By Shannon Gallagher
The symbol of the bird appears repeatedly in Jonathan Ricci’s artwork. His acrylic paintings are fanciful, brightly colored, and often accented with an assortment of birds and birdcages. The work evokes a sentiment of wonder, and ideas of independence, curiosity, and discovery. The artist is unsure as to whether this interest is based in metaphor, or his past. “I grew up in a family that had parakeets and other birds as pets. I never met my maternal grandfather, but he had an aviary and raised parakeets. The symbol of the bird and the birdcage is multifaceted: it represents freedom, flight, and travel,” he explained. Ricci’s paintings utilize shape, pattern, and saturated color to attain visually interesting compositions. Simply from viewing the work it is obvious he strives to achieve arrangements that draw the eye of the viewer to every detail. He paints numerous layers on each canvas, and introduces collage elements that alter and enhance the structure of the work.
Ricci Aviary Argyle TWA 36x36 Acrylic and Collage
Ricci’s artistic vision manifests itself in two andthree-dimensional work. His ceramic bird sculptures, which have been very popular among patrons of the gallery, possess the whimsical quality also present in his paintings. Although he minored in ceramics at the undergraduate level, he received his BFA, MA and MFA degrees in painting, which generally took precedence over other mediums. When Ricci began teaching, however, he fell back into ceramics. “I was sitting in the studio, getting some work ready for demonstrations, and I started making simple pinch pots. Suddenly, a “eureka” moment happened, and I made a few little pinch pot birds. The project began as something to do when things were slow at the studio, but now, I make them obsessively. I love playing with various combinations of glazing techniques, and I’m always excited to see how the glaze will turn out,” he said. Whether instructing painting or ceramics, Ricci loves teaching students and helping them create things of artistic merit. He describes it as a rewarding experience, but is hesitant to say that it feeds his own work directly. His work teaching and maintaining the ceramics studio takes time away from his own artwork. “I fire the kilns, maintain equipment, prepare and mix glazes, and monitor students. It is very fulfilling to see students get excited about art and achieve their artistic potential, but it does take me away from working on my own projects.”
Ricci Aviary SFO 24x24 Acrylic and Collage
Jonathan Ricci grew up in a home surrounded by arts and crafts. Memories of elementary school classes conjure feelings of enjoyment and contentment, but Ricci did not begin to seriously think about art until he was in high school. “I remember a meeting with my mother and a school counselor, and we were discussing my future. My mother reminded me that I always enjoyed art classes, and so my course load veered in that direction,” he said, although he does not recall feeling anything special about making art until he began painting in college. The painting classes he took in college “opened up the whole world,” he said. While studying at the Maryland Institute, Ricci was thrown into traditional painting, and felt an urge to discover and define his own creativity. “If you’re going to be a painter,” he said, “you have to find your own vocabulary.” When he first began introducing collage elements into his paintings, Ricci used a lot of personal items- letters, photos, and pages from journals and address books. He sought items that held personal significance and/or belonged to the subject of the painting. The resulting works were highly sentimental to Ricci. Eventually, the work was further developed to be less of an abstract portrait of a specific person, and more of a general figure in the works. He enjoys seeking out garage sales and flea markets. “I find it interesting to buy people’s papers and boxes of their things, and then go through what I’ve collected and work them into the paintings, knowing nothing about the person they belonged to,” he said.
Ricci Aviary Pink Blue 24x24 Acrylic and Collage
Ricci does not generally do preparatory sketches or small drawings prior to beginning a new painting. “I just sort of attack the canvas. Sometimes I will quickly draw a simplified shape, or I’ll collage an image, an article of clothing, or a small drawing to break the barrier. The piece evolves from the time I begin,” he said. “The colors constantly change, the drawing changes, and I keep altering the canvas until I feel that the various elements mesh together. I don’t keep anything sacred, I continuously shift and add layers of paint until there are about 10-12 layers, and the right combination of color and design has been achieved.” He uses firm bristle brushes that allow the brushstrokes to be visible, and although he loves oil paint and was trained as an oil painter, he has been using acrylics for the past four years due to the convenience of them. “I don’t need solvents, and the drying time is quicker,” he added. “At first, I did not like the matte quality of acrylics- now, I enjoy its properties. I aim to achieve that flat quality.” Ricci heads to museums and galleries to gain inspiration. “I know when its time to go to Chelsea and spend the day in the galleries. I’m chasing the high that you get when you exit the museum, and you’re on the train home- you’re in the clouds, inspired by the art, and you cannot wait to get into the studio, even if you’re exhausted,” he said.
Friends and family often give Ricci materials to work with. When a friend’s mother (who had been a frequent traveler in her youth) moved into a retirement home, many of her belongings were given to Ricci. “She was a bit obsessive compulsive- she kept everything. Whenever she and her husband traveled, she kept all of the luggage tags, baggage claim tickets, and paperwork. She would staple them together and catalog them. There were garbage bags full of tags and papers. She even kept the luggage stickers; she’d unpeel and flatten them.” The collection did not stop at stickers and tags, however. “She also kept a daily calendar of weather conditions, and what she had eaten that day. All of this was very interesting to me.” He made a series of paintings about the woman and the things that she collected; many of the pieces in the Aviary series are about her.
Ricci Aviary Pink Red 24x24 Acrylic Collage
Once Ricci finishes a piece, he does not have trouble parting with his work. “The inspiration behind the work is highly personal, but I like the idea of someone else taking it home. They may not know the influence or how personal the piece is, and it doesn’t matter.” Although some friends and family have expressed dismay at his ability to part with artifacts of people who are no longer with us, Ricci views his work as an expression of respect for that person, and said that he would rather the letters, cards, and other items be used for art than be boxed in an attic somewhere. “It doesn’t bother me to let go of images of my parents and letters from various people- it’s not morbid; rather, it’s memorializing that person. It’s my way of taking a memory, making it into something else, and sharing it with the world.”
The artist is currently preparing for the NES Artists’ Residency this July and August in Skagaströnd, an old fishing village in northern Iceland. The organization behind the program has converted a defunct fishing factory into several art studios, and offers housing for up to twelve artists throughout the summer months. Ricci, who applied via a call for entries, had previously not had the opportunity to participate in artist residencies, due to teaching obligations. This time, however, he made sure to avoid teaching the summer courses that he has taught for the past several years, in order to make time to paint. “I wanted to go away and be cut off for a few months,” he admitted. “I wanted to go somewhere where the light and landscape would affect my work. Even though my work is abstract and somewhat arbitrary (not based on observation or conceived in a linear fashion), I’m hopeful that the environment will affect my paintings.” Ricci is also looking forward to seeing the puffins and migratory birds that frequent the region during that time of year. The residency is unstructured, so he will have the freedom to travel, meet other artists, and/or cut himself off from the world and work intently. “I’m hoping that the intense landscape environment and 24 hour light will allow me to immerse myself in the work,” Ricci said. He also plans to participate in a 2 month-long public art festival in the region. Although at press time he had not yet submitted his proposal, the idea of using his ceramic birds to make a piece about migration had been bouncing around in his mind. “I’d love to leave the birds throughout the countryside, placing them in different areas, and photographing them,” he said. “Maybe I will put a tag on each bird and leave it for someone to discover. I would catalog the pieces, and leave my contact information for the person who discovers it to learn about me and the idea behind the work.”