It’s a frigid winter morning in New York City when Tug Rice visits the Scully & Scully storefront. He’s an immediately noticeable figure; quite tall and classically handsome, his gentle demeanor and neatly groomed appearance emanates an essence of both calmness and confidence. It’s the young artists first time seeing some of his creations in person and he speaks with a sense of resounding purpose and genuine pride upon spotting them; his resonant voice – with its subtlety theatrical dynamics – alights with inspiration as he details the motivation for his designs. It is, for a moment, as if he is viewing his own work for the first time. Above all else, Tug Rice reveals himself to be an artistic spirit instantly.
A self-taught illustrator from a quiet valley town in Pennsylvania, Rice represents a new wave of New York based artists who refuse to conform to either convention or expectation. In fact, it is the unorthodox traditionalism and joviality of Rice’s artwork that sets him apart from the more austere and deliberately obtuse work of his contemporaries. Indeed, it is his sense of childlike inspiration which has led to Rice’s high-profile collaborations with the likes of Dior, the Hotel Carlyle, and recently, the renowned English luxury goods manufacturer, Halcyon Days. His illustrations are captivating not only for their anachronistic optimism and vibrant color palettes, but also for their unique combination of influences: Al Hirschfeld, David Hockney, Walt Disney, illustrators, animators, the theatre – innumerable touchstones can be parsed out upon observing Rice’s work.
Scully & Scully: You’re from the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania – how do you think that landscape effected your early artistic trajectory?
Tug Rice: It’s a pretty idyllic place to grow up. It’s the suburbs but you’re very close to New York and Philadelphia too, and I was always trying to get to one of those cities to go to the museums or the theatre. You have easy accessibility to world-class art but then you get to come home to – in many ways – a typical American childhood setting.
S&S: It sounds like you were drawn to the metropolitan and artistic worlds from an early age. Was New York City specifically your top destination?
TR: I don’t know why but anytime there was a trip to New York I just counted the days and weeks leading up to it, and I would think about the trip for weeks after … I’ve always had a love affair with New York. I’ve been here for ten years or so now and every morning I still feel excited to be here. You can do anything you want, any day here.
S&S: How has your perception of your hometown changed over the past few years?
TR: I was home in the beginning of the pandemic, and it was an opportunity to look at old family photos and reflect in a sense. I come from a family where my grandfather was an artist and to get to see some pieces of his that I had never seen before and find drawings and paintings that had been rolled up and hadn’t seen the light of day in a long time was really exciting.
S&S: What kind of art did your grandfather create?
TR: He was actually a foreman at Bethlehem Steel and wanted to paint full time. It was Andrew Wyeth who convinced him to quit his job and become a painter. His work was very different from what I do; it was super realistic, moody, dark. You didn’t see a lot of what he was doing at the time because it was the 1960s and 70s and he was not really into the abstract, his work was very figurative. He did portraits and he painted scenes from mythology, really dramatic and gorgeous. I’m very lucky to own several of those paintings; they’re amongst my most prized possessions.
S&S: You mentioned that your grandfather was self-taught and you yourself are also self-taught. Do you see that as having afforded you any benefits that you might not have otherwise attained with a formal education?
TR: Yes! There are certain things that I don’t have that people who went to art school have – vocabulary, history, etc. – but on the other hand, my approach to illustration is very visceral and instinctive and it’s all about curiosity; it’s kind of childlike and that’s something I would never want to give up. That’s not to say that training formally makes you lose any of that, but I think when you know exactly what you’re doing you can sometimes censor yourself and the creative process. For me it’s been a benefit to jump in boldly and see where a new piece goes. It’s always surprising and satisfying.
S&S: What were some of your earliest forays into the world of art?
TR: I loved picture books like every kid does, and I collected them without realizing I was collecting them. I was always interested in seeing how different illustrators would interpret the same story. I’m drawn to narrative illustration and art that tells a story, so I would get some paper, staple the pages together, and draw my version of those classic stories.
S&S: It’s interesting to hear you use the word “narrative” because you have a background in theatre. How do you think the world of theatre has affected the way you create visual art?
TR: I look at things as tableaus, almost like snapshots of scenes that are alive. Characters, scenery, props; doing a drawing is almost like being a scenic designer, costume designer, and director because I’m moving characters around and trying different things. It’s like putting a show together. I can’t really imagine approaching illustration in a different way.
S&S: It sounds like your creative process in general is almost improvisational.
