When he was young, Michael Rich would take summer trips to Nantucket, where his family had a house. He loved the beaches and farms, the coastal grasses and vast stretches of water. Those images would stick with him – through his years at RISD, where he studied architecture, then illustration. Long into adulthood, those colors and forms would migrate through his hand, his brush, and onto canvas. “Nantucket is known for a lot of things,” says Rich, “but one of those things is the landscape.“
At first, you may not “see” Nantucket in Rich’s paintings, which are as abstract as they come. The pigments ooze and overlay, contrast and complement. The shapes are a blend of sharp and wispy. But the color palette often smacks of warm weather, leaves, sunrises. These are the colors you might see when you first wake up, realizing you’ve fallen asleep in a seaside park. The effect is dreamy.
“I drew and sketched my whole life,” says Rich, who did odd jobs and built houses for some years. He also taught art classes and still teaches for Roger Williams University. Through it all, he painted. “One thing leads to another, and it starts to take over and become more of the primary thing you do, not the thing you do on the side. As an artist, I’m much more responsive. I’m not someone who thinks about grand or clever ideas. I want to make, and be responsive to things I’ve seen or experience, in a very direct way.”
Today, Rich maintains a sizable studio on the edge of Pawtucket. The high industrial ceilings and broad windows are the portrait of bohemian life; stretched canvases are stacked everywhere, and the space sings with color. Massive oil paintings are the centerpiece of Rich’s portfolio, and he attracts clients from all over – some are corporate, but the popularity of “open-plan” homes has led to an uptick in large-format artwork. One canvas, recently purchased, will find its way into a San Francisco apartment, and the owners may require a crane to install it safely.
Yet Rich is a versatile artist, and he works in several media, including block prints, etchings, collage, and pastels. “I’m obsessed with pastels right now,” he says, flipping through page after page of energetic drawings; the repetitious hairpin lines are reminiscent of grass. A jazz fan, Rich describes his approach as improvisational. “It’s really about a conversation you start to have with your work.” He laughs. “It doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. I’m 30 years into this conversation, but that’s what it is.” Michael Rich’s work will be on display at the Bristol Art Museum as part of Praxis: Abstraction; 4 Strategies, through April 5.