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Gifts of the Magi

John Rice’s Christmas cards

Jennifer Oakley
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John Rice

HOLIDAY KEEPSAKES For 59 years, John Rice has created unique, handmade cards for friends and family. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

In John Rice’s world, angels alight, French hens nest, Lords leap and three fantastical Magi bear gifts. Through paper collage, poetry and pen and ink, Rice weaves a tapestry of art forms into memorable Christmas cards.

This December marks the 59th year that Rice has hand-made his cards, which he mails to friends and family in commemoration of the holiday season. It’s been a journey for Rice that pays homage to his grandparents, parents, wife, children and grandchildren and has taken him through almost six decades of artistic evolution.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly; A candy cane and a lolli; A Christmas goose, a jugged hare; A golden Partridge (sans a pear)…

Rice grew up in Galveston, where the sea, the arts and church melded together to influence his calling as an adult. Drawing and writing interested him from an early age, and he credits his family for nurturing his creativity and exposing him to classical music, books and poetry.

“One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was the gift of reading,” he says. "I had free rein of my dad’s library, and that was a huge influence on me because I was always encouraged to read.”

And paint. “When I was a little kid my parents allowed me to paint on the walls of my bedroom. I remember painting an American Indian in a full headdress with an eagle-feather war bonnet. I had seen the image on, of all things, a beach towel, so I painted it on my plaster wall with poster paint.”

Rice’s grandfather was a ship agent with a creative side, as was John’s father. “My grandfather was a poet,” Rice says with a kind smile. “We all went to Trinity Episcopal Church in Galveston, where my dad was choirmaster and organist and my mom sang in the choir. I also sang in the choir there when I was young. There is an enormous stained-glass window commissioned by my dad and grandmother, to honor my grandfather after he died. I always feel at home when I go back there to the church. I am sure that the church influenced what I do.”

After attending college at The University of Texas at Austin, Rice returned to Galveston and started working in the maritime business. He was 21, and that Christmas, he got a hankering to make cards. “I had drawn and painted almost all my life, so I thought, what the heck – I will make my own card,” Rice says of his first effort in 1961, which was a simple, colorful collage of the Three Wise Men, crafted out of construction paper. “I got a good reaction to the card, so I thought I might as well do it again.”

Rice decided to take a chance at hand drawing for Christmas 1962, using black ink on white cardboard. He enjoyed that medium so much he used it annually until 2001, which was the 40th anniversary of his first card.

From 1961 to the present, Rice’s cards have grown in size and scope. He has a full-time job, so he composes his cards at nights and on weekends in the study of his West University Place home. “I have my grandfather’s 100-year-old roll top desk that he used to use, and now I work at it,” says Rice.

Rice, who also writes poetry and haiku, says he thinks about his cards all year long, but usually spends four to six weeks each fall on the detail work. He uses cardboard, the kind from the dry cleaners in a folded shirt, as his foundation.

“For the collage process, I do a positioning layout on the cardboard that will serve as the base, so I have a starting point. In the case of the three kings, when they have been on a horse, for example, I will start with the horse’s head and work piece by piece to fill out the body, and then I move on to the kings. It’s like assembling a puzzle. I have to use very fine forceps or tweezers to place the papers I have cut onto the collage, and I use glue sticks to glue them down.”

Once complete, he takes the cards to a professional printing company to produce. “My printer then reduces them to fit a normal card-sized envelope,” says Rice, who sends out 250 cards each Christmas.  “When I get the cards back from the printer, I sign and number each one.”

Christmas cards

A sampling of his cards. The collage of the three Magi wearing red robes in the center was his first card, made in 1961. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

A roasted loin, doves in pastry –; Enough for all and oh, so tasty.;Bombe, glace, souffle, torte; Café noir and a glass of port...

From 1961 to 1982, Rice focused on “The Three Magi” and “Mother and Child” exclusively. And then, in 1983, he became inspired by “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and delved into depicting the lyrics into his cards. His black-ink interpretations are both realistic and whimsical. The 1999 card “Five Golden Rings” has fanciful polar bears ice skating and tossing rings to one another. The 1998 card “Eleven Pipers Piping” has 11 pipers – one is a rendering of his first grandson, then age 4. An orb motif, repeated in numerous cards, is a nod to a Celtic knot that his wife, Glenda Rice, a licensed professional counselor, uses on her business cards. 

During that time period, Rice began adding dedications on the cards to honor people who had impacted his life. “The memorial section started in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” says Rice, president of Resk Maritime Resources, which provides consulting services to the maritime industry. “I worked at Enron [as director of fleet operations] at the time, and one of my colleagues passed away, and that is the first time I started  adding an in memoriam. People’s families are pretty taken with it, and I think they all have appreciated it.”

“I love all the cards,” says his wife, Glenda. “And I love the Christmas tradition that John has created, not just for our family, but for our friends and their families. If I had to choose one card that stands out for me, it would be “Mounted Magi” [pen and ink, 1995]. When I look at it, I’m struck by how delicate and intricate the work is, but how strong the images are, and how vividly they express the story of that moment.”

Christmas cards

John Rice uses black ink as a medium to create many of his memorable Christmas cards. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

To toast the old year, it’s almost went; Consider Season’s Greetings sent! – “Banquetry” poem by John E. Rice (1989)

In 2008, Rice stretched his hand by going back to where it all began: He created another color collage card. But this time, he decided to make the design more intricate, with varied papers. He says he was inspired by the Cubist-period collage works by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, along with children’s storybook illustrator Eric Carle.

Rice socks away papers that grab his eye in a large drawer at home. That drawer is a treasure chest of pages torn from magazines and catalogs and paper from art supply stores.

“I comb through magazines, and if something strikes me as a good color or texture, I will keep it,” says Rice, who often uses up to 60 different kinds of paper to create one card. “A lot of times I let the paper guide me. In one card, the wings in the central angel are pictures of fish fins. Other red wings are window blinds in a picture I saw in an interior house magazine.”

With the new collages, Rice returned to the Magi as his subject material, and he interpreted their journey to Bethlehem in a variety of ways. Rice constructed them making their way, following the star, via foot, camel, horseback – and one year, even on magic carpets.

“I have had the kings doing everything,” laughs Rice. “I have them dancing – I have them as musicians. I have sent the kings on journeys around the world – they have been on a longer journey than they have bargained for!” 

One year the Magi looked mythological, with animal faces (bear, lion, black panther). Another year, in 2014, the  “Dancing Magi” were rounder, and one of the kings sported a long gray beard and a red gown. “He’s the closest I ever got to Santa Claus,” says the 79-year-old Rice, laughing, who with his own gray beard and twinkling eyes (but without the girth) could pass for a very sweet Saint Nick. 

Much like the Magi, who are on a journey, so is Rice. The process of creating, printing, signing and sending the cards is his own pilgrimage. In 2010, after his mother passed away, Rice created a card in her honor. She loved angels, he said, so that year he collaged a trio of angels, wings spread and hovering above, looking down on the world.

“Mom loved angels, and she collected them her whole life,” says Rice. “She said she really didn’t believe in angels, but she said she liked the idea that they might be around.”

In John Rice’s world, they are.

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