Customs House Museum | November 2–January 7
WORDS Catherine Randall Berresheim
Using only the basic tools, a chisel and a mallet, stone sculptor Tom Rice creates works that are a study in simplicity of form, mass, line, texture, and movement. His latest show, titled Endurance in Form—A Retrospective, features a collection spanning his almost-50-year career and will be featured at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville November 2 to January 7.
Rice works in a variety of mediums, including clay and wood, but he is best known for his stone sculptures. Carving stone is an ancient art that has been largely replaced by air hammers and other pneumatic tools, but Rice prefers the venerable approach deserving of its antiquity. “I’m one of few stone carvers around that use a mallet and chisel. I still do all the carving by hand,” he says.
“I like the more direct approach of handling the material,” he continues, speaking the verb in an almost poetic onomatopoeic way that reveals his connection to the stone and its hidden purpose. Blocks of solid soapstone, limestone, marble, sandstone, and alabaster are tapped and pounded and reduced into vessels, birdbaths, fountains, benches, seashells, and stylized birds.
“I continuously design as I carve. I don’t even sketch anymore. I draw directly on the stone and make decisions as I go. Sometimes the stone suggests which way to go; other times I have in mind what my subject is,” Rice explains. This is an abrupt departure from his original work process of meticulous paper designs and edits.
Rice’s work pulls the viewer in closer with its intricate details that create the optical illusion of a stone that moves. “When people see a vessel, they want to look inside. It’s a natural instinct. I started to carve the design into its center, then added more carvings, and then it started growing up and over, making that cone shape.” An example of this effect can be seen in his mixed-media fountain. This perfectly smooth limestone vase, sitting atop assembled chunks of wood and textured stone pedestals, takes on an almost angelic tone and beckons the viewer to become more intimate with the art.
“By making the bottom of the vessel smaller and the piece larger as it goes up, I am able to create a flowing movement that makes it more visually interesting. It’s kind of a way to force the viewer to really look at your work,” Rice says. The result is a fascinating totem-like fountain structure that defies gravity, or small sculptures that play with the uncommon couplings of the lightness of a bird or seashell and the heaviness of a rock.
“My approach to art is simple: Choose an ordinary subject, like a bird, and an ordinary surface, like a stone, and produce something extraordinary.”
Rice uses reclaimed materials from demolished buildings, stone mills, salvage yards, and even graveyards. In fact, some of his structures are reminiscent of the monuments found in old cemeteries. “I’m big on recycling. I’m always looking for things to incorporate,” he says. Abandoned gravestones and keystones from archways of older homes become treasure to a sculptor.
Rice’s works are part of permanent collections throughout the country. To see his work locally, visit Centennial Art Center, Cheekwood Museum, or the Tennessee State Museum.
Endurance in Form—A Retrospective by Tom Rice is on view at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville November 2 through January 7, 2018. For more information, please visit www.customshousemuseum.org.