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Finding beauty, inspiration in the ‘rust’

Weirton woman savors award as Emerging Artist Fellowship from Tamarack Foundation for the Arts

Artist Jaci Rice -- Contributed

WEIRTON — Artist Jaci Rice is a little “rusty” at her work.

And that’s brought the Weirton woman personal and professional validation, specifically as one awarded an Emerging Artist Fellowship from the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts for 2020.

Rice was one of five artists selected from around West Virginia whose original works — part of her #RustBeltBeauty series — were showcased at Taylor Books in Charleston from Oct. 15 through mid-November.

A link to the group show is available at https://tamarackfoundation.org/eaf2020exhibit./

The #RustBeltBeauty series, her website artist statement notes in part, challenges viewers “to discover aspects of beauty hidden in industrial and post-industrial areas like my hometown of Weirton, the monolith of West Virginia’s crumbling Rust Belt. Without stopping to observe the play of light and shadow, the hard juxtaposition of steel against the Ohio Valley hill, or the layers of color that decades of rust and soot have wrought, the full story of the life of a mill town cannot be understood. The importance of industry in rust belt areas cannot be separated from any aspect of the history of the people who live there. The twisted metal of factories makes up the strands of their DNA, and molten steel runs the length of family trees.”

Rice describes herself as a figurative and landscape painter working in acrylic and pencil on canvas and wood panel.

“I interpret and record my perceptions of figures (people) and landscapes that I encounter in my life. I use pencil to lay in a composition on a primed wood panel and then I use acrylic paint to lay in the color and depth of the image,” she said. “I have always loved drawing and painting people, but since moving to Western Pennsylvania after college, I found an equal interest in the landscapes around me. Here, in Weirton, I have been quietly obsessed with the steel mill and other industrial areas in the region,” she noted.

“I find beauty and inspiration in the ‘rust’ — so to speak. I want to share the story and the possibilities of this area with others outside of it,” she said, elaborating on how she hopes to accomplish that through her art.

“I think that a lot of people might overlook the beautiful features that industrial structures and areas can hold,” Rice noted. “The engineering and design of these structures, their complexities and intricacies that spread out over the land and yet all fit together toward the same purpose of making steel and steel products is pretty awesome,” she said. “There still remains a ‘Wild and Wonderful’ part of West Virginia up here in the Northern Panhandle, and though it might look different from other parts of the state, these industrial areas, active and not, seem to me, to still exist within it. I find that fascinating. Man has only added his own ‘art’ to the landscape — tucked down into the valley and jutting out into the river,” she explained.

“The deconstruction of the mill is amazing in itself. Frontier, the development company working to dismantle parts of the mill currently, has been lifting a veil on the mysteries of these large structures. Only the men and women who worked in these areas now being torn down would have known what was behind those corrugated steel walls. The secrets of the mill are being exposed and shared, and I feel that now there is a transparency to the world of the mill. We all can admire the awesomeness of what once was a monolithic giant in the steel industry in the area. Its history falls on the shoulders of people who lived in not just Weirton, but the surrounding areas and beyond. And seeing the land reappear from beneath the rust, is like a promise of more possibility and creativity. The mill might be disappearing, but the story for the area has not stopped unfolding for the world to see.

“I want to draw attention to the light that the depth of the valley below these hills still hold,” she said.

Rice grew up in Lancaster County, Pa., and became interested in art during childhood.

“Being a very quiet middle child growing up, my expression found a voice in the visual arts,” noted Rice, who still has a self-portrait from when she was 3. “It was just easier for me to navigate the world through art.”

That it would be a career and outlet for expression seemed a given.

“I had influential adults around me who were interested in what I was making and encouraged me in my pursuits,” she commented. “I decided very early on in elementary school that I wanted to become an artist, and I never wavered.”

Rice earned her bachelor’s of fine arts degree in painting at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, in Philadelphia, where she met her husband, Mark Rice, a native of Weirton. The son of Mary Rice of the Weirton area and the late Bernard Rice, he was pursuing his master’s degree in liberal arts.

“We moved to Pittsburgh after marrying and that’s where I was introduced to the hills and weather of the area,” explained Rice, who completed her first residency program, called The Distillery, through the Brew House on the South Side of Pittsburgh. “We moved to Weirton a few years after having our first baby.”

That move came in 2014, and Rice began portraying her observations of the surrounding area. In 2018, she won first prize in acrylic at the local juried exhibition Forged by Steel.

Rice considers herself having been a “quiet” professional for the past 10 to 12 years. “I don’t work eight hours a day in the studio yet. Right now, my two youngest are not school age yet so I’ll be working around their schedules for the time being,” she said. The couple have three children now: Elijah, 9; Emma, 4; and Asher, 2. Her husband works as a quality sustainment coach at Cigna Healthcare Services.

