Ruby Rice’s studio has the feel of a chapel–– high-ceilinged, many large windows, light pouring in. Beginning at the peak is one long narrow window of stained glass segments which represent the chakra centers in the human body. Yes, this is a sanctuary that is welcoming and comfortable. A sanctuary not meant to inspire awe but to make one feel at home.
Filled with the threads and lush fabrics of her vivid art pieces, Rice’s workspace is joyous, a celebration of the spirit-self that is the grounding of all her art.
It is a hard-won celebration. Afflicted with a rare childhood disease that affected her motor skills, Rice discovered at an early age that alcohol assuaged all of the symptoms. She became addicted.
But there was always art. Growing up in Williamstown, Massachusetts where the Clark Museum is located provided her with hours of escape from an emotionally and physically painful childhood. The museum and the forest became, she says, her sanctuaries.
Barely graduating high school, she briefly became a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After only a year and a half she left to be part of the “back to the land” movement in Vermont, intending to create and start an alternative art school, but ending up instead making dandelion wine, growing pot, vegetables and painting all the time.
After a short stint at commune living, drawn to a more solitary existence, she took to communing with nature and lived in a tree house for five years. Though there are no pictures, it is legendary. “It was hard work to survive that way,” says Rice. Nevertheless, she counts the period among the most valuable times of her life. “I discovered I could survive on the land and this gave me a profound sense of security I had not known before.”
Leaving the tree-house, she moved to California. There, in the midst of addiction to drugs and alcohol, and homeless, she was in a desperate state and returned to Vermont. Wandering the forests and fields near her ramshackle home she found an old brick with PRAY stamped on it, an artifact from the old Pray Brick Company. But for Rice it resonated as a message meant for her. She began to pray for guidance. On the verge of being “sent away” to a State mental institution, Rice was introduced to a recovery program with compassionate people who offered her unconditional love and suggestions for sober living. In time, she says, “My life choices came back to me, I began to become who I was really born to be!”
Around this time, she also discovered the teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche and began the path of meditation practices.
In 1980 she became sober, and then in 1982 she had her first art show. Prior to this recovery period Rice says, “My art was very dark––blacks and reds––but at least expressing the insanity was a release and in hindsight I feel it may well have saved my life.”
Buddhism, trancework, prayer, dreamwork, hypnosis, meditation and an abiding love of nature are all part of the artist’s strong spiritual grounding and are at the center of her creative expression, be it her remarkable multi-layered fine art pieces, or the more functional objects in her collection such as fiber wall hangings, cushions, and wearables. This she describes as, “Art for Sacred Spaces.”
Sanctuary and alchemist’s lab, Rice’s studio is where dross substances are transformed into evocative and alluring objects. The artist uses actual bits of nature such as sticks and leaf veins, as well as random other found materials such as candy wrappers that she gathers from various places and mostly, the land around her home out in the highlands of Western Massachussetts, U.S.A.
Her original photographs are often incorporated; of nudes or close-ups of natural phenomenon–– the crust of ice formed on a woodland puddle, lichen on a rock. The collages may then be made into giclee prints which then form the base canvas for further creative altering––it may then be painted, drawn, and stiched into (multiple chemical sensitivities has forced a transition from glue & most paints to stitching and fabric). This multi-layered amalgam may sometimes then be enlarged printed again as a giclee and yet more layers added.
The end result is an exultant and heady concoction of form and color in which the whole transcends its many parts. In Rice’s art the everyday falls away and is transformed into the wondrous.
Her journey from illness to health and addiction to a healed and open heart, has prompted Rice to help others do likewise. For decades she devoted herself to facilitating, Creating Sacred Art workshops and guiding others on their path to personal healing by rediscovering the creative energies that are at the core of our beings.
Forest rituals, the mingling of the body with the raw stuff of the earth is important to Rice’s process, and her workshops. Through these rituals, the artist says, she finds her essence, that place that connects us, one to another, that destroys the illusion that we are separate.
The walls of Rice’s studio are also her gallery. The magic of her art draws the viewer into a world both idyllic and deeply felt.
Large pieces such as “Divining,” in which a woman, robed and turbaned in sparkling majenta, reaches out; rays (large stem and veins of a leaf) extend from her fingertips. The rest of the surface is covered with autumn leaves, photographed and gicleed. “Open Hearted Wholeness” features only a Bleeding Heart flower stalk and other plants arranged around an oval center, the most technically simple botanical work among those hanging.
“River Goddess” is one of the many works that use mirror image to convey, according to Rice, wholeness and circularity. Two figures are attached at the hips and look out in opposite directions, the space between them filled with kaleidoscopic mirroring of delicate geometric shapes and the actual wings of a May Fly. The river, conveyed by bright turquoise and deep ultramarine blues, swirls beneath them; they are situated on a grass-green field of stitched wool and other fabric. A bright crimson flower sits upon the bank. An abbreviated version of the river is duplicated on the left and right of the twin figures; a wine-colored medallion made up of what appears to be velvet, crowns the top, holding the figures and all around them in a balanced cameo.
The discerning eye of the artist is able to weave many and sometimes-disparate elements into a gem-like whole that is a textural and color delight. The pieces evoke the mythic and the spiritual. They take us places we are seldom given the permission to go, in our hectic, materially oriented culture. Rice asks us to take a deep breath and contemplate the songs our souls would sing if only we would listen – and look.