A Breath of Fresh Air - William Rice

When William S. Rice (1873—1963) painted out-of-doors as he frequently did, he was, by definition a “plein-air painter.” He achieved renown, though, with his block prints. These were patiently carved from blocks of linoleum or wood and then individually inked and printed at his home in Oakland, California. Although created in his attic workshop, they retain a crisp, clear, breezy, outdoor look, and so I like to think of Rice as a “fresh-air artist.”

From the moment Rice arrived from Pennsylvania to take up a teaching assignment in the Stockton, California, school system in 1900, he spent his spare time exploring what to an Easterner was the exotic scenery of the West: the snow-capped High Sierras, the magical Yosemite Valley, the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, and the old missions of Spanish colonial days. In later decades, after he had become an art instructor in Oakland’s high schools, he continued to find delight in the environs of San Francisco Bay: the dun-colored, oak-studded hills, the old-growth redwood forests, and the rugged Pacific coast from Santa Cruz down to Monterey. Rice captured all this diversity in his photographs, drawings, and watercolors.

Rice’s woodblock printmaking, which began in 1915, coincided with a reemergence of the color woodcut after centuries of neglect as an artistic form of printmaking in Europe, inspired by the discovery of Japanese 19th-century color woodblock prints, previously unknown in Europe and America. The handwork of the medium suited the Arts and Crafts philosophy of the time that found public benefit from the incorporation of artistic and crafts principles in objects of everyday use. Rice’s block prints were meant to be useful in this way. They were intended to decorate the average home and, since they were printed in multiple impressions, they were priced within the average budget. Block printing was only one of the Arts and Crafts that Rice mastered. He developed expertise in design, leather working, and copper-smithing, all of which he transmitted to his students.

Outside In: The Art and Craft of William S. Rice is an exhibition touching on aspects of Rice’s wide-ranging career and was only possible with full access to artist’s archives. We have had the privilege of selecting from his repository preserved by his daughter and facilitated by his granddaughter, who not only provided access, but also offered invaluable counsel. While the 41 block prints, blocks, lithographs, photographs, oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, metalwork, tools, and props present a mere snapshot of the artist’s career, they also offer a pleasant journey through the life and times of an American painter-printmaker. 

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