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Art from the Heart

To perfect his technique, painter Orville Rice spent countless hours observing and sketching wildlife.

By E. Dan Klepper

One of the most charming covers to grace this magazine in its 64-year history features a giant frog. The sleepy-eyed, mammoth amphibian rests on a broken stump overlooking the waters of an emerald stream. A bright red cork drifts in the current. It is attached to the line of a fishing pole that rests in the hands of a young man reclining against a tree along the opposite bank. On closer inspection the young man is wearing a pair of shorts made from jeans cut above the knee and rolled up into cuffs (rural fashion in the summer of 1947) and the fishing pole is actually a crooked branch. The young man is also shirtless, bare-footed and, to fulfill the final requirement for spending a lazy afternoon freshwater fishing in Texas, he has nodded off to sleep.

The cover was painted for the May 1947 issue, a time when the magazine — then called Texas Game and Fish — cost readers a mere 10 cents. The bullfrog’s enormous size, covering almost a quarter of the page, was an illusion created by the painting’s perspective. In reality it is a common species, Rana catesbeiana, typically around four to six inches in length and found throughout Texas’ waterways. But the young man in the painting is a rare breed — the image is a self-portrait of artist Orville Rice.

It was the only cover Rice actually appeared in, but it was just one of many that he created for the magazine during the 1940s and ’50s. For most Texans who spent summers watching frogs, fishing in creeks and napping under a shade tree, Rice’s covers expressed a certain dual authenticity. On the one hand, his wildlife paintings were true to nature despite the lack of detail in the simple, illustrative forms that defined his signature style. More importantly, his strokes were driven by an emotional honesty that gave the work a deeper authenticity, one that spoke of Rice’s devotion for getting to know his subject matter up-close and personal.

Rice, a self-taught artist and naturalist, made accuracy a priority in his work. Like many of the best American wildlife artists, Rice was a keen observer, taking notes and sketching details while watching nature’s stories unfold.

“Bald eagle made appr. 8 passes at 2 coots until one of the latter, finally tired, was captured,” Rice wrote during the winter of 1951 in one of the many journals he kept. The notation appeared between sketches of an eagle hunting an unfortunate coot. “The eagle then flew about 50 yards with the coot dangling, then alighted on the ice and began to feed. … At the time there were appr. 2,500 ducks — mallards, mainly — which the eagle ignored completely to pursue the coots.”

Rice carefully recorded the physical characteristics of many creatures that struck his interest in order to artistically render their shape, movement and color with realism. “The head is cream yellow,” he wrote next to a sketch of a caterpillar eating a leaf. “The bobbing walk sends quivers throu’ his light cream body, which has a black strype along the back. The tail end is muddy cream.”

“Orville was always concerned with the detail of every animal or bird that he painted,” Rice’s son-in-law, Ray Chancellor, recalled. “He would do many sketches to get the live feeling that he wanted. Much of the detail was from real specimens. It was not unusual at all for him to come to a screeching stop on the highway to collect some unusual specimen that he would then sketch. These were his ‘DORs’ — Dead On Road specimens.”

Rice, born May 21, 1919, in Yoakum, chose to study architecture rather than art at the University of Texas, and later spent 33 years as an architect in Topeka, Kansas. But his foremost passion was painting wildlife. Throughout his life, Rice created images of nature, providing covers and illustrations for many publications (including this magazine), a series of books, and the journal of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. An avid birdwatcher, Rice was considered one of the top 10 bird artists in the nation by the Audubon Society and could count among his friends and fans the premier ornithologist and bird artist George M. Sutton. Rice and Sutton carried on a lengthy correspondence over many years, exchanging bird lists, chronicling their latest bird outings, offering critiques and praise for each other’s artwork, and passing along amusing anecdotes about the birding art world.

“Let me say, in all sincerity, that it’s been a long time since I’ve derived such deep satisfaction as I have from these line drawings in your ‘Volume II’,” Sutton wrote on Christmas Eve of 1957, in a letter to Rice regarding some of the illustrator’s artwork. “I have just been asked to review a book whose line drawings are hopelessly poor, partly because the artist seems not to realize that the bird-artist is not to give a bird shape, merely, but to cover it with feathers. He has used transverse lines thinking they would create three dimensional quality, I suppose, but by God, he has put strange bathing-suits on them instead. They are little short of monstrosities. I’ll not dare say this in my review, I suppose!”

Rice also corresponded with world-renowned naturalist and bird artist Roger Tory Peterson, occasionally submitting drawings and paintings to him for comments and criticism. He also enjoyed discussing the discrepancies that often arise in the birding community.

