Artist and writer Dorothy Rice sat down with Literary Arts & Wine to talk about the interconnectedness of literary and visual art, the drive to write a memoir about her father (who was a visual artist) and how her unique journey led her to this project. What follows is a foray into art, words, memory and practice.
What sparked this creative project to write about your father's art? Were you always interested in art, or did this interest come to you later in life?
Having grown up with an artist for a father, I have always been fascinated by art, artists and the artistic process. It always impressed and amazed me that my dad was always working on something, that the inspiration and desire to make art seemed limitless and ever-changing.
But writing about my father and his artistic achievements didn't really occur to me until the final years of his life, when he was ill and then dying. When he could no longer paint (because of weakness, failing eyesight and arthritis) I realized what a huge part of his life and identity the art had been and I began to consider his legacy and to worry and wonder about what would happen to all of his work when he died.
As an "unknown" artist, the work has no monetary value or interest to collectors, yet it seemed of paramount importance to my sisters and I that our father's achievements be honored and memorialized in some way. That was the genesis for the book. I hoped that it would serve as an homage to my father, who was, in many ways, the inspiration for my own creative life.
What is it like to use one kind of artistic medium to describe another? How do literary arts offer a unique perspective to the visual arts? And, can the opposite also be true? (Or, they say that elemental aspects of visual art like composition or color carry meaning in visual art. How do the elemental pieces of writing carry similar meanings through words?)
These are interesting questions. I do enjoy writing about art, attempting to convey what is compelling about a principally visual or tactile medium, with words. It's a challenge to recreate the particular experience or impact of a piece of art for the reader. And, there is a strong nexus, I think, between the visual art forms and literature. Visual art has such tremendous capacity to conjure story. This was the case with many of my father's paintings, some examples of which are described in my book. His early self portrait for example, that is seen on the book's cover (where my father painted himself with green skin), imprinted on me very early in life and became an integral part of how I viewed him; the painting informed and influenced my perception of him as distant, cold and in some ways, alien.
Many works of art have a lingering, lasting quality. Once seen, they become part of our visual memory and they inform our sense of aesthetics. For me, many of the paintings and artists my father loved and that he shared with me as a child, remain the works of art that most move me and that speak to some deep emotional place inside me. El Greco. Velasquez. Goya. Diego Rivera. Van Gogh. Mondrian. Magritte. And many others.
Similarly, many of my father's paintings have that same kind of lasting power for me. I speak of some of them in the book, such as the one I call Girl on a Green Chair, Purple Knight and others. These are paintings that fascinated me as a child and that I spun stories about, imagining lives and backstories for the characters he painted.
What made you want to not only write about your father, but also your father as an artist?
My father was not a warm and fuzzy, hands-on kind of dad. He was usually in his studio or workroom and not with the family. Also, he was a man of few words and fewer expressions of affection or appreciation. Because he kept so much to himself, his art spoke for him in many ways. I was always fascinated with trying to figure what he was trying to "say" in his paintings.
Who are the authors/poets who inspire you-- and who you follow as "models" for your own work?
I admire many writers. Joan Didion. Ann Patchett. Ann Tyler. Charles Dickens was a huge early inspiration. I am a great fan of British mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey, also Patricia Highsmith. Lately, however, I have been reading mostly memoirists such as Mary Karr, Vivian Gornick, Dani Shapiro and others.
You have written in both non-fiction and fiction. What do you value in each genre, and do you find certain ideas or modes are more easily expressed in one genre or another?
I had always imagined I would be a fiction writer. It's what I dreamed of doing in younger years. As a reader, I gravitated to novels and assumed that was what I would write. However, when I finally retired from other work in my late 50s and began writing in earnest, I found that the stories that called to me, that I felt most compelled to write about, were about family and about my own experience of life.
I think I've got a murder mystery or two inside me, but they haven't, yet, bubbled to the forefront on my brain.
On your blog, "Brave New Words," you mention that you write-- or, journal-- daily. What has this practice brought to your writing? Would you advocate that young (or emerging) writers also keep journals to nurture their creative work?
