Hearkening back to the early 20th century when silhouettists often practiced their art at popular tourist destinations, producing silhouettes as holiday souvenirs at seaside resorts in both Britain and America, Clay Rice travels the country a good part of each year, making appearances at a variety of venues, such as department stores and state fairs, creating “as many as 150 to 200 profiles in a day.”
Just like his grandfather Carew Rice (1898-1971), who bought his first pair of scissors in the 1930s and began cutting profile portraits from black paper-many South Carolinians boast a Carew Rice silhouette of a member of their family, Clay Rice has carried on the family trade, following in the footsteps of Etienne de Silhouette, an 18th-century French government official whose favorite hobby was making paper portraits.
Both Carew and Clay Rice, however, were not content to limit their creativity to the art of “profiling.” Inspired by the outdoor scenes in DuBose Heyward's novel “Porgy,” Carew Rice started making paper cutouts of Low Country scenes. Clay Rice, it might be argued, has gone one step farther than his grandfather by magnifying the scale of his progenitor's classic pieces. Indeed, the South Carolina State Museum boasts a 2006 steel silhouette entitled “Lowcountry Sunrise,” which can be measured in feet rather than inches.
Experimentation with scale is not the only way that Clay Rice has advanced the silhouettist's art; he has also ventured into combining text and image in a series of children's books. Until June 29, an exhibition featuring 21 hand-cut illustrations from Clay Rice's 2013 book “Mama, Let's Make a Moon” will be on view on the fourth floor of the South Carolina State Museum.
“I try to show nature in outdoor scenes and humans interacting with nature,” asserts Clay Rice. For his latest children's book, he turned to the Appalachian stories of his wife's family. The 21 framed silhouettes in the current show follow the imaginary journey of a small family-a little girl, her younger brother, and their enthusiastic mother-who decide to make a moon according to a time-worn recipe. After they have collected the ingredients, including “two possum's paws of dream dust” and “three jars full of fireflies,” the threesome push their creation up the hill with the help of a host of forest animals and, after climbing the big tree at the top, suspend the “silvery, shiny” orb in the sky.
Some observers may be surprised that not all the framed silhouettes featured in the current exhibition and translated into book illustrations conform to the classic silhouette format of a black outline on a white background. Indeed, some of Rice's most elaborate renderings are set against hand-colored backgrounds-browns and yellows to replicate mountain ranges and purples and blues for the sky.
He also employs a combination of the two most popular paper cutting techniques: either scissoring the paper to make outlined shapes or cutting into the paper to create designs by manipulating the negative spaces therein.
In one of the most elaborate images, which features the family and their dog Blue and nearly 20 wild birds and animals, all intent on pushing the moon up the hill, Rice divides the scene in half, each portion a showcase for a particular technique. Set against a gold background, the top half highlights the silhouetted shapes of two trees, one rendered in near perspective and the other as if at a distance, between which the moon is set in motion, turned, it would appear, like a giant ball on which is perched on the top and on the sides a rotating fox, bobcat, squirrel, swan, skunk, mouse, possum and frog. On the bottom half of the image, which represents the hill itself, Rice has used a classic paper-cut technique, incising the black paper itself and delineating by the underlying white surface only, the figures of a raccoon, rabbit and other animal observers in a field of tall grass.
On view until June 29, the exhibit entitled “Mama, Let's Make a Moon” can be visited during the State Museum's regular hours, which are Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information on this show and other special shows at the museum, which is located just a few blocks west of the statehouse on Gervais Street, call 803-898-4921 or visit the museum's website at www.museum.state.sc.us. Copies of the book are on sale in the museum shop.