It was at the encouragement of a friend that Rice applied for the Emerging Artist Fellowship.

“She was aware of the fellowship and the foundation and felt like it would be a great next step for me in my career,” Rice explained. “It is an application with questions pertaining to your experiences and your work habits and a portfolio review. I don’t remember how many applications were reviewed for the fellowship, but this past year, 2020, we had a cohort of five in the fellowship. After we met each other officially in Wheeling, we started planning trips to visit studios and regions around the state, but then the pandemic hit,” she continued.

“We worked on our individual work with the goal of a culminating show which opened on Oct.15 at Taylor Books in Charleston. We ended up having a virtual reception because of COVID safety protocols. Though a bit unconventional, it was a great experience and a lot of fun. I spoke to people residing as far away as California and Hawaii. Ann Magnuson was our celebrity emcee zooming in from L.A. and she spoke of her love of her home state and the history of art in her family. The actual works were up until mid-November, and some pieces were sold through the gallery,” Rice said, describing feedback as positive and in some cases, “a surprise to people who hadn’t experienced the Northern Panhandle.”

The experience also produced a surprise discovery in that Jes Reger-Davis of Wheeling was one of the fellows. The two were winners at the Forged By Steel juried exhibition in January 2018 at the Summit Gallery in Weirton. Rice won first in acrylic. “We didn’t realize this until the very end of the fellowship,” Rice commented.

The Tamarack Foundation for the Arts supports and champions art throughout West Virginia.

“Renee Margocee, executive director and artist, travels extensively throughout the state when she can. She and Domenica Queen, programming and marketing guru and designer, wanted us to experience the state and its wealth of art,” Rice explained of the intent behind the five fellows meeting.

“They had hoped that we would be able to travel and visit as a group to different areas, meet other working artists and be inspired by what we experience,” Rice said. “Because of the obvious restrictions on travel and lodgings due to COVID, it was next to impossible to make anything happen. We did manage a great trip to Fayetteville where we met with an artist, Ginger Danz, and took a tour of the beautiful LaFayette Flats and their carefully curated art collection. We met regularly as a group virtually with each other and also with other artists when possible. The Tamarack Foundation for the Arts did a great job providing what professional development they could pull together under the circumstances,” she said.

Rice has prints of most of the pieces that were on display in Charleston, plus some of her other work, currently on display and for sale at the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center at 3149 Main St., Weirton.

“Savannah Guz has set up a great gift shop area there,” she said of the museum’s executive director. “The series is part of the overarching series that I call #RustBeltBeauty. I began this series with the intention of posting it on Instagram under that hashtag. I officially began to put them on display to the public during the 2018 Gate 5 Industrial Art Festival at the museum thanks to Dennis Jones. The newer works are the larger ones that I created during the fellowship — “Portal,” “Polar Village,” “Last Light” and “Main Street Bridge.” With the exception of “Field of Dreams,” all depict the Weirton Steel mill,” she noted.

Being awarded a fellowship constitutes a major career highlight for Rice.

“Personally, it was affirming that I am moving in the right direction — that my visions and work might actually mean something to someone other than just me,” she explained of what’s been a great experience all around.

“Professionally, the networking was great and the professional development the TFA afforded our cohort was invaluable. Being an artist can be such a lonely profession so having regular communication with other artists was paramount in keeping that productive fire lit in the studio,” she added.

Even with a pandemic, 2020 was a year of pluses for Rice.

“This past year was a year of growing for me,” she began. “My work became more focused and thematic. Work surfaces became bigger. Because of the award money I received from the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts, I could buy larger panels and a greater supply of paint and a wider variety of brushes. And I could upgrade my frame designs. I also launched a redesigned website,” she said.

Pandemic restrictions have fostered creative benefits.

“I work from a home studio in the front of my house. And I am home already with the kids. The only difference the pandemic made for me was the new safety guidelines we needed to follow when going out to the store, so we have just continued as we were, but with less obligations to leave the house. Of course, we really miss our family back East, but we still had Mark’s family close by. There have been bouts of cabin fever, but not feeling the hustle and rush to get to places, schedule things and work out logistics has been great. I have felt less daily stress,” she added.

What’s on her painting to-do list for 2021?

“So far I have been working on finishing up post-holiday portraiture commissions. I have three large panels waiting for some attention. And I have one panoramic panel that is waiting for a frame,” she said. “I was supposed to have a show up in Buffalo, N.Y., opening in January, but because of the pandemic, we decided to push it back to the spring. I would like to take my work back east toward Philadelphia if a venue opens up at some point in the summer. I have a bunch of small panels that I’ll prime and keep around. I’d like to complete at least two a week if possible to keep my gestures loose and sure. I’ll continue with working on mill pieces, but I’d also like to get back into a more comfortable zone with portraiture.”

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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