Examine the pictures on the walls at any Lowcountry dinner party, and there’s a good chance that somewhere you’ll find small black silhouette images of the children who grew up in the house. In many cases, Clay Rice is the man behind the scissors, cutting the profiles of thousands of squirming young subjects each year. Before the Christmas and Easter seasons, he travels across the country sharing his craft, providing mothers with timely gifts for the family.
Silhouettes are a family tradition for Rice; he learned the technique from his grandfather, Carew Rice, who cut many of the iconic silhouettes seen throughout Charleston, from men lazily fishing by the river to Spanish moss dripping from old growth live oaks.
After he signs off from a day of silhouettes, Clay finds his escape in music. An avid songwriter, Rice dreamed of moving to Nashville to make a push at professional songwriting, but the success of his silhouette work always prevented that career shift.
Fortunately, Rice recently stumbled into a beautiful middle ground. A call came asking him to illustrate the cover of another writer’s children’s book, and with the publishing company on the phone, he took a shot in the dark.
“I said, ‘Let me pitch you some ideas for a children’s book.’ Of course, I didn’t have any ideas for a children’s book, but I figured if I had a publisher on the line, I’d think of something,” laughs Rice. “So I was literally on a plane ride to Costa Rica to go fishing and had my notebook and wrote down ‘the lonely shadow,’ about a little shadow looking for a child. By the time we touched down, I had the whole thing written.”
The Lonely Shadow encompasses Clay’s artistic passions into one piece of work. Each page features an intricate but uncomplicated silhouette telling the story of a shadow searching the Lowcountry for his body. Rice’s accompanying prose rings out like a song.
“All of my stories have a rhythm to them,” says Rice. “I’m always going to throw a little song in there somewhere.”
In less than a year, The Lonely Shadow is arguably Rice’s biggest career success to date. He won the prestigious Moonbeam Children’s Book Award Gold Medal for Best First Book, an acknowledgement that was followed by an even bigger commendation — the Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) Gold Medal for Best Children’s Book.
Suddenly finding himself among the country’s premier children’s book authors, Rice shifted his full-time energy toward the craft. He’s spent much of the last year illustrating Mama, Let’s Make a Moon, slated to be his second book.
“A stream full of silver, a white swan of shine, and two opossum paws of dream dust from the imagination mind,” recites Rice, explaining the story’s theme of a poor Appalachian girl finding the recipe to make a moon, with help from her animal friends.
“I came up doing Lowcountry scenes — oystermen, mosquito fleets, things like that. When you’re thrown into the children’s fantasy stuff, it’s like, ‘How in the heck am I going to illustrate that?'” says Rice. “It’s a combination of style I’ve developed and techniques that have been in my family for all these years. I fumble through it until I get it right and hopefully learn from the last thing I do.”
Many of the illustrations in Let’s Make a Moon took more than a month each to create. Clay uses a single piece of black silhouette paper for each one, meticulously cutting out tiny slivers until the picture takes shape. The Lonely Shadow is his first foray into using color; he experimented with pastels and shading on rag board, maneuvering the silhouettes over the backgrounds until he found the right match.
Since embracing a career as a children’s book author, Rice has more ideas than time. Each book takes nearly a year to illustrate, but he’s got at least 15 story ideas bouncing around “in various stages.” His two sons serve as both inspirations and sounding boards. Bedtime often finds Rice making up fantastical stories around a recurring character, called Imagine.
Apart from spending six hours a day drawing and cutting new illustrations, Rice keeps busy promoting the book, creating silhouettes, and sharing his stories.
“I’m having a heck of a lot of fun with this and am still giddy over the fact that they’re selling all over the country,” says Rice, who has been able to spend more time at his family’s Cheehaw River plantation since discovering his new calling. “All I want to do is live out in the woods and write children’s books. I’m happy as a clam doing that.”