Crafting Silhouettes For The Ages
Isle of Palms’ Clay Rice brilliantly applies his scissors and his lyrical talents to children’s books. By Susan Hill Smith. Photos by Mic Smith.
Within 60 seconds, Clay Rice’s scissors can transform a square of black paper into a child’s silhouette, capturing the curves of the chin and the nose, the eyelashes and curls, with such wisdom it becomes a family treasure.
“Look at you, sweetheart,” the 58-year-old artist says as he holds up a freshly cut silhouette for a 3-year-old girl, who until this point has been sitting on her dad’s lap, transfixed by a light-up toy.
Her dad, who’s 35, made the appointment for the sitting. He was about the same age as his little girl when Rice cut his silhouette back in the early 1980s at the beginning of the artist’s career. His parents also have silhouettes of themselves as children that were cut by the artist’s grandfather, legendary Carew Rice.
While the scene plays out at a baby boutique in Mount Pleasant, not far from Clay Rice’s Isle of Palms home, he also makes connections like these when traveling across the country. Not long ago, he visited a shop in “little old’ Cordele, Georgia” and the first five moms who brought their children in for portraits had been past subjects of his as well. “I feel like I’ve got this big family out there,” he says with a grin.
Children’s silhouettes have been the bread and butter of his multifaceted career, much as they were for his grandfather. By his own earnest estimate, Rice has cut over a million. Yet he hopes his recent work creating children’s books will have an even more enduring impact. From the release of his first title in 2010, The Lonely Shadow, which earned two major book awards, this new pursuit has led places even he didn’t expect. “It has opened up so much more for me,” he told me when we sat down for an interview, “things I never saw coming.”
‘The Dr. Seuss of the Lowcountry’
In the world of children’s picture books, where writers and artists often have distinct roles, Rice is the whole package, marrying his lyrical talents as a songwriter with masterpiece illustrations. In fact, all his books either contain a song, or are songs themselves that Rice also performs with his guitar. Guaranteed for giggles when he does school appearances, his latest title, Ants ‘n’ Uncles, even has a conga-line ant dance that children love
Before I go any further, I should disclose that Rice is a favorite friend of mine, and our families are close. I also adore children’s books to such a degree that I consider myself an unofficial expert. So, I was thoroughly looking forward to an in-depth talk with Rice about his life and his literature as I wove around the bends of Forest Trail to the Isle of Palms home he shares with his wife, Caroline, and their two sons, Charlie, 11, and Connor, 14.
A 6-foot-3 teddy bear of a man, Rice welcomed me into the family room with a hug. After we sank into opposite couches, we soon found a shared love for Shel Silverstein, whose quirky anthologies of poetry and artwork, including Where the Sidewalk Ends, and thought-provoking titles, such as Th e Giving Tree, have spoken to generations.
What I didn’t realize was that that Silverstein was also a prolific singer-songwriter who produced hits for Johnny Cash, Dr. Hook and Loretta Lynn. “I guess that’s why he’s such a big influence,” Rice said.
While his silhouette artwork has overshadowed his own musical e orts, long-time locals may remember the 1990s when Rice had a spot at the Charleston market called Lowcountry Legends Music Hall. Here he would perform original songs with local flavor like Boiled P-Nuts, Hurricane Jam and South of Broad on his guitar.
His ties to coastal South Carolina run deep and wide and are not only reflected in his songs, but also in his original pieces of artwork. His parents divorced when he was a preschooler. He grew up living with his mom in Myrtle Beach and his father in downtown Charleston, while also spending time o in the country at his grandfather’s aging plantation home on the Chehaw River in Colleton County.
He started writing songs as a young teenager in Myrtle Beach with lifelong friend Mark Stephen Jones. Both eventually tried their luck in Nashville. Rice ultimately returned home to South Carolina and silhouettes, while Jones secured a spot with Harlan Howard Songs, one of the town’s premier indie publishers, and recently received a Grammy nomination.
Even now, when the two visits, they typically work on a song or two for fun. “Of all my friends, he has the greatest laugh,” Jones told me when I reached him later by phone.
Rice has a talent for turning something simple into something brilliant, said Jones, who is proud of his friend’s crossover into children’s literature. “He’s the Dr. Seuss of the Lowcountry—and you can quote me on that.”
Making the most of every word
Rice’s work in the children’s book industry started with a commission to do a silhouette cover for another author. He soon talked his way into creating his own books and found it easy to come up with the words for his first narrative. “I was flying down to Costa Rica to go fishing and the idea popped into my head: Th e Lonely Shadow, about a shadow who is looking for a child to belong to,” he explained. “By the time we touched down in Costa Rica, it was done, and they only changed seven words in the whole thing.”
The creative differences he ran into involved the illustrations. The first publishing company he dealt with wanted to stick with silhouettes in traditional black and white while Rice wanted to pursue color, and they parted ways as a result. Within a week, he had a new publisher, and ultimately Th e Lonely Shadow would be recognized with a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award Gold Medal for Best First Book and an Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) Gold Medal.
“You have to trust yourself first,” he told me, pronouncing the same kind of truth you might find in the pages of his books.
Collectively, Rice’s books have been translated into four other languages. He’s not sure how many books have been sold around the world through different publishing arrangements, but he has personally signed and sold over 50,000 when making appearances at stores, schools and museums.
Each of his four titles published so far has its own characters, style, and personality. He starts with the words, and the illustrations follow, typically taking much more time to construct as he works on them in the artist’s studio in the backyard of his house on Isle of Palms.
For his second book, Mama, Let’s Make a Moon, he drew on the spirit of his mom, a schoolteacher who made the best of limited resources, as well as his wife and the many moms he meets through his work. He spent a full year on the illustrations, and while the book received less critical acclaim than his first e ort, it resonated with families. “I get more requests for it than any of the other books.”
His third book, Th e Stick, a Benjamin Franklin Book Award winner, hones in even more on the theme of imagination with a deceptively simple stick that has transformative powers. In a surprising turn for Rice, Th e Stick inspired the Tacoma Metropolitan Ballet to create its own adaptation of the story.
In terms of process, Th e Stick shows how important it is to make the most of every word. Rice recalls going back and forth for six weeks with his editor over the instructions written on the stick. “He just kept sending me back an email saying I think you can do this a little better,” and in this case, Rice knew his editor was right.
Finally, Rice came up with the following passage:
IMAGINATION lives in you,
It’s the FIRE in all you do.
Use it well, and you can be
ANYTHING you want to be.
That’s more than a powerful message for a children’s book. That’s the story of Clay Rice.