“I have been enjoying my copy of A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas,” Rice wrote in one of his letters to Peterson, “presented to me recently by a friend in Austin, Texas. The book is quite a handsome addition to the Field Guide Series and I believe you have handled the information regarding distribution within Texas very well. The questions raised regarding several species should alert Texas birders to provide better answers in the near future.”

Rice spent as much time as his schedule permitted in the field. He would tirelessly follow a particular species around its habitat, observing its behavior and often scrutinizing its nest. His accounts of birding in various parts of Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arizona are at once informative, amusing and definitive in their illustration of the peculiar world of birding.

“My record of the yellow-throated warbler stands on the usual shaky ground encountered when corroborating sightings, photographs or specimens are lacking,” Rice wrote in a letter to Sutton in the fall of 1970. “I recognize this weakness (as well as the enthusiastic bird watcher’s tendency to make exciting birds out of dead leaves, broken branches and half-submerged stumps) and, therefore, generally yield to the wise classification ‘tentative’ or ‘hypothetical.’

“However, in this case, I followed the bird’s movements through the trees with my binoculars for several minutes and was able on several occasions to see all of the definitive markings quite clearly. I can say without hesitation that no other bird fits the observed pattern. The distinctive white supercilliary and post auricular markings were particularly well defined, being noticeable even when other features were obscured by shadows or foliage.

“Unfortunately, I had dropped behind the remainder of the party and by the time they responded to my call, we could find nothing more exciting than 2 or 3 Audubon warblers. Though they were too polite to say so, I had the uneasy feeling that some students concluded that I had misidentified an Audubon! In any event, I’ll leave the final judgment to you without prejudice.”

In addition to architect, painter and naturalist, Rice proved to be a deft poet, composing verse about a vast array of subject matter, including his bird outings.

“It’s an old hunter’s adage,

I’m fairly sure –

That a bird in hand is

worth two in the bush;

And unquestioned the concept

would long endure

Unless you’ve heard the song

of a Hermit thrush!”

“I don’t remember ever being more surprised (and pleased),” Sutton wrote in response to receiving a few of Rice’s poetic efforts in January of 1968. “Is the writing actually your own? I just can’t believe, yet there’s no earthly reason why you shouldn’t be talented in this way as you are in other ways. … Are you hiding some light under a bushel, my dear Orville? If you write poetry the least bit seriously, let me see some of it. What you’ve sent is good. I’ll bet you have some other stuff that should be read by what Eleanor Roosevelt called ‘the mosses.’ She meant ‘the masses.’”

Rice retired early from architecture in 1981 in order to devote all his time to birding and painting. His paintings were exhibited in art museums and galleries across the country and many of his works now reside in private and public collections. He participated in exhibitions sponsored by the National Audubon Society, the Wilson Ornithological Society and the American Ornithologists’ Union, and a number of his bird paintings are included in the collection of the Texas Memorial Museum. He was also a frequent lecturer on ornithology and conservation.

In an introduction for a lecture about ornithology to a gathering of stamp collectors, Rice scored out a poem that he hoped would help break the ice:

“I haven’t lately

followed philately

Except to glue

a stamp or two

To greeting cards

mailed out belatedly.

And so I wondered,

reflecting logically

How to amuse

and not abuse

You philatelists

while speaking ornithologically.

After thinking awhile

both lightly and weightily

Here’s what we’ll do:

We’ll merge the two,

And have not

just birds and stamps

But ornithophilately!”

Rice’s creative endeavors expressed the charm and whimsy found in nature whether he was painting giant frogs or inventing puns. But more importantly, Rice, who died in 1986, had an ability to impart through his work the joys and beauty of the natural world in straightforward and engaging terms. He understood the lure and wonder inherent in nature and could express its appeal to the novice and the skeptic with a broad clean stroke of the brush, a conservation of detail, and an enthusiast’s attention to nature’s magic moments. His work created a link between the wilderness we often take for granted and the artifice of our workaday world, providing a way to connect the importance of nature around us to our own internal lives.

Rice’s enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits and dedication to conservation efforts suggest a life led with gusto and resolve. It is a legacy that continues to serve and enlighten Texans half a century later. Perhaps most evidently in his self-portrait as a young man fishing on a summer afternoon, Rice’s art suggests a simple truth and a steward’s charge for today’s Texan — that the pleasure to be found in the state’s natural world should not only be a joy inspired by the nostalgia of memory but one that endures for future generations.

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