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Kim Rice Finds Her Life’s Work in Baltimore

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Kim Rice had been making artwork dealing with the white race for years before she realized that her father’s ancestors had been slavers. Two years into the Trump presidency, she was working on a piece that placed cut-outs of the antebellum Virginia Slave Codes over the mouths of the Founding Fathers.

Cutting intricate woven masks from the words of this document that codified the conditions of race in America, she suddenly recalled being told as a child about her father’s family owning enslaved people. “I don’t know why I had that big missing gap in my brain,” she says. “The mind-blowing part was that I had been doing all this work and I had never thought about it before.”

Like Rice, I knew that “big missing gap in my brain” intimately. It is the condition of contemporary whiteness, a mass delusion, a great forgetting, a refusal of reality and it is at the heart of the way most white people are socialized. Another word for the missing gap in our brains is innocence. Rice makes art that fills in this gap in our brains and busts open the myth of innocence.

Rice’s work is so successful because she uses documents, data, maps, and other tools that create the foundation of her lived experiences as a middle-aged white woman in America to create large-scale, labor-intensive, craft-based pieces whose effect is simultaneously visual and conceptual.

 

Kim Rice, Founding Fathers
Rice makes art that fills in this gap in our brains and busts open the myth of innocence.
Baynard Woods

Describing Rice as a white artist might seem redundant, unnecessary, or offensive to a majority of white artists who are accustomed to being considered just an artist. Historically, though, Black, Indigenous and other non-white artists are usually given racial descriptions, while whiteness remains invisible, synonymous with “normal” and not necessary to mention. For Rice, this tension, this invisible working of whiteness, is not only the context within which she makes her work—it is her art’s core subject.

Rice’s realization of her family’s history led to a series of works collectively called Inheritance, which repurpose personal materials like family letters and wills, historic documents including census records, redlining maps, text from the Naturalization Act of 1790, and everyday materials such as caution tape into a wide variety of forms. In Family Values II (2019), Rice hand-cut the words of her great-great-great-grandfather’s will, which deeded Black people to the white descendants of William Venable, out of an old school pull-down map of the thirteen colonies and then, by casting a light upon it, writing the abominable words onto the wall in projected shadows.

When Rice exhibited the massive solo exhibit titled Inheritance at the Peale Museum in 2020, I was in the middle of researching and writing a book of the same title, which dealt with many of the same themes. The book traces crimes of my ancestors—slaving, murder, terrorism, Jim Crow—and tries to discover how they had all affected the whiteness I had inherited. Unless they are aggrieved, I learned quickly, white people hate talking about whiteness. But even more, I realized, our minds hate to see it.

Trying to write about whiteness sometimes felt impossible to do in a personal way, because whenever I looked for it, it hid. I finally developed a technique of looking for moments where the gap between my self-conception and my material reality was the greatest. That was where I could catch it at work.

 

Family Values II, installed in Inheritance at The Peale
Kim Rice, I Pulled Myself Up (Boostraps), at Goucher's Silber Gallery

I was stunned by Rice’s exhibition at the Peale because it cast everything I’d been thinking and reading and writing into giant, multivalent pieces filling room after room. Jeffrey Kent, the Curator in Residence at the Peale who curated the show (and whose role as Co-Director of BmoreArt’s Connect+Collect program makes him part of the magazine’s core team) describes Rice’s work as conceptual, but steeped in research and critical theory.
“I was blown away after seeing the rigorous process she puts into her artwork, and that it is informed by historical relevance, research, and critical theory,” Kent says.

Like Kent, I was also blown away. The Safety Net–Baltimore (2018) is a literal net linked together out of white, red, and yellow zip-ties—the plastic handcuffs cops use—in the pattern of the redlining map, which had been used to segregate the city. I’d just published a book about Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force crimes and it felt like the whole thing was there in that one piece, with layers of meaning overlapping, connecting segregation, policing, restraint, and safety.