TR: At this point I’ve been illustrating long enough that I’ve developed techniques that work for me. I have my own vocabulary, but I never want to get to a place where I know exactly what I’m doing because then it’s not as fun or explorative, and I think it needs to be in order to be effective and engaging. It is sort of improvisational; there’s always an interesting moment when I know that a piece is done and there’s never any question about. I look and all of a sudden, I know that if I added or removed anything it wouldn’t work, it’s just exactly what it should be. I don’t have words to explain how I can figure that out, but I think every artist has a sense of that.
S&S: What is the creative process like with Halcyon Days?
TR: Halcyon Days has a great in-house design team. We talked about doing a Valentine’s collection, the candy hearts were brought up, and I thought that could be interesting. I’m working on a computer so I can’t always imagine things three dimensionally; I’m used to seeing things in print so I’ll send some ideas out and Halcyon Days will mock them up so we can visualize what certain ideas look like on various objects. Everything is handmade in England with Halcyon Days, so I have to think about the technology and what’s possible physically. There’s more possible than impossible because they have such great craftspeople in the factories. Also, from a design standpoint, these are products that will be passed down through generations too, so they have to carry some weight.
S&S: How has working with Halcyon Days affected your own self-perception as an artist?
TR: It just makes you realize how many opportunities there are to think of art beyond the usual. With illustration you’re typically working with picture books, magazines, album covers, but those are still flat objects. Collaborating with Halcyon Days, it’s not only working three-dimensionally but also with objects that are practical. Things people use.
S&S: You’ve also collaborated with Dior and the Hotel Carlyle. What do you enjoy about the collaborative creative process?
TR: A lot of these companies have impressive and fascinating heritages. Looking at the Carlyle, they have an association with illustration that goes back to the 40s. It was the late 40s when Bemelmans did the murals that are at what is now called the Bemelmans Bar, and of course the café has murals by Vertes. They’ve been aligned with illustrators for almost eight decades, so to be a part of that heritage is exciting and a big responsibility, too. A lot of people care about these institutions. I’m working with the Ritz in London now and that’s a beloved institution, so you want to honor that history, but of course you’re working in the present so you need to keep things current. It’s humbling and very exciting.
S&S: One word that continuously appears in discussions of your work is the word “nostalgia.” What is the relationship between nostalgia and your art?
TR: Nostalgia’s not a goal of mine but I definitely gravitate towards every art form that has a nod to the past. I love music and art from the Deco and Edwardian periods. I never pay attention to trends so I don’t know what constitutes a typical 2022 illustration or what might be taught in illustration programs today. All I know is what I like and what I do. I think right now there is a yearning for the comforts of the past, which I guess is nostalgia. People are interested in antiques and reviving older arts, so it seems to be working, but it’s just kind of what I like.
S&S: What advice would you like to impart on young artists?
TR: You have to be the person somebody calls because there is nobody else who can do what you do. You have to hone your own point of view and develop it and share it with the world. It might take a while to get people on board, but once people start realizing that that’s how you see the world then certain clients or collaborators will be interested in working with you. I think the way of knowing that it’s working is that not everybody wants to work with you. If everybody wants you on their project then what’s the point? You have to attract a likeminded client and when that starts to happen you know that you’re doing something right. I think it’s just about figuring out what you like when you go to a museum, or an art exhibit, or when you’re looking at picture books.
S&S: Do you have a favorite recent exhibit in New York City?
TR: I just went to the Disney exhibit at the MET, which is on until March. It’s all about 18th century objects and decorative arts influencing the Walt Disney Company over the years. I love seeing the process and the early concept art for some of those movies. It’s illustration; these are still images that Disney artists were creating and to see an early version of these characters we all know – and we can’t imagine them any other way – but to see what they might’ve looked like, it’s interesting letting people in on the creative process. It’s messy and it doesn’t start to take shape right away but sometimes to get a glimpse of what the process is like early on and where it ended up is really eye-opening.
S&S: Would you consider Disney to be a big influence on your career?
TR: I think anybody’s who’s ever been a kid has been influenced by Disney. I’ve watched the movies again and again without even realizing that they were animations or what that even was, but now looking at some of the background art for those movies, and the concept art, I really appreciate it as high-end illustration. Some of the greatest illustrators of their day were working at this company.
S&S: If you could time travel to any point in New York City’s past, when would you choose?
TR: The 1930s. All of the things that I love, music, literature, illustration, architecture, design, everything was so energized at that time. I’ve always been interested in the mid-30s particularly in New York. I love the city and I would love to see the city at any period, but that would be my first stop.