Sonoma’s reluctant artist, Joe Rice
The artwork is vivid but stands starkly apart from the real world around it. The paintings include brightly colored geometric designs, an almost startling acrylic self-portrait in shades of green, and lonely images of faceless people, dangling phone receivers and disconnected pipes.
The artist behind the work was no less aloof.
Joe Rice, a classically trained artist, moved to a modest home near Sonoma Plaza with his second wife in 1985, after retiring from a long career as an art teacher in San Francisco public schools, and continued his lifelong regimen of painting every day.
After his death in 2011 at 92, Rice’s three grown daughters from his first marriage found a trove of hundreds of paintings in their father’s attic. None of them had ever been shown in public.
One of his daughters, Dorothy Rice, who lives near Sacramento, hopes to change that with her new book, “The Reluctant Artist,” illustrated with nearly 140 full-color images of his artwork, due out this fall.
“That was the enigma with my father. He had no acclaim whatsoever, nor did he seek it. To my knowledge, he never tried to show his work,” she said.
In an earlier article for an arts journal, Rice tried to trace the roots of her father’s aversion to public exhibit.
“Father bragged he’d never shown his work publicly, not after two paintings were stolen from an exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute back in the early ‘60s. It almost seemed a point of pride not to share,” she wrote.
Even at home with his first wife and their daughters, first in San Francisco and later Mill Valley, Rice was beyond reach, disappearing after work into the basement to paint and tinker, reappearing for dinner, then descending again to his gloomy studio until after his daughters had gone to bed.
“It was actually my father’s getting ill and eventually dying that woke up me to the fact that I’d always wanted to be a writer my whole life,” said Rice, 61. She retired five years ago from a 30-year career as an administrator with the California Environmental Protection Agency.
“He was not a communicative man. I always thought he expressed himself through art, so I always admired his art, and in his final years I started talking to him about it. The inspiration was trying to understand my father.”
After his death, Dorothy knew which painting she wanted for herself.
“I love the green self-portrait most of all, as it reminds me of the father of my youth — aloof, stern, yet always interesting, intriguing,” she said.
Joe Rice learned early in life to keep his mouth shut. An immigrant of Hungarian and Chinese descent, he grew up in the Philippines and came to San Francisco in 1930.
He graduated from UC Berkeley and went on to earn a master of fine arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts, becoming a skilled artist. But never gave up his reserved manner.
“He used to tell me that humility was the highest virtue. He said he was simply a student, a student of the arts,” his daughter recalled.
But even though the man was humble, his artwork was striking. Well educated in art, Rice admired the work of Magritte, Mondrian, Diego Rivera and El Greco, and he experimented in a variety of styles.
“Because his work spanned 50 years, there was a lot of development,” his daughter said. “It changes. It was very abstract in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and then in the ’60s and ’70s he developed a geometric sort of style, ‘minimalist’ some people might call it.”
She first composed an essay about finding her father’s artwork in his attic, titling it “The Paintings in the Rafters.” It was published in the winter 2013 issue of Still Point Quarterly.
“Joe Rice was well-trained,” said Christine Cote, who owns both the Still Point Art Gallery in Brunswick, Maine, which published Dorothy Rice’s essay, and Shanti Arts, which published her book.
“I especially love his earlier work, which was more figurative and geometric. And I love the story of how his daughter related to him through his artwork.”
While it would be easy to assume that the author is biased in her father’s favor when judging his art, Dorothy Rice is perfectly willing to let people judge for themselves.
She has posted a full array of images at josephflaviusrice.com.
“I just think the work is beautiful,” she said, “and I want people to see it.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.