle. He was photographed in a cowboy hat and bandanna — was that just a getup?
Daniels: The hat and kerchief are most practical adaptations to the climates of the West. The artist seems to have been appreciative of the benefits they provided.
Gorham: Rice was known to don “the uniform of the West” when painting en plein air throughout the West, including when offered a chance to see the Hopi Snake Dance in the village of Walpi, Arizona, in 1907. Marked by his mettle — traveling by wagon, treading perilous terrain in pursuit of the perfect landscape — he could be painted as a cowboy of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The biography William S. Rice: Art & Life (Pomegranate, 2013) by Ellen Treseder Sexauer, one of the artist’s granddaughters, is available on Amazon.com.
From the April 2016 issue.