Carrying on a family legacy of cutting paper into mesmerizing silhouettes that celebrate Lowcountry life, Clay Rice respects the traditions established by his grandfather Carew Rice
On a sultry day, Clay Rice is driving me down U.S. 17 into the heart of the ACE basin, just past Edisto, to see the family plantation his great-grandfather bought at the turn of the last century and where he derives much of the inspiration for his landscape silhouettes. We turn off onto an ill-paved county road. It's mostly potholes, but the surroundings are so strikingly beautiful that the bouncing and jostling doesn't distract us from enjoying the views. A raised pathway runs through the property, all that remains of a railroad line that used to carry trains from Charleston to Savannah.“ You can see 500 yards in each direction,” Clay says, craning his neck to look out the window.
Bumping down the road, we pass through a tunnel of oaks with low spreading limbs. At the end is the Rice family house. It is now just a shell, so weathered that it looks to be tottering on the verge of collapse. But to Clay,who bounds out of the truck to brave the mosquitoes and unlock the gate, it is a museum of memories that contains the key to his art and animates his profound love of the outdoors.
Splendid in its isolation, the area seems suffused with a sense of the past. Clay is the first to bring this up, of course. A large man with a sunburned face and long, deeply tanned arms, Clay is acutely conscious of the continuity of time-a constant theme in his landscape silhouettes. He grew up on this land, a river boy raised with the smell of salt marsh in his nostrils and the sight of egrets gliding in perfect symmetry through the sky at first light. The rivers and forests that are the focus of his art are the same rivers and forests that silently witnessed events that took place in his youth and have taken place over and over again, for ages and ages.
In its heyday, the property was the scene of a virtually nonstop house party every summer weekend, presided over by his colorful, somewhat lordly grandfather Carew Rice,who would cut profile silhouettes, tell stories, and play the banjo to some 30 to 40 assembled guests who gravitated to the place as if by custom. Clay remembers running with a pack of 10- and 12-year-old boys all over the grounds until, exhausted, sunburned, and hungry, they would push their way through the throngs of people to rest on the floor beside his grandfather and watch him perform.
Carew Rice was born near Walterboro in 1898 into a family that thrived on the outdoors and that saw a natural juncture between a love of nature and a love of art. James Henry Rice, Jr., his father,was a well-known writer and natural historian. As editor of the State newspaper and founder of the South Carolina Wildlife Department, James wrote extensively about nature and Lowcountry folklore. His books, such as The Aftermath of Glory (1934) and Glories of the Carolina Coast (1925), reflect his passion for the outdoors and follow in the tradition of gentlemen's sporting sketches, a popular genre in Southern literature.
Carew always loved drawing and painting as a child, and when he went to school at the University of Chattanooga in the late 1920s, he took an art course, largely for fun. He was struck by an offhand remark his instructor made one day about how most people identify their friends by their profiles not by the details of their hair color, height, or complexion.
Curious, Carew went into a dime store in downtown Chattanooga and, for a quarter, bought a pair of sturdy, all-purpose scissors. That night he sat down on the edge of his boardinghouse bed, held a piece of regular white paper up to the light of a reading lamp, and cut out the shapes of a billy goat and a blue jay. “I knew right then I had found the thing I had been longing and seeking to find; a way to clearly and definitively, and most of all quickly, express my ideas in art,” he later recalled. He then tried profiles of people-a bit more challenging than barnyard animals- and some time later, a judge asked Carew to cut a profile of him and his wife, a growing trend in the South. When his family was hit hard during the Depression, he seized on his newfound talent and took to the road to earn a living from his art. Thus, his career as a profile silhouettist was launched.
From that point until his death in 1971, Carew was a celebrated figure, especially in the South. He worked his way all over the region, and eventually the country, calling on boutiques and department stores; setting up stalls at festivals,church bazaars, and state fairs; and purveying his carefully cut and precisely polished images of the South,which included not just wildlife and landscapes, but moonshiners, baptisms, and boys casting nets in tidal creeks. The daily rhythms of life and their insistent, almost metrical familiarity were captured in black and white. Carew's renown became so widespread that poet and folklorist Carl Sandburg (a summertime neighbor in the North Carolina mountains) pronounced him “America's greatest silhouettist. ” Today, Carew's work, both landscapes and profiles, is collected throughout the country. In Columbia last year, the State Museum presented an exhibition of 75 years of silhouettes by Carew and his grandson Clay, the first ever in South Carolina and among only a handful of such shows in the country.