I do try to write every day, though it hasn't happened this summer due to travel. A regular writing practice, is, I think, important to keeping the pump primed and the ideas flowing. However, at least for me, there is also a danger in journalling. Spending so much time free-writing or "top of the head writing" (what I consider the writerly equivalent of doodling) can use up time and energy that might better be spent crafting a story or essay.
As for young, emerging writers, or any writer, what's important is writing, whether it be journalling, drafting, revision, or what have you. The words have to find their way out of your head and onto the page or screen. I spent far too many years thinking about writing rather than doing it.
You, as many of of readers, have attended MFA programs. What, in particular, did the MFA offer you, and how has that translated itself into your published work?
The MFA was important to me for a couple of reasons. Having worked in a very different field all my adult life, I didn't know any writers. So the MFA brought me community, critique partners and moral support. It was also crucial to developing craft. I had never studied writing.
There are natural-born writers out there, people who know what they want to say and how to say it. I have learned that I am not one of them. I needed to learn and relearn the elements of craft, to understand what wasn't working with my writing and why. It's an ongoing, lifelong process, but during the MFA program I did acquire tools I didn't have before and, as a result, am a much better self-editor.
What topics, other than art, interest you? Do you have any new projects that are moving in these divergent paths?
I continue to write about family and am working on a memoir-length project as well as shorter pieces. I am intrigued with the "flash" or condensed format for nonfiction and memoir, capturing snapshots of personal history and story in very few words (300 - 1000). I recently worked on an essay about my paternal grandmother who was born in China and may also write about my paternal grandfather, a Hungarian Jew who met my grandmother at the turn of the century when he was a soldier stationed with US troops in Tianjin, China. (One of the attachments is a photograph of my father and his family - Dad is the youngest child.)
Writing is often connected to place-- either the place in which we are writing or the places we write about. Does the bay area contribute to how you conceptualize your work? Or, do you write from a "different place"?
I agree that place is a very important element of writing and that it is important to convey place so that the reader can visualize and experience the world the author creates. I do often gravitate to the Bay Area and Sacramento in my work. It is amazing how early childhood memories --in my case, growing up in San Francisco's Sunset District near Ocean Beach and the Zoo during the 50s and 60s -- remain fixed and powerful in our minds. I also lived a year in Mexico and in Spain and plan to write with those places in mind.
What is something in your life that informs you as a writer that isn't apparent in your work?
I worked in state government for over 30 years, working my way up the civil service ladder from clerk typist to Executive Director of a state agency. That journey, which was often a struggle involving long hours and balancing being a single mother with a stressful career in a male-dominated field, shaped who I am and the values I bring to what I write about.
What advice do you have for writers who would like to write about members of their family as you have done?
It is a sensitive topic and one that has caused me many sleepless nights. In a sense, I chickened out. Yes, I have written about my father, but the book wasn't published until after he died. I did share drafts with my sisters and other family members who are mentioned in the book. I have also written essays about my children and shared those pieces with them prior to seeking publication.
Writing about family is something each writer much grapple with for themselves to find what works for them and their situation. I do not want my writing to hurt or alienate those I care about. On the other hand, it is important to put into words what is true for me. We all remember the past differently and have a right to our version of what was.
Tell us something interesting about you!
My three birth children are each 9 years apart, now aged 18, 27 and 36. I had a child in my 20s, my 30s and the last at 45. As of this year, with my youngest having just left for college, I am an empty nester after 36 years.
Dorothy Rice is a lifelong Northern CA resident. Her new book, published by Shanti Arts in November 2015, is The Reluctant Artist: Joe Rice 1918 - 2011. This art book/memoir traces the story of Rice's father, a little-known abstract artist.
Rice has recently read from her book at the Sacramento Poetry Center, Avid Reader (Sacramento), True Stories (Sacramento), and Quiet Lightning (San Francisco). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert - earned at 60, post-retirement from a career in environmental protection with the California EPA.
Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Rumpus, Louisville Review, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Hobart, Brevity online and a few others. You can learn more about Rice and her book at: www.dorothyriceauthor.com.