Rice’s work is not only technically virtuosic and conceptually rigorous—it is often funny. Every time I hear a white person talk about “pulling themselves up”—which is surprisingly often—I think of Rice’s hilarious sculpture Bootstraps (2019), which appears to be a minimalistic, textured square painting, but is actually a handmade linear composition of bootstraps. And yet, it’s not only funny. Assembled with repeated looping rolls, the straps create a texture that is quite visually soothing and intricately satisfying. Another work from the same series, I pulled myself up (2021), is a twenty foot tall ladder hanging from the ceiling and trailing down the gallery walls, also made entirely of bootstraps and rope.

Rice grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma until her family moved to Fresno, California when she was in the seventh grade. As in so many white families, race was rarely talked about openly in Rice’s home, but she acknowledges that there are just all these “understandings” that one has within a white family circle. She had no idea at the time, of course, but unpacking all of those silent understandings would become her life’s work.

After earning a degree in sculpture from the University of Oklahoma in Norman, she moved to New Orleans where she met her husband, and they lived there until Katrina hit. They moved back to Oklahoma where she began teaching art in high school. She continued with her own work and decided to get an MFA at the University of Oklahoma, just after the birth of their second child.

Rice’s two children are Black while she and her husband are white, and her perceptions around family life, race, and safety radically shifted and started to surface in her studio after becoming a parent.

“I was making art about being a parent,” she says. “Anything that got crazy at home went into my studio.” For example, she began weaving as a reaction to the massive amount of laundry her young family required, and the feeling of being overwhelmed by it. Instead of keeping her home life separate, she brought some of the laundry into her studio and began to cut up the clothes and weave them back together in new forms as a
commentary on domestic labor.

At the same time, and, as another aspect of parenting, Rice was reading book after book about the way America constructed race and the way that ideas about race continue to form America. When Michael Ray Charles, a Black artist whose work often deals with explicit racial stereotypes, was invited by her graduate program to visit her studio, Rice showed him her work and talked with him about what she was reading.

“He was the one who challenged me and said ‘Why does your work look like this when all your research and your family looks like that?’” Rice recalls.

 

Her previous bodies of work about parenting had been well received by her professors, but Charles’ feedback changed her thinking. As a result, Rice largely abandoned domestic subject matter to interrogate larger issues of whiteness and race, while continuing to use weaving and other highly technical craft-based techniques, albeit towards conceptual ends.

In one early experiment, White Side (2015), Rice combined thousands of magazine photos of subjects with Eurocentric skin tones and wove them together into a massive paper wall, where zig-zagging strips of peach, cream, and beige with tiny hints of eyelashes and lipstick coalesce into a larger-than-life investigation of whiteness. Back in those early days in Oklahoma, most people didn’t really know what she was on about.

“When I first started this work, white people did not like it,” she says flatly. “Barack Obama was president and people would claim that they don’t really see themselves as white, or they don’t see themselves within the context of race.” Rice recalls an interview with a newspaper reporter, who got so angry he stormed out and never ran the story. Progressive friends and colleagues would tell her how uncomfortable it made them when she discussed the topic of white people.

 

Kim Rice working on the Caution Series, work in progress
Kim Rice's School 33 Studio
I hope my work brings some of that clarity to other people so they understand that’s why my neighborhood looks like this or that’s why people are suffering like that or that’s why my school is set up the way it is or why the grocery stores are where they are.
Kim Rice

In trying to understand white supremacy, she discovered the redlining maps that codified segregation in America. “When I found out about redlining, I felt the world become crystal clear,” she says. In Complicit (2021), Rice creates a self-portrait from overlaid redlining maps of cities she had lived in, except for Norman, OK, because it had been a sundown town.

She first showed the redlining work at a gallery in an arts district in Tulsa that bordered on what had once been Black Wall Street before it was destroyed in the 1921 massacre. She began to highlight the maps themselves, allowing their colorings to shade her work. In The Long Shadow Cleveland (2020), Rice used red thread to sew the red lines of the redlining map, allowing the thread to hang in a way that resembled dripping blood.

It felt somehow fitting that, in 2017, Rice and her family moved to Baltimore, the birthplace of the discriminatory practice. “It’s very different to make work about the white race here in Baltimore, than it was to make it in Oklahoma. Most people know about redlining here, but definitely not there,” she says.

After the globally publicized killings of unarmed Black people by police and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Rice began a new series using caution tape as its sole medium. In Target (2022), she crocheted a massive, wall-sized mandala from yellow and red caution tape. The bold piece immediately demanded one’s attention from across the room, and only revealed its materiality when viewed up close. In floored (2023), Rice crocheted a rug out of caution tape, leaving out the outline of a body in the center. The rug was placed on top of a mirror, so as the viewer leans over to look at the piece, they see themselves.

Rice continues to explore her own relationship to race through evocative objects passed down from family ancestors, as well as the caution tape—a material, she explains, that evokes “policing and also ideas around who is safe, who needs protection from whom, and what is a good neighborhood.”

“I hope my work brings some of that clarity to other people so they understand that’s why my neighborhood looks like this or that’s why people are suffering like that or that’s why my school is set up the way it is or why the grocery stores are where they are,” she said in an online talk with Kent about the Inheritance exhibition.

I think about that a lot. The documents that Rice deploys in her attempt to eradicate white people’s illusions of innocence draw attention to the material conditions of race in the United States. But her art functions on several levels at once, complicating the story, rather than reducing or simplifying.

On one hand, Rice is looking for a visual way to help mitigate the harm white Americans’ perceived innocence causes in the world, but her work is not an HR manual like White Fragility and it doesn’t assume the answers are easy. It is intended, first of all, as contemporary visual art but Rice engages the viewer in an attempt to, in her words, “dismantle and reconstruct the dissonance we experience in our engagement with truth.”

Rice’s work forces us to see the scaffolding of white privilege, which is vitally important, especially in a majority Black city like Baltimore. By interrogating the truth and myths through which race has been deliberately defined and also obscured in the US, she hopes more authentic connections can be made and intentional conversations started. In her words, “To have a just and equitable country for all people, we must first understand our history.”

 

Kim Rice at BmoreArt'S Connect + Collect space, photo Vivian Doering
Kim Rice in Liberty & Injustice, with Paul Rucker, at BmoreArt's C+C gallery, photo Vivian Doering
detail from Redlining Maps, Kim Rice in Liberty & Injustice, with Paul Rucker, at BmoreArt's C+C gallery, photo Vivian Doering
Kim Rice and Paul Rucker at BmoreArt's C+C Gallery Space, photo Vivian Doering
detail, Kim Rice in Liberty & Injustice, with Paul Rucker, at BmoreArt's C+C gallery, photo Vivian Doering

Experience Kim Rice’s Work in Person in Baltimore this Fall!

[RE] Birth of a Nation at Top of the World
For her most comprehensive Baltimore City exhibition to date, Kim Rice continues to explore themes of redlining, gentrification, housing, generational wealth, and neighborhoods. Working with archival lustre paper and common materials, Rice’s art serves as a creative critique on historic policies that still affect American society today.

Liberty and Injustice: Works by Kim Rice and Paul Rucker at BmoreArt’s Connect + Collect Gallery

Kim Rice and Paul Rucker are both prolific makers of labor-intensive, colorful, immersive sculptural works that captivate and educate. Both repurpose historic and unusual materials with the ability to harvest the hidden stories that animate these objects and challenge common assumptions. Beyond this, both artists are fearlessly, passionately socially engaged. In an America where our collective history is being actively redacted, purged, and politicized, Rice and Rucker’s multimedia sculptures, metaphor-laden images, and conceptual pieces take on additional urgency.

Connect + Collect Gallery
2519 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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