The profile silhouette (cut out usually in black paper mounted on white board, but sometimes also the reverse), has a curious origin rooted in a spirit of dilettantism and class prejudice. The word comes from the art form's first practitioner, Etienne de Silhouette, who was the finance minister of France in the mid-18th century-an official who would otherwise be forgotten to history if not for his hobby of cutting profiles. More interested in that than in the equitable stewardship of the country's coffers, Silhouette enacted reckless,unreasonable tax policies that made him an enemy of the people and set the stage for the French Revolution. The word “silhouette” gained notoriety when the peasants, in derisive protest, took to wearing only black clothing and calling out, “We are dressing Ã la Silhouette. We are shadows, too poor to wear color. We are Silhouettes!”
Fortunately, the word lost its class association and, in the 19th century, the form spread throughout Europe as a popular and inexpensive way to acquire a likeness of a friend or relative. The silhouette appealed to an unusually varied assortment of artists, from American oil portraitist Charles Wilson Peale to Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, many of whose paper cuttings were produced on the spur of the moment, as gifts in return for an evening's hospitality or as part of the evening's entertainment.
As early as colonial times, silhouettes were popular in America. The trend was in full swing in the South, and especially in the Carolinas, by the 19th and 20th centuries. William Henry Brown (1808-1883) helped promote the art with an illustrated collection of full-length, freehand silhouettes in a best-selling book, Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. The leader of the Charleston Renaissance, writer, folklorist, and illustrator John Bennett (1865-1956) helped found the Charleston Etchers Club and was one of a handful of artists in the area who produced both paper-cut and ink-drawn silhouettes. Many were reproduced on greeting cards, and others were used as illustrations in children's books. (A magnificent series of these can still be seen on the walls of the children's room at the main branch of the county library.)
Time & Place
Clay feels a connection with these earlier artists, especially his grandfather. On the screened porch of the small, tidy cabin that family members built on the plantation about eight years ago, he talks expansively about his art. His earliest ambitions were to be a singer and songwriter, and he spent several years in Nashville working in the music business. He still composes two to three days a week and has produced hundreds of songs-most of them about the Lowcountry and its way of life. But just as constant in his creative life are the silhouettes, which convey a profound respect for the natural world and that sense of community that folk art presents best.
Clay began doing simple profile silhouettes in the early 1980s. “I was inspired by granddaddy,” he says,“but I wasn't trying to imitate him or compete with him. ” Following the same process that his grandfather discovered, he began with simple barnyard animals and then moved on to more detailed human figures. Over summer vacations from school, he would make extra money cutting profiles at the Pawleys Island Hammock Shop. Over the course of the next decade, his fame grew and,like his grandfather, he took to the road to earn a living by his art, traveling to nearly all 50 states, sometimes for as long as eight months out of the year, and working as many as 80 stores in a fall season.
His skill grew so rapidly that, with a pair of four-and-a-half-inch surgical scissors, he could eventually produce as many as 150 to 200 profiles a day, taking a mere 45 seconds per silhouette. But these basic outlines are nothing at all like the complex, detailed landscapes that have become his signature, and now he spends only a couple of months per year traveling. Some pieces have taken more than 400 hours of work to fashion.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Rice has taken the silhouette, a somewhat old-fashioned, sentimentalized art form,to staggering new heights. He's in the midst of completing an impressive piece commissioned by the State Museum-a four- by eight-foot bas relief landscape that is classically Lowcountry. But why the silhouette, as opposed to other art forms, aside from its family association? “The geography and other physical characteristics of the Sea Islands-with their wading marsh birds and the habitats they support-lend themselves to the silhouette form,”he says. Many pieces depict people interacting with nature, many of them fishermen, like himself. “I try to show man in touch with nature,” he adds.
For these larger pieces, Clay uses a welder's plasma cutter, a precision instrument, to hand-sculpt delicate Lowcountry scenes from steel sheets. Other works,such as wall hangings and gate ornaments, are done freehand. He is much in demand: there is a two- to three-year waiting list,and his show at last year's Southeastern Wildlife Exposition sold out the first day. Like much folk art, Clay's silhouettes have honest, undisguised qualities that not only reflect community and place but also convey a static, soothing nature-a comfort, perhaps,in rapidly changing times. The complicated symmetries of the outlines of man, flower, and fowl held in delicate balance are delivered through the black and white medium in ways much more tangible, and often more realistic, than oil or watercolor.
In “Frogmore Standard Time,” on his upcoming third album, Clay sings of the uniqueness of the land around the old Chehaw River and the Sea Island culture:
There's a place down the road
By a river of memories...
Where you can leave all your worries
Down by the water
And watch them drift away with
With a technical grace and an unvarnished authenticity that has few peers in the world of formal art, Clay's work sustains the permanence of place and builds communities through its representation of the natural world. It combats the modern tendency toward standardization and disinterest in the environment that surrounds us. And to Clay Rice, that's good news for a world that seems sometimes to be sliding into sameness.