First Friday’s Lauren Emily Brown talks to Felicia Rice about finding inspiration, playing multiple roles in the community, and what she would say if she could send a message to humanity. Rice discusses her most recent artists’ book–a seven year collaborative effort with four other artists–DOC/UNDOC, which speaks of embracing differences, crossing borders, reinvention and metamorphoses, and much more.
LEB: Where do you draw inspiration from for your work?
FR: My work began with printing and publishing poetry, so I have a real love of the word and commitment to it as a letterpress printer, and as my work becomes more visual, I find that I need the word on the page to help guide me and inspire me. It’s really important to me who I choose to work with, who I choose to collaborate with, and what it is that they’re saying as writers, so that I can interpret and incorporate that into my visual exploration. Also, both my parents were artists and I was encouraged to process my experiences through art from a very early age. I questioned this but I never fully rebelled against it. Basing my work on the word as opposed to a visual experience was not a rebellion but instead an exploration; it was a bit different from what I had been exposed to. So the combination of having a lifelong exposure and the encouragement to express myself visually along with my adult interests and serious inquiry into the written word has really been the source of my inspiration.
When I started working with the word and typography and the printed page, I was enamored by a very reflective, contemplative approach to design that uses a lot of white space, which was considered very contemporary. Not muddled and mixed, not baroque, just very simple and elegant. It was about guiding your eye through and really giving you time to absorb the language. I think what I’m saying with my work now is that people are learning to pick through and identify what interests them very, very quickly. It’s not necessary to guide people’s experience so carefully anymore. All of my experiences influence how I view things and change what I think is possible. Now it’s possible to do these exploratory, crazy things and people can handle it.
The book, as a response to Gustavo [Vazquez] and Guillermo [Gómez-Peña]’s video, was largely inspired by the video imagery and aesthetic and what they, as artists, do together, as well as the language and scripts I was given to work with. A lot of the complexities of the visuals came from being given a video experience to interact with. The performance scripts by Gómez-Peña are incorporated into each spread in the book, as well as my visual response to their video. The actual video DVD is included in the book as well.
What does it mean to be an artist in Santa Cruz?
I’ve been in Santa Cruz for 40 years. I had gone to UC Berkeley and the urban experience was great but it wasn’t really possible to do what I had started to dream of: to be an integral part of the community. The community here is just the right size and there are so many interesting and creative people; it allowed me to explore what I want to do. It’s really been possible to play a lot of roles.
For instance, one of my projects took me to New York and I had a conversation with a man who was an editor who he said that he would really love to teach as well. I thought to myself that if I had been in New York this whole time, I would’ve just been an editor. But in Santa Cruz I’ve been able to do editing, teaching, publishing, work on commission as a letterpress printer and more. I’ve been able to integrate into various communities as an artist and writer. I may have chosen not to delve exclusively into each aspect but together they make a life’s work. It’s been possible over these years to explore all of these things that have come into play in the making of a book, and Santa Cruz has made that possible. I’m grateful to the community for that opportunity.
I felt when I entered the world of printing and books I was opening a door and the only reason I was willing to walk through was because I saw on the other side of the room another door. So every room I’ve walked into and explored and gained all I could out of, allowed me to move further. There was never a dead end; there was always another direction to turn and another opportunity to look into. It’s held my attention and captivated me for 40 years. I definitely thank Santa Cruz for that.
How did you get involved with First Friday?
I’ve always been a participant as a viewer, going out on First Friday. I live in the mountains and I’m normally in my studio on a Friday and I won’t normally go downtown or go out, but when I do, I see how much energy there is and how many people are out and how many venues there are. I especially enjoy it when friends of mine are opening shows because I like to support them. Or if there’s something that really interests me–like the current show at the MAH is right in keeping with my inquiry into Chicano/a art and the community–so I was there last month on First Friday. I love running into people I know. First Friday is a moving party!
First Friday has been around for a while, but because it is so personal–there is someone you want to see, or some venue you want to check out–it continues to be exciting. It’s a good way to get out and see your friends and experience the community. Art can extend and move you beyond your comfort zone, and I’ve been out and seen things that were new to me as well, and it expanded my view.
What was your favorite part of working on DOC/UNDOC?
I grew so much. In the performance that I have developed with the book, called “Collaboration and Metamorphosis,” I talk about my own metamorphosis. Through the process of making the book, I was transforming as an artist and developing as a performer and printmaker. I was developing a whole technique that I had in my head and then realizing it on paper. The piece is an invitation to self transformation. We provide you with a tool to use to explore your own transformation. The project was incredibly challenging also because this was a sequel to an earlier book, Codex Espangliensis, which came out in 1998. That book has had such a powerful, long life that it became my signature work. I have done other things since then but this time, Guillermo said “Do you draw? You be the artist.” And I took him up on that. It was great; he is really an incredible collaborator because he challenges you to go beyond your normal roles or boundaries.
What was the greatest challenge you faced while creating this book? I challenged myself to do the best possible work that I could summon up. Everyone I worked with raised new questions and ideas and taught me so much, and all of that kept me moving forward so we could meet the publication date of September 1. And we did!
There were lots and lots of problems to solve; a lot of new challenges. One of the greatest was drawing for the book. This was the first time I’ve privileged my mark-making and incorporated it into a large project. I had to ask myself, “Can I publish this? Is it good enough?” I think the biggest thing for me is the confidence factor. There was a period when I experienced serious doubts about my drawings, but even when every decision was painful, I knew that I was still moving forward. I need to process a lot out loud and I need a sounding board when I’m working. It helps to hear myself say that I’m on the right path and I know what I’m doing, that this is the direction I need to be moving. I can’t hear my thoughts silently in my head; I have to speak them, and then I can process them.
What is the key message that you want people to take away from your book?
I don’t know if there’s one thing; there’s several things. Crossing borders is not just physical, it’s very personal. There are internal borders that are your own, and then there are the politicized borders that are arbitrary lines drawn on the map. All of us are crossing borders. The challenge is to cross and transform one’s, reinvent oneself, so you can survive, even thrive, in this new world. Joseph Campbell said that the hero goes out into the unknown and comes back and tells what they’ve experienced. That’s really the role of the artist, to reach out beyond what we commonly understand, then come back and share what we have learned. That’s one of the messages: not just that I did it, but you can do it. One of the instructions on the case is “Collaborate with four other artists. Embrace difference.”
The message is that you can do it, and do it with others, and learn from that. That’s really what we need to be doing, all of us, is embracing and accepting one another and listening and learning from one another, and accepting challenges and gaining from those. For those who are forced to emigrate from their homes, or who do so by choice, those who come to a new place, some of those choices aren’t elective, so how do you survive? That’s not an elective thing. You’ve got to survive. You make choices along the way. That’s finally what I feel–you make choices, you can grow, and you can change. And learn from each other.
If you had the opportunity to broadcast a message into the mind of every human being, what would you want to say?
I think it’s so important that we listen to one another. And that we learn from one another. And at the same time, I think there’s a larger conversation going on that’s not just within humanity but that’s subtler, maybe harder to hear, messages are coming from the planet, from the Earth, and I think it’s really important that we listen, to each other and that which supports us–the Earth. There’s a much larger conversation that many people are ignoring. So just listen. Listen to everything.
Experience Felicia Rice’s newest collaborative artists’ book DOC/UNDOC in person at the following exhibitions:
Felix Kulpa Gallery, October 3 – 31; reception on First Friday
Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery, UCSC, October 3 – December 6; reception on October 15
Performance of “Collaboration and Metamorphosis” at Sesnon Gallery